Conservation Research Laboratory: General Conservation Projects

Rebecca Minor

Competition for conifer cones as a potential mechanism of endangerment for the Mt. Graham red squirrel.
  • Time Period: 2007 - 2010

  • Location: Pinaleño (Graham) Mountains, Graham County, southeastern Arizona (Coronado National Forest).

Major Questions/Objectives: Non-native species are a major cause of endangerment for native species, but the mechanisms are often unclear. The sky island region of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico supports many isolated endemic species that are restricted to high elevation forests and vulnerable to species invasions. One such range, the Pinaleño Mountains in southeastern Arizona, supports the entire population of the critically endangered Mount Graham red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis) (MGRS). A second tree species, the Abert’s squirrel (Sciurus aberti) was introduced to the range in 1941 by Arizona Game and Fish Department for increased recreational hunting opportunities. Our field experiment quantified the impact of introduced Abert's squirrels on rates of food removal within the range of the MGRS. We placed single cones on 4m x 4m plots (1m spacing) at random locations in the forest and observed the rate of removal by both species of squirrel through direct observation and remote cameras. Then Abert’s squirrels were excluded from cone removal by placing cones in wire mesh tubes that were of small diameter, so that only MGRS could enter. burn severity? Does the landscape pattern (patchiness) of burn severity affect squirrel habitat use?

Major Findings: In the presence of Abert's squirrels, the time until 50% of cones were removed was significantly faster than when Abert's squirrels were excluded. The impact on food availability as a result of cone removal by Abert's squirrels suggests the potential of food competition as a mechanism of endangerment for the Mount Graham red squirrel. We suggest that a successful management approach for MGRS with target the impact of Abert’s squirrels on food availability. That a large proportion of cones available to both MGRS and Abert’s squirrels were removed before cones available only to MGRS suggests the importance of considering removal of the introduced Abert’s squirrel as a priority in conserving red squirrels in the Pinaleño Mountains.