SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Chris Young's outdoors column focuses on rare squirrel.
A local conservation group is hoping to draw attention to a rare mammal living along a bike trail near Veterans Parkway in hopes of improving its chances for survival.
The Franklin’s ground squirrel, known from only a handful of locations in Illinois, persists along the Wabash bike trail within sight of businesses like Menard’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
The sighting of a rodent, however rare, rarely brings the kind of excited phone call made by Vern LaGesse, president of Friends of the Sangamon Valley, an environmental stewardship organization and land trust.
“I’m sitting next to the bike trail in a lawn chair watching a Franklin’s ground squirrel,” LaGesse reported to his wife, Charlene Falco.
He was following up on a report from Falco, who thought she saw one while riding her bike on the trail.
So far, two individuals have been seen in the area, and LaGesse is hoping to find more. He says raising public awareness could encourage users of the trail to be extra careful.
“I would think if people knew they were rare, they would give them some leeway,” he said of mounting an information campaign. “We’ve documented 13-lined ground squirrels (a common species) killed on the bike trail.”
Franklin’s ground squirrels were thought to be a prairie species that disappeared along with the grasslands that once covered 60 percent of Illinois. But today, scientists like Ed Heske, a mammalogist with the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign, aren’t so sure. Especially when the rare critters turn up along roadways, bike paths and railroad right of ways that have little or none of the prairie component left.
He says the ground squirrels seem to prefer open grassland with grass knee-high or higher and scattered trees.
“It’s not clear,” Heske said. “We’re trying to get a better quantification (on the ground squirrel’s habitat niche.)”
Central Illinois is at the southeastern end of the Franklin’s ground squirrel's range, which extends northwest through the Great Plains and into Canada.
The Franklin’s ground squirrel is listed as a threatened species in Illinois.
In the past few years, Illinois Department of Natural Resources staffers have seen the ground squirrels along Robbins Road, the Wabash Trail and near Camp Butler National Cemetery, according to Keith Shank, who coordinates endangered species consultation for the DNR.
A former DNR employee found two dead Franklin’s ground squirrels along the road between Buffalo and Illiopolis between 2005 and 2006.
Jenny Duggan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois researching Franklin’s ground squirrels, said she knows of only a few locations where live ground squirrels have been found in the past five years in the state.
She has been looking at historical records and trying to see if the ground squirrels can be found in their old locations in four states — Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri. She also is working with researchers in Indiana.
“It’s a pretty big deal what you’ve got there in Springfield,” she said. “They are really hard to find.”
Duggan said she usually finds them in taller grasses than the closely cropped grass along the Wabash Trail.
New conventional wisdom suggests the Franklin’s ground squirrel is an “edge” species, living in the transition zone between woods and prairie.
In Springfield, the animals have managed to endure years of transition from a rural landscape to shopping and residential areas, in addition to the railroad bed’s conversion to a bike trail.
“There is nothing in the literature to suggest they are found in urban areas,” Shank says of the animal’s choice of habitat. “But what if that is the only habitat around, and that makes it essential?”
Raised roadways and railroads are preferred because they are higher and stay dry during the ground squirrel’s hibernation.
And prairies planted to benefit the Franklin’s don’t always fulfill their expectations.
Old crop fields returned to prairie often are too wet, and the ground squirrels don’t use them.
A planned prairie restoration to be planted adjacent to Centennial Park on Springfield’s southwest side is being designed to help the Franklin’s, if it chooses to move in.
The Wabash bike trail ends before it gets to Centennial Park, but the old railroad bed continues to the park, providing a possible avenue for the ground squirrels to spread.
Of an 80-acre parcel, 70 acres will be planted to prairie, with a 1.3-mile trail system. Trails will be laid out to take advantage of the site’s topography, putting Franklin’s habitat on the highest ground. Planting is expected to begin this fall.
The Springfield Park District has received funds from DNR’s Conservation 2000 program and a Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program of the Natural Resources Conservation Service to cover the cost of the prairie installation.
“We’ll be maintaining a 30-foot-wide, cool-season grass trail,” LaGesse said.
Cool-season grasses are like lawn grass and grow best in spring and fall.
“We’ll have a multi-tiered lawn effect from lawn to unmowed cool season grass to the prairie grass.
“I’m hoping that interface is something they will use.”
Leslie Sgro, president of the Springfield Park District Board, says adding a prairie restoration to Centennial Park is an exciting new project for the district.
“It’s fun to be part of working with the environmental community to provide habitat as well as recreation,” she said. “That’s fun. It’s kind of a new direction for the district. It’s important that we be partners with all the different groups and interests.”
Chris Young can be reached at email@example.com.
State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill.