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C of I professor lends Idaho ground squirrels a helping hand

Measuring roughly 10 inches in length and weighing less than a pound, Idaho’s ground squirrels live their lives relatively unnoticed by much of the outside world. Apart from the farmers who consider them pests and the predators that rely upon them for survival, few are aware of the ground squirrels’ quiet existence, and fewer still realize the important role they play in Idaho’s ecosystems.

“These animals actually are very beneficial in the wild,” said C of I biology professor Dr. Eric Yensen. “There are no native earthworms in our ecosystem, so they fill an important ecological role in establishing and maintaining soil fertility and plant growth.”

Since 2010, Yensen has led an effort to boost struggling populations of southern Idaho ground squirrels through a translocation program. Partnering with Zoo Boise, Yensen and his wife Teresa, also a biologist, have developed a technique to capture squirrels from farms and golf courses where they aren’t wanted, transport them to suitable native habitats and help them maintain a healthy population. With the help of Zoo Boise director Steve Burns and dozens of volunteers – including current and former C of I students Cameron Braun, Zach Clayton, Sam Finch, Steve Guild, Diana Melgarejo and Cristian Noya-Rada – Yensen has spent hours capturing, tagging, tracking and moving the squirrels into protected nesting boxes where they can acclimate to their new surroundings in safety before venturing out on their own.

In spite of difficulties with predators – the squirrels are a key prey item for badgers, weasels, coyotes, raptors and snakes – the program has seen its share of successes. With a little help from Yensen’s team, the relocated squirrels are surviving at a sustainable rate, leading to hope that the method could be used to bolster populations of the northern Idaho ground squirrel, which is on the federal list of threatened species. The process is neither easy nor cheap, Yensen said, but it could be used to reestablish populations if it becomes necessary.

“It turns out it’s a lot harder to use translocation for ground squirrels than it is for wolves,” Yensen said with a laugh. “It was a real challenge to start a new population from scratch, but we are seeing some positive results.”

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. It has a century-old tradition of educating some of the most accomplished graduates in Idaho, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three Marshall Scholars, and another 11 Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College is located on a beautiful campus in Caldwell, Idaho. Its distinctive PEAK curriculum challenges students to attain competencies in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field, enabling them to graduate with an academic major and three minors in four years. For more information on The College of Idaho, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.