Suppression Of Natural Fires Harms Squirrels

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University biologists who study dwindling populations of one of the rarest mammals in North America have found another reason to let "natural" fires burn. Without lightning-sparked fires every 10 to 12 years, they say, pine trees are isolating Northern Idaho ground squirrels into shrinking groups where non-native plants that do not supply adequate food for the rodents have overwhelmed natural, fire-resistant, seed-laden grasses.

"Animals can run from fire, but they can't escape the disastrous effects of habitat fragmentation and starvation. Unless these squirrels can link up with neighboring populations and obtain sufficient fatty seeds to carry them through hibernation, I'm afraid they will die off altogether in our lifetime," says Paul Sherman, one of four biologists authoring a genetic study of the Northern Idaho ground squirrel (Spermophilus brunneus brunneus) in the current Journal of Mammalogy (Vol. 80, No. 1, pp 156-168).

Sherman, a Cornell professor of neurobiology and behavior, and colleagues Thomas Gavin, Eric Yensen and Bernie May offer a two-part solution for the squirrels' dilemma:

-- Restoration of habitat, including reopening of meadows, to reconnect squirrel populations.

-- Reintroduction of fire into the ecosystem to restore native vegetational structure.

Fourteen years ago, when Yensen of Albertson College of Idaho began the squirrel study in the high-desert meadows of western Idaho, there were about 1,000 of the ground squirrels on public and private lands around Payette National Forest, the only part of North America where the rare animals live. By 1998, the total population had shrunk to about 600, and 12 of the 36 known populations were extinct, according to Gavin of Cornell's Department of Natural Resources.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing S. b. brunneus as "threatened," deserving of protection

Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service

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