Squirrel! What a Zoo Designer Does for Vacation

May 5, 2023 • Steve Hofhine

The plains, deserts, and mountains of Idaho are home to more species of ground squirrel than anywhere else. Ground Squirrels are a sub-group of squirrels that spend most of their time burrowing in the ground and range in size from the enormous Yellow-bellied Marmot to the diminutive Piute Ground Squirrel. Prairie Dogs are even part of this group.  A couple of weeks ago, I set out with Tyler and Alex, a couple of other mammal enthusiasts, to try and find as many of them as we could. The three of us share one important thing, a passion for finding animals in the wild and a love of nature.

We started in Wyoming, at Fossil Butte National Monument. This location is supposed to be a good spot for several of our desired species. Unfortunately, we were dismayed to find the area blanketed in three feet of snow still! Sadly, we realized any ground squirrels living here were still slumbering beneath the snow and we would not have a chance to see them.

 

 

Fossil Butte National Monument

 

The next day, we headed to Idaho for our next stop. The Craters of the Moon National Monument is an ancient lava bed and a spectacular landscape with lots of lava tubes and crevices for ground squirrels and other small mammals to take refuge in. At least it is when you can see it. Once again, our efforts were thwarted by deep snow. We managed to see a small chipmunk species whose entire population is found in and around the monument. The Craters of the Moon Chipmunk was previously considered a subspecies of the more common Yellow Pine Chipmunk. Genetic studies have recently found this species to be distinct.

 

Craters of the Moon National Monument blanketed with snow

 

As we traveled to Boise, we eventually found snow-free ground and an additional ground squirrel species, the Columbian Ground Squirrel. This is one of the larger species, and they are quite colorful with reddish faces and feet. We spent the evening spotlighting wildlife south of Boise. This is where we drove through the night with spotlights looking for wildlife. We also had the help of a thermal scope, a device that can see the heat signatures of warm-blooded animals. We were quite lucky and found a couple of American Badgers! The area south of Boise is home to an enormous population of ground squirrels, which serve as a primary food source for badgers. This area has the densest population of badgers in the entire world. Alex and I had seen a few badgers in the wild before, but this was a first for Tyler.

 

American Badger at nigh

 

The following morning at dawn, we set out to find those ground squirrels that the badgers were hunting the previous night. Of all the species on our list, the Piute Ground Squirrel was the one I was least concerned about being able to find. As it happened, the morning was quite cold and we heard a few squirrels calling from inside their burrows, but failed to see any until after noon when it warmed up.

We took a break from squirrels and spent the afternoon successfully looking for pocket-gophers, a very strange little rodent with beady little eyes, giant teeth, and large front claws, that spends much of its time underground. We joined Matt, a local naturalist who led us to several pocket gopher burrows. Within a couple hours managed to get great photos of a Townsend’s Pocket-Gopher who was out repairing his burrow entrance. More squirrels were sought after and found that afternoon.

 

Townsend’s Pocket Gopher

 

The final day, Alex headed east to Washington state to try and find even more ground squirrel species. Tyler and I headed into the mountains in search of birds and chipmunks. We had one main ground squirrel target left. This was the Northern Idaho Ground Squirrel, a species listed by the federal government as Threatened. We knew of one easily accessible location to view them from a safe distance. Being a Threatened Species, we did not want to disturb them. We worried that the colony might still be under snow but decided to check anyway. The road to this location took us on dirt roads up and over mountainsides as we headed north. The driving got a little nerve-wracking, but ultimately, we made it safely to our destination.  As we had feared the location was covered in snow, and more was falling. Normally this time of year the wildflowers are blooming, and the squirrels are active.

We packed up our disappointment and headed back down to Boise. As we got within 40 miles of our destination, we noticed a hissing sound coming from the front right tire as the rain continued to pour down. We soggily managed to change the tire to the spare. This brought our adventure to a close and the following morning I had the tire fixed and headed home for Wichita.

It was not the most successful trip in terms of ground squirrels, but it was a wonderful opportunity to spend time out in nature seeing wildlife.