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WILDLIFE SPECIES:  Urocitellus townsendii
Townsend's ground squirrels in Hanford, Washington. Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Urocitellus townsendii
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION: Howard, Janet L. 1996. Urocitellus townsendii. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: []. Revisions: On 20 November 2018, the scientific name of this species was changed in FEIS from: Spermophilus townsendii to: Urocitellus townsendii. The image was also added.

ABBREVIATION: URTO COMMON NAMES: Townsend's ground squirrel TAXONOMY: The scientific name of the Townsend's ground squirrel is Urocitellus townsendii (Bachman). It is in the family Sciuridae [29]. Six subspecies are recognized [9,29]: Urocitellus townsendii artemesiae (Merriam), sagebrush or least Idaho ground squirrel Urocitellus townsendii canus (Merriam), gray ground squirrel Urocitellus townsendii idahoensis (Merriam), Snake Valley or Payette ground squirrel Urocitellus townsendii nancyae (Nadler), Townsend's ground squirrel Urocitellus townsendii townsendii (Bachman), Townsend's ground squirrel Urocitellus townsendii vigilis (Merriam), Malheur ground squirrel SYNONYMS: Spermophilus townsendii Bachman [9,14] Spermophilus townsendii artemesiae (Merriam) Spermophilus townsendii canus Merriam Spermophilus townsendii idahoensis (Merriam) Spermophilus townsendii nancyae Nadler Spermophilus townsendii townsendii Bachman Spermophilus townsendii vigilis (Merriam)[9] ORDER: Rodentia CLASS: Mammal FEDERAL LEGAL STATUS: No special status OTHER STATUS: NO-ENTRY


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Urocitellus townsendii
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: The Townsend's ground squirrel is distributed in the Great Basin and on the Columbia Plateau. Its range includes south-central Washington, eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, western Utah, most of Nevada, and extreme eastern California [25]. Distribution of subspecies is [9]: Urocitellus townsendii artemesiae - south-central Idaho Urocitellus townsendii - eastern Oregon; northeastern corner of California; northwestern corner of Nevada Urocitellus townsendii idahoensis - southwestern Idaho Urocitellus townsendii nancyae - south-central Washington Urocitellus townsendii townsendii - south-central Washington Urocitellus townsendii vigilis - Snake River Canyon bottomlands of east-central Oregon and west-central Idaho ECOSYSTEMS: FRES29 Sagebrush FRES30 Desert shrub STATES:
BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS: 5 Columbia Plateau 6 Upper Basin and Range 7 Lower Basin and Range KUCHLER PLANT ASSOCIATIONS: K038 Great Basin sagebrush K055 Sagebrush steppe K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe K040 Saltbush-greasewood SAF COVER TYPES: None SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES: 104 Antelope bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass 105 Antelope bitterbrush-Idaho fescue 314 Big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass 315 Big sagebrush-Idaho fescue 401 Basin big sagebrush 402 Mountain big sagebrush 403 Wyoming big sagebrush 414 Salt desert shrub 422 Riparian 501 Saltbush-greasewood PLANT COMMUNITIES: Townsend's ground squirrels typically inhabit arid grasslands and shrub-grasslands. Malheur ground squirrels, however, inhabit the relatively mesic and fertile Snake River Valley [25]. Plant communities in which Townsend's ground squirrels occur that have not been previously listed include crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum), big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)-crested wheatgrass [15], and rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus spp.)-, shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia)-, and winterfat (Kraschenninikovia lanata)-bunchgrasslands [21]. Yensen and others [28] found that on the Snake River Birds of Prey Study Area (SRBPSA) of southeastern Idaho, density of active Townsend's ground squirrel burrows was highest on winterfat-Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda), intermediate in big sagebrush-Thurber needlegrass (Achnatherum thurberiana), and lowest in shadscale-Indian ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides)-needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata) communities. Burrow densities were highly variable in mixed exotic annual communities, and negatively correlated with cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) communities. Another study on the SRBPSA showed that Townsend's ground squirrel density generally increased with increasing native grass cover. Populations were unstable when native grass cover was extremely high, however [16].


