Arizona’s endangered Mount Graham red squirrels will soon get a new lease on life with a captive breeding program that is designed to increase their numbers and protect the species.
Less than 300 of the squirrels are living in the wild. The Mount Graham red squirrels are a subspecies that has been separated from other red squirrels since the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. Their only habitat is in the Pinaleňo Mountains in the Coronado National Forest in Graham County, Arizona.
The area is in a region that is prone to wildfires. The squirrels’ natural habitat has been devastated by fires in recent years. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, future fires could completely eliminate the species. The squirrels have also suffered the effects of an extended drought, especially in the higher elevations, and outbreaks of forest insects and other tree diseases.
Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently captured three females and one male from the wild and took them to the Phoenix Zoo, which wants to develop a breeding program. The zoo would like to have three females and three males. Since red squirrels are territorial, they must be housed separately and brought together to breed.
The Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Center at the Phoenix Zoo was created in 2007 to work on native wildlife species recovery. They plan to continue to develop protocols related to the husbandry, rearing, breeding, and release of the Mount Graham red squirrels.
The Phoenix Zoo will eventually transfer one male and one female to Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois to create a breeding pair there. The transfer may take place in the spring of 2015. The breeding effort is part of a 10-year pilot project to study the husbandry needs of the Mount Graham red squirrels and bolster their population.