If you have been on the StMU campus recently, you may have noticed many small rodents inhabiting the grounds. These cute creatures are Richardson’s ground squirrels, a species that is often labeled as a pest, but that has an important function in prairie ecosystems. Through their burrowing, Richardson’s ground squirrels increase water penetration in the soil, encourage the growth of native plant species, and provide habitats for other prairie species such as burrowing owls.
Richardson’s ground squirrels are also a significant prey species for many predators that themselves play a key role in the larger ecosystem, such as the coyotes and Swainson’s hawks that live on and around the St. Mary’s University campus.
Despite their helpfulness, Richardson’s ground squirrels can live up to their bad reputation if they are present in uncontrolled numbers that are unsustainable for the ecosystem. Luckily, ground squirrels can be managed in non-lethal ways. They will not inhabit locations where they are unable to see potential predators, preferring areas where vegetation is less than 30cm tall, so planting trees and shrubs, or placing barriers that obstruct their line of sight, will deter ground squirrels from areas that may need extra protection.
Hopefully this has helped dispel some myths about Richardson’s ground squirrels, and next time you are on campus, maybe you’ll look at these interesting animals differently!