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Urocitellus townsendii
TIMING OF MAJOR LIFE HISTORY EVENTS: Aestivation - Townsend's ground squirrels become dormant in late spring or early summer, after grasses cure. They emerge from dormancy in late winter. Dormancy lasts 7.5 to 9 continuous months [1,24]. The aestivation period is shorter wet years, when green forage is available later in summer, than in dry years [1,27]. Breeding - Females breed as yearlings. Most males also breed as yearlings, although male Snake Valley ground squirrels breed at 2 years of age [24,27]. Most breeding occurs in late January or early February [27], just after dormancy ends. Piute ground squirrels breed from mid-February to early March, somewhat later than other subspecies [23,24]. Gestation - about 24 days [1] Litter size - One litter is produced per year, with 6 to 10 pups per litter [25]. Development - Pups are born hairless and with eyes closed. Early postnatal development of Townsend's ground squirrels is relatively slow compared to development of other Spermophilus species. Pups open their eyes at 19 to 22 days of age, and are weaned shortly thereafter [25]. PREFERRED HABITAT: Although Townsend's ground squirrels occur in arid environments, within those environments they are most common around desert springs and irrigated fields [10]. They also occupy ridgetops, hillsides, and valley bottoms [25], canal and railroad embankments, and old fields [5]. As a burrowing species, Townsend's ground squirrels select sites with deep, friable, well-drained soils [21,25]. In southeastern Idaho, 68 percent of Townsend's ground squirrel burrows were in sand, 28 percent in silt, and 4 percent in clay [19]. Home range and density: Smith and Johnson [27] reported a mean home range of 1,357 square meters (+/- 189.7 sq m) for 14 Snake Valley ground squirrels. Townsend's ground squirrel density can fluctuate greatly from year to year. Estimated population density of Snake Valley ground squirrels ranged from 3 to 32 individuals per hectare [27]. Densities of 296 to 331 individuals per hectare have been reported for Piute ground squirrels [1]. COVER REQUIREMENTS: Townsend's ground squirrels occupy open habitats and use burrows for shelter, protection from predators, and food storage. Burrows are often grouped into colonies, but some Townsend's ground squirrels are solitary [25]. Except when mothers have pups, there is only one Townsend's ground squirrel per burrow. Burrows have one to many openings and may have numerous auxiliary burrows in addition to the "home" or nest burrow [28]. Burrow dimensions of Townsend's ground squirrels in southeastern Idaho ranged from 2.6 to 3.8 inches (6.5-9.6 cm) horizontally and from 1.7 to 2.5 inches (4.3-6.3 cm) vertically [19]. Townsend's ground squirrels have been observed climbing shrubs while foraging, apparently for cover and to spot palatable vegetation [25]. FOOD HABITS: Townsend's ground squirrels consume mainly green vegetation and some seeds and insects [4,13]. Dietary studies on the Townsend's ground squirrel are few, but green grasses are apparently a staple from late winter until just prior to grass senescence and Townsend ground squirrel aestivation, when seeds become the primary diet item. Seeds are an important source of calories just prior to aestivation [23]. Where present, winterfat is browsed heavily [8], but only light browsing of other shrubs has been reported. From March through May on the Arid Land Ecology Reserve in eastern Washington, the Townsend's ground squirrel diet was 49 percent Sandberg bluegrass, 11 percent western yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis), 8 percent pinnate tansymustard (Descurania pinnata) seed, 31 percent other plant species (mostly forbs), and 1 percent insects [13]. On a big sagebrush-crested wheatgrass community in southeastern Idaho, 80 percent of Townsend's ground squirrels trapped in June had consumed crested wheatgrass, and Townsend's ground squirrels became dormant after the crested wheatgrass senesced [17]. Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is an important food item in some years. As an annual with wide year-to-year swings in productivity, however, it is not a reliable food source. Yensen and others [28] found that on the SRBPSA, Townsend's ground squirrel burrow densities declined over a 7-year period in areas dominated by cheatgrass or other exotic annuals. Adult cannibalism of unweaned young has been observed in the Townsend's ground squirrel [3]. PREDATORS: Townsend's ground squirrels are the primary prey of ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) in the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau [15]. They are also a major and often primary diet item of prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus) [21,22]. The Townsend's ground squirrel has been rated one of the two most important prey species on the SRBPSA because of its importance to ferruginous hawks and prairie falcons. (The other important prey species is the black-tailed jackrabbit [Lepus californicus]) [21]. Other important predators of Townsend's ground squirrels include other hawks (Accipiter and Buteo spp.) and falcons (Falco spp.), common crows (Corvus corax), badgers (Taxidea taxus), coyotes (Canis latrans), long-tailed weasels (Mestrela frenata), western rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis), and gopher snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) [1,12,25,27]. MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS: Grazing effects: Effects of cattle grazing on Townsend's ground squirrels vary. In a small mammal population study on riparian sites in Nevada, Townsend's ground squirrels were trapped only in areas where cattle had been excluded [20]. In sagebrush steppe in southeastern Idaho, however, Townsend's ground squirrel density did not significantly vary between ungrazed sites and sites grazed by cattle [16]. Census