COLORADO, USA — Research out of Colorado State University (CSU) shows more tourists in Colorado's high country means, sadly, more dead squirrels.
An assistant professor at CSU, Dr. Caitlin Wells, said every year up to 20% percent of the female golden-mantled ground squirrel population dies along County Road 317 in Gunnison County.
She has studied squirrels at this one location for 15 years and found Colorado's summer activities draw driving tourists to destinations to hike or view wildflowers.
"Every year, like clockwork, road mortality, roadkills would peak that week during the wildflower festival as more people, more tourists were coming into town to enjoy the beauty of this high elevation."
The traffic piles up, she said. It's the worst during the summer months when people come to hike and see the wildflowers – the timing is treacherous, especially to the nursing female squirrels. So, the death of one squirrel can lead to the death of her pups, too.
"The mothers are getting killed while they’re still nursing their pups underground before their pups are weaned, so when she gets killed then all of her babies starve underground, and that really takes a toll on the population," said Wells.
She said the consequences of just a few mortalities surprised her.
“As a grad student, I noticed I’d come to dread the 4th of July because while everyone was getting ready for the parade in Crested Butte or parties or wildflower viewing, I knew that it was going to bring a lot of traffic through the lab and that was gonna mean dead squirrels,” said Wells.
And before you scoff at a couple of ground squirrels getting squashed by tourist traffic – Wells explained that the squirrels play an important role in Colorado's ecosystem.
“Squirrels do so much for these high-elevation ecosystems. One, they’re food. Everything eats them – hawks, coyotes, mink, weasels. Everything will eat a ground squirrel if it can," she said. “So there’s that direct benefit to all of the other species that people tend to care about a little bit more.”
Wells added that squirrels also move seeds around that sprout. “So, they’re kind of tiny gardeners and ecosystem engineers as well as being food for so many species that people care about,” she said.
Wells said it comes down to having roads and using cars to access wild places.
“There are just so many cars that even a rare, relatively infrequent roadkill event translates into a lot when you have hundreds of cars per hour in some of the peak times of the summer,” she said. “They don’t perceive cars as predators, we don’t think, and yet they’re putting themselves in harm’s way by staying close to the roads and crossing in front of cars frequently.”
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