On our trip to southeastern Oregon’s high desert last week, we were astounded at the number of mammal species we encountered in just four days – pronghorns, deer, marmots, voles, squirrels, horses, cattle, jack-rabbits. One of the most abundant mammals in eastern Oregon is the Belding’s ground squirrel (AKA sage rat).
Just in the small area around of the historic Frenchglen Hotel, I saw at least a dozen Belding’s ground squirrels. They would emerge from their numerous burrows just after sunrise and stay active until sunset – feeding, chasing each other, and peering around for predators. As we drove along Hwy 205, both north and south of Frenchglen, a ground squirrel ran across the road about every 5 seconds.
They are relatively small ground squirrels, measuring only 8.5 inches long with a short 2.5-inch tail and small ears. They have few markings and are generally brownish-gray to red in color. Their burrows extend about two feet below ground.
Belding’s ground squirrels are seasonal rodents. They hibernate for nearly seven months of the year, starting in August, but when they emerge in late spring, they are eating machines. They do not cache food for hibernation, so they must double their weight by eating during the spring and summer. Preferring leaves and stems of wild and cultivated grasses and roots of other herbaceous plants, Belding’s can do considerable damage to yards and agricultural crops in a short time.
In fact, Belding’s ground squirrels are the most damaging ground squirrel to agricultural crops in California and eastern Oregon. Not only do they damage crops, but they can chew through irrigation lines, weaken levees and ditches with their burrows, and pose hazards for farm workers and equipment. Because of that, farmers and ranchers spend a lot of time and money trying to manage them using methods as diverse as fumigation, trapping, shooting, toxic baits, and burrow modification. Baiting with poison-coated seed is not effective since Belding’s ground squirrels are not typically seed-eaters.
Cute as they are, these ground squirrels (like many desert rodent species) can be deadly. They spread diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, rat bite fever, tularemia, Chagas’ disease, adiospiromycosis, and encephalomycarditis. They also serve as reservoirs for bubonic plague (which spreads by fleas from infected squirrels). So, it’s best to observe them from a distance.