Population increase for endangered red squirrels in Arizona

SAFFORD, Ariz. (AP) — The latest survey shows another increase in the population of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel in the Pinaleno Mountains of southeastern Arizona, according to authorities.

State Game and Fish Department officials said Thursday that the annual survey estimates that there currently are 156 of the rare squirrels, up from 109 last year.

The new survey was conducted jointly by the state Game and Fish Department, Coronado National Forest and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was implemented to more thoroughly survey the squirrels’ habitat.

Previous annual red squirrel surveys focused on visiting all known "middens," or areas where red squirrels store their cones.

Game and Fish officials said that method didn’t systematically detect middens created by red squirrels as they moved to new or different areas on the mountain.

The new method involves systematically searching for active middens within survey plots designed to capture the majority of red squirrel habitat in the Pinaleno 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.

The Mount Graham red squirrel subspecies was listed as endangered in 1987 and their population peaked at about 550 in the late 1990s.

Their habitat in the upper-elevation conifer forests of the mountains near Safford was nearly wiped out by a 2017 wildfire that burned more than 48,000 acres.

The squirrels’ population was at 252 in 2016 before the wildfire and just 35 the year after, before rebounding.