LDWF Biologists Researching Plight Of The Bachman’s Fox Squirrel
story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Louisiana is teeming with squirrels. Chances are you’ve probably seen one in your yard, a nearby tree, your neighborhood or on your way to work, school or running errands during the week, no matter where you live.
There are many animal species in the Bayou State. Unfortunately, some are threatened or endangered. But squirrels? No way, right?
Well, LDWF biologists are concerned about a subspecies that once thrived here that, from casual observation, isn’t seen as much as it used to be.
To begin, there are two species of squirrels that inhabit Louisiana, the gray and fox squirrel. But there are three subspecies of fox squirrels, including the chucklehead fox squirrel, the Delta fox squirrel and the Bachman’s fox squirrel. It’s the Bachman’s fox squirrel that has caught the attention of LDWF biologists.
The Bachman’s occurs east of the Mississippi River in the Florida Parishes of southeast Louisiana. The Delta fox squirrel is found in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley in the bottomland and hardwood areas and the chucklehead fox squirrel in western Louisiana.
The Bachman’s is set apart as a subspecies by its distinct colorations. It can have a white blaze on its nose, its tail, its feet or its ears. Many combinations of these color variations can be observed on individuals. For instance, some squirrels may only have a white blaze on their nose or tail while others can have white markings on all aforementioned appendages.
What concerns LDWF biologists is not only seeing fewer Bachman’s fox squirrels but also the declining habitat where they’re found. Like many other wildlife species in the state, the Bachman’s fox squirrel could be the victim of the loss and lack of quality habitat.
“This species was once abundant in open pine stands (in the Florida Parishes) when quail and other grassland birds were dominant, back at the turn of the 20th century,’’ said LDWF Small Game Program Manager Cody Cedotal. “Then and into the 1950s and 1960s all that open longleaf pine country was managed with fire. But as the landscape changed, this habitat type was reduced significantly, apparently resulting in their population decline. The problem is that we have limited information on these squirrels and based on just observations of what we see and where we see them, we seem to have fewer of them.’’
But good science is never defined by casual observation or hunches. It takes careful and painstaking research to identify potential problems. Once issues are identified, and data gathered, management recommendations may be planned and then implemented.
So Cedotal and other LDWF biologists decided it was time to initiate needed research to gather baseline data on the Bachman’s fox squirrel. They developed a project to observe the species in its home range, the first step in determining if the species is truly in decline.
“What prompted this work is that Bachman’s fox squirrels are treated as any other squirrel in our hunting regulations,’’ Cedotal said. “I don’t think anyone is specifically targeting this subspecies. But we want to possibly look at and review the regulations to determine if any adjustments are needed.
“We’re using this project to gather information to determine the home range size and habitat types used by these squirrels. We want to find out preferred types of habitat they are using and go from there.’’
Through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service State Wildlife grant, Cedotal and LDWF personnel have begun attaching VHF/GPS collar transmitters to squirrels, which will provide data on their home range and survival. The project began in the summer of 2018 with Cedotal and his crew working on the best way to capture and handle the squirrels. Then in November of 2018, they captured and collared the first one.
“There was a little bit of a learning curve in capturing them,’’ Cedotal said. “They seem to feed on the ground a lot more than the gray squirrel would, at the bases of big oak trees that have cavities, and areas where there is big, mature timber. Even scattered pasture is good, as they forage throughout pastures for various seeds and fruits.’’
By March of 2019, they had deployed all 10 collars on squirrels for the first half of the project. They’ll begin fitting squirrels with the rest of the collars beginning this winter (2019-20). Cedotal said they didn’t want to use all the transmitters at one time. It was best, they thought, to split up the project to manage workloads and get better data.
The squirrels were captured and radio-collared in East Feliciana and Tangipahoa parishes.
The collars, placed on the squirrels’ necks, are GPS transmitters that emit a VHF signal. The project is centered on the squirrels’ home range so the goal is to capture the squirrel’s daily movements by collecting GPS points. The collars are programmed to record the locations of the squirrels throughout the day.
“We’d like to have one point/hour during daylight hours,’’ Cedotal said. “We also want to get as many months out of the year as we can from the batteries. We’d like to have an entire annual cycle for each squirrel. We want to know where the squirrel spends its time. We can then go into that area and assess how big it is and describe the habitat type found there. We can begin to find out how much area it takes to sustain the squirrels by knowing their home ranges.’’
Currently, Cedotal goes out once a month to gather the location data. He has to be within about 100 yards of the squirrel to download the data from the collar.
“The collar emits a VHF signal and collects the GPS data,’’ Cedotal said. “When you get within range, you’ll get an intermittent beep from the VHF transmitter in the collar. We track in on the VHF signal until we are close enough to remotely download the GPS data.’’
After almost a year of tracking the squirrels, Cedotal has noticed a few trends from the gathered data. He notes everything is in the preliminary stage and no statistical analyses or modeling of the data has been done yet.
“We have a lot of maps of the data points we’ve gathered so far,’’ Cedotal said. “Just by looking at those maps, it’s quite obvious the females tend to have a smaller home range than the males. You would expect that. I was under the assumption that home range may change with season of the year. But from what I’ve seen so far, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Their home range remains the same.’’
But Cedotal cautions this is only the beginning of the project. More data is to be gathered. LDWF has also enlisted the help of LSU’s wildlife department and Dr. Bret Collier to assist with the project. Students in Collier’s graduate wildlife classes will process the data as part of their curriculum, modeling and analyzing what has been gathered.
“They’re going to generate a utilization distribution for each squirrel that we’ve collared,’’ Cedotal said. “We’ll have a map of where that squirrel’s home range is, which we will then use to sample the habitat types within that area. This work will start this winter.’’
Cedotal said he hopes to have the fieldwork completed by next winter and wrap up the project sometime in 2021. By then, he said, LDWF biologists will have a better understanding of the Bachman’s fox squirrel thanks to solid data.
“We have to be proactive with all the species we manage,’’ Cedotal said. “Doing so takes a lot of time and a lot of work but everyone we work with certainly does not want to look back in 20 or 30 years and say, ‘Boy, I wish we had done more to make sure this species stayed abundant in our state.’ ”
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