Critters get nod on National Squirrel Day

FREDONIA, Ariz. - If you can't resist those cute, furry critters scampering across your lawn, hoarding food in far-flung caches and snatching a tasty treat out of your bird feeder, then you will want to raise a glass this week in honor of the squirrel. Wednesday, Jan. 21, is National Squirrel Appreciation Day, and managers of the Kaibab National Forest will be joining in the festivities by celebrating the forest's very own special squirrel.

Endemic to region

The Kaibab squirrel is endemic to the Kaibab Plateau, which means the North Kaibab Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest and parts of the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park are the only places in the world to naturally host this furry critter.

"This is what makes the Kaibab squirrel unique," said Angela Gatto, North Kaibab Ranger District wildlife biologist.

Protection

In an effort to nationally recognize the Kaibab squirrel, the National Park Service designated portions of the North Kaibab Ranger District and Grand Canyon National Park as a National Natural Landmark. This designation helps to ensure the recognition and appreciation of this squirrel species and its habitat.

"The designation acknowledges the importance of this species as an endemic and therefore provides conservation support from one of our sister agencies - the National Park Service," Gatto said.

According to the National Natural Landmarks Program Web site, the area designated as a landmark comprises nearly 200,000 acres of ponderosa pine habitat, which the Kaibab squirrel depends on for survival.

Significant species

Dr. Joseph D. Hall, who conducted the evaluation on the squirrel and its habitat, stated that the Kaibab squirrel is, in a local way, as significant a species as the finches Charles Darwin studied on the Galapagos Islands.

Like the finches of the Galapagos, natural geographic boundaries have restricted the Kaibab squirrel's movement and allowed it to evolve into the species seen today.

Not to be confused with the similar-looking Abert's squirrel, which is found on the two southern districts of the Kaibab National Forest as well as many other places in the western United States, the Kaibab squirrel has distinctive features born of its evolution on the Kaibab Plateau.

Differences

"The main difference is coloration. The Kaibab (squirrel) has a white fluffy tail and a darker body," said Gatto.

Gatto added that the Kaibab squirrel is now considered a subspecies of the Abert's squirrel, whereas in the past it was thought to be a distinct species. Gatto said the visible differences between the two squirrels are apparent, even to the untrained eye.

Because Kaibab squirrels do not create food caches like the red squirrel, visitors can see the animals throughout the year.

Sighting them

Gatto noted that during the late winter and early spring, especially February and March, onlookers may catch a glimpse of the squirrels' mating ritual, which involves the males racing through the treetops in pursuit of the females.

The area around Jacob Lake, near the Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center, is a great place to see the squirrels going about their daily routine of collecting pine cones and making nests. And, as soon as the snow melts, a large bronze plaque donated by the National Natural Landmark program will be displayed at the visitor center in recognition of the squirrel.

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