The endangered Mount Graham red squirrel showed a decrease in the latest population estimate in the Pinaleño Mountains of southeastern Arizona, authorities said Tuesday.
The annual survey conducted jointly by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Coronado National Forest, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed an estimate of 144 squirrels.
That’s an increase from the 109 squirrels estimated in 2021 but lower than the 156 squirrels estimated after a new survey method was implemented last year.
Previous surveys focused on visiting all known “middens” or areas where red squirrels store their cones. That method didn’t systematically detect middens created by the squirrels as they moved to new or different areas on the mountain.
The new method now involves systematically searching for active middens within survey plots that are designed to capture the majority of red squirrel habitat in the mountains. This enables new middens to be detected as they are created and activity at these middens is then used to estimate the population size.
Biologists said this year’s numbers show that they need to continue working together to manage the squirrels’ habitat and help the subspecies recover. The subspecies was listed as endangered in 1987.
The squirrels live only in the upper-elevation conifer forests of the Pinaleño Mountains and feed primarily on conifer seeds. The subspecies is highly territorial and has lower reproductive rates than red squirrels in other locations.
The Mount Graham red squirrel population peaked at about 550 animals in the late 1990s. It typically ranged between 200 and 300 until a 2017 wildfire devastated much of the squirrel’s habitat.