One town’s vermin…

In Kluane, something killed all the Arctic ground squirrels. As they are usually reviled as pests, a ground-squirrel die-off normally wouldn't be a problem.

In Kluane, something killed all the Arctic ground squirrels.

As they are usually reviled as pests, a ground-squirrel die-off normally wouldn’t be a problem.

But to the Kluane First Nation, which uses the squirrels for food and clothing, the disappearance of the little animals is a serious cultural loss.

Ever since the squirrels stopped coming, the First Nation has tried to effect their resurrection.

Then a squirrel expert came to town.

Scott Donker, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, arrived at the Kluane Lake Research Station to finish up his thesis on the altitudinal distributions of Arctic ground squirrels.

“There are a lot of ground squirrels up high, and there are very few down low … I’m investigating that a little more closely,” he said.

Sam White, lands technician of the Kluane First Nation, met with Donker and explained the squirrel shortage.

Together with the First Nation, an ambitious squirrel-relocation plan was soon hatched.

Squirrels would be snatched out of Destruction Bay and the Burwash airport – where they are largely considered pests.

Residents were “delighted” to see the squirrels being carted away, said Donker.

They would be released into Kluane to be fruitful and multiply.

And, once the population had rebounded, the Kluane could go back to eating them.

But what killed the squirrels in the first place?

“There are a few hypotheses,” said Donker.

Over the last 20 years, ground squirrel meadows have been invaded by tall grass from the Alaska Highway.

Blinded by the lofty turf, the squirrels have become easy pickings for local predators.

The other eight months of the year, the squirrels hibernate underground, free from predators, but not from the perils of an early spring.

January rains, an increasingly frequent Kluane phenomenon, may be soaking squirrels as they sleep in their burrows.

The next day, when temperatures once again plummet to negative 30, the waterlogged squirrels would be done for.

“Essentially, they’d freeze to death in their burrows,” said Donker.

The groundhog – a close ground squirrel relative – may think twice the next time it ushers in another squirrel-killing early spring.

Donker can’t do anything about the killer rain, but a lawn mower could solve the grass issue.

Of course, relocating city-bred ground squirrels poses its own problems.

For squirrels, life at Destruction Bay and the Burwash Airport has been pretty good.

Living close to humans ensured a steady flow of food scraps, as well as a lack of predators.

In Kluane, these squirrels are entering a documented squirrel-killing landscape.

Complacent and lackadaisical, their pioneering spirit may not be top-notch.

Moving animals is always a sticky business.

Often, relocated wildlife will be released into its new home, only to panic and immediately flee to oblivion.

“If 10 of those guys stick around, that’s great, if not, well, that’s just the nature of any introduction program,” said Donker.

Of all the squirrels released in 2008, only one has been spotted wandering the area.

“So at least one guy stuck around,” said Donker in an official release.

In the meantime, Kluane elders have decreed a three-year ban on squirrel hunting to allow the population to rebound.

As a squirrel expert, Donker is a bit of an outsider among his zoologist brethren.

Researchers tend to focus on “charismatic mega-fauna” like caribou and grizzly bears, said Donker.

“Species that, when you’re a kid, you say, ‘Wow,’” he said.

“No kid ever says, ‘Gophers are amazing!’‘’ he added.

But fun species like grizzly bears, coyotes and eagles have got to eat something – and that’s where Donker’s ground squirrels come in.

“They support these species that people tend to be more interested in,” said Donker.

That is, when there are no snowshoe hares around, he said.

At an upcoming Kluane squirrel barbecue, Donker himself will soon be tasting the unsung dietary staple of the Yukon wilderness.

“One of the preferred ways to prepare a squirrel is to Shake and Bake it,” said Donker.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com

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