Captive Breeding Program May Help Save Endangered Mount Graham Red Squirrels

August 02, 2013

A tiny red squirrel on the brink of extinction is keeping wildlife biologists busy.  Scientists are trying to catch some Mount Graham Red Squirrels for a breeding program, but doing that will not be easy. 

squirrel One of the squirrels is attracted to the peanut butter bait. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

KJZZ's Steve Shadley recently caught up with the squirrel trapper to see how it's done.

To find the Mount Graham Red Squirrel you have to go to the Pinaleño Mountains outside of Safford in southeastern Arizona.

"My name is Marit Alanen and I’m a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Alanen said.

 I have met Alanen near the top of Mount Graham where she has been working for several months. This squirrel is on the endangered species list.  Twenty years ago there were 500 squirrels, but now only about half that number survive.

"This is the only place its found in these mountains. They've been separated from other red squirrels for approximately 10,000 years basically since the last ice age,” said Alanen.

She said this species of red squirrel has some unique traits. 

“We did a genetic study that looked at this population compared to red squirrels on the Mogollon Rim which is in northern Arizona, and we found that they were pretty distinctly different. What we also found was that the population up here is about 90 percent related to each other which is on the order of identical twins.” said Alanen.
In other words these squirrels are inbred, and that can lead to high mortality rates. The squirrels’ habitat also is shrinking because of wildfires and beetle infestations that are killing pine trees. Alanen is eager to find some squirrels, so she leads us on a hike up the side of a steep mountain.

She is searching for the site of a squirrel midden. That is the place where they hide their food in a pile of pine needles and sticks at the base of a tree.  These squirrels love to eat pine cones, nuts and mushrooms.

“The midden is an area that kind of acts like a refrigerator, and by burying their cones in there so they last longer, and so they have food all winter long, because they don't hibernate," said Alanen.

Alanen used her compass and map to find the midden she is looking for. It is one that she marked a few months ago with an orange and black plastic ribbon tied to a tree.

"BC 131, yep that's where we were aiming,” she said.

If it sounds like Alanen is out of breath that is because she is. We are at an elevation near 10,000 feet, and the air is thin. She still needs the federal permits to officially start trapping squirrels. Today she is here to bait them, to get them hooked on snack foods that will encourage them to enter the wire traps later.

“So, what I'm going to do is pull out some peanut butter and some peanuts,” Alanen said.

Alanen threw handfuls of peanuts on the ground, and she spread the peanut butter on a log. The results were pretty amazing. Within moments we spot a squirrel that comes bouncing out of nowhere.

“Oh, there it is," Alanen said.

"So that’s a Mount Graham Red Squirrel a few feet away from us, and he’s very small, very curious," I said.

Alanen started recording details about the squirrel in a field notebook. That is when the squirrel runs up a tree and warns us that we are not welcome here. The squirrel makes a loud chitter sound.

Alanen said this angry squirrel might be a good candidate for the breeding program, but she said it is not going to be easy to get the animals to reproduce in captivity.

“The Mount Graham Red Squirrel is territorial, and both males and females will defend their territory, and the only time they’ll come together is during the breeding season which for the females they only are only receptive to breeding for about eight hours every year," she said.  "They definitely are not like rabbits."

Initially, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to trap four red squirrels, three females and one male. They will be taken to the Phoenix Zoo. That is where the breeding will happen.

The squirrels will then be the responsibility of Stuart Wells.  He is the zoo’s director of conservation and science who will be creating the squirrel enclosure.

“And the building that they are in has to be kept really cold because they live at ten-thousand feet. So the average temperature there in the summer time is much cooler than the average temperature here in Phoenix in the summer time, about 50 degrees cooler," said Wells as he laughs.

But Wells said work also is being done to prepare the wilderness for the release of the squirrels someday including planting trees and building hutches. 

“What U.S. Fish and Wildlife is doing and the Forest Service is they are building new habitats on Mount Graham, a novel habitat away from the current site so there won't be any pressure on the existing population," Wells said.

No telling how easy it will be to trap the squirrels, but two years ago Alanen was able to catch four red squirrels that were rescued from Mount Graham during a bad wildfire season. They were taken to the Phoenix Zoo where two of them later died. The other two squirrels still live at the zoo and are awaiting the arrival of their possible mates.

WEB EXTRA: Here's reporter Steve Shadley with a little reporter's notebook on his trip up to Mount Graham.