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Blane Klemek column: A sleepy squirrel that acts like a prairie dog

The Richardson’s ground squirrel lives in colonies like prairie dogs. Photo by Kameron Perensovich

Sometimes called the golden gopher or flickertail, Minnesota is home to a very unique and interesting ground squirrel that we're lucky to be able to observe right here in our own backyard, albeit not in everyone's backyard.

Richardson's ground squirrels, a species of ground squirrel with the colonial habits similar to prairie dogs common to western United States, could also be called Minnesota's version of this western cousin. No other Minnesota native ground squirrel has quite as social a lifestyle as what Richardson's ground squirrels enjoy.

Belonging to the squirrel family of the order Rodentia, Richardson's ground squirrels — so named after Scottish naturalist Sir John Richardson — is further classified as a ground squirrel, because, unlike its arboreal cousins such as gray squirrels, fox squirrels, red squirrels, and flying squirrels, the Richardson ground squirrel spends a large percentage of its lifespan in a network of underground burrows.

Moreover, and like its other ground-squirrel cousins like the thirteen-lined ground squirrel and the very closely related Franklin's ground squirrel, Richardson's ground squirrels are true hibernators.

Indeed, all ground squirrels enter very deep states of hibernation inside snug and warm underground sleeping chambers. Other members of the squirrel family that I suppose could be considered as part ground squirrel and part tree squirrel are chipmunks and woodchucks. Both chipmunks and woodchucks burrow, climb trees, and hibernate.

Surprisingly, during the hottest time of the year, July and early August, adult Richardson's ground squirrels are already preparing for hibernation. At this writing and as you read these words, adult male Richardson's ground squirrels are just now beginning their long bouts of hibernation, some eight months long! Adult females will begin hibernating by late July or very early August. Young-of-the-year Richardson's ground squirrels, which are those offspring born this past spring and are less than a year old, are the last to hibernate. The youngsters don't begin hibernation until well into September, long after the adults have been fast asleep deep underground.

Richardson's ground squirrels are about the size of red squirrels in total length, though much "plumper" in appearance. Given the mammal's coloration of a uniform gray-yellowish pelage, it's no wonder that people compare Richardson's ground squirrels to prairie dogs.

Couple Richardson's ground squirrels' physical characteristics with their communal behavior that, together, are so similar to prairie dogs', it's easy to understand why comparisons are made between the two species. You might say that where Richardson's ground squirrels exist, so, too, does a Richardson's ground squirrel "town," as in prairie dog towns (same thing, just a different species in a different kind of town).

Ranging in Minnesota up and down the state's western fringe, including the Red River Valley, Richardson's ground squirrels are a species of ground squirrel well-adapted to the northern Great Plains' grasslands and croplands of western Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, and in other western states as well.

The little rodents' penchant for standing vigil at the mounded entrances of their burrows is a pleasing sight to be sure, and a sight worth seeing.

I'm aware of at least two Richardson's ground squirrel villages here in northwestern Minnesota and in northeastern North Dakota, and both are just a short drive away. When I first became aware of Richardson's ground squirrels I was a student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. My mammalogy professor, Dr. Robert Seabloom, required that each of his mammalogy students collect and prepare small mammal, museum quality study skins. As such, I soon learned where I might be able to collect an assortment of species of mammals.

One village of Richardson's ground squirrels can be found near the fairgrounds in Grand Forks, N.D. I'm not sure how many exist there today, but in the late 1990s the population of these urban flickertails were doing well.

Another colony, closer to home, is located just north of the small Minnesota town of Mentor, which is east of Crookston adjacent to U.S. Highway 2.

The Mentor Richardson's ground squirrels are easy to view and are located on a pasture within the Mentor Prairie Wildlife Management Area (WMA) a little northwest of the City of Mentor. In fact, it won't be long until staff from Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Crookston Area Wildlife office will be erecting interpretive signage near the colony that will tell visitors the fascinating story of Richardson's ground squirrels. The kiosk will be assembled and installed yet this summer.

The Richardson's ground squirrel colony at Mentor Prairie WMA " one of the largest remaining in northwest Minnesota. Habitat managers use season-long grazing in "Gopherville Pasture" to keep grass short. This technique provides ideal habitat for flickertails, benefits local graziers (ranchers), and benefits other prairie wildlife by adding a shortgrass component to a tallgrass prairie unit", as written in the "flickertail" story that visitors will soon be able to read near the Mentor WMA Richardson ground squirrel colony.

For certain, Richardson's ground squirrels are charming little rodents of the prairie. These mammals, so well-adapted to living out their lives in the harsh environment of dry prairie habitats, are nonetheless sensitive to habitat loss just as any other species is. With prairie grassland habitat as diminished as it is across Minnesota's western landscape, the few remaining Richardson's ground squirrel populations and their preferred habitats are critical to preserve and protect as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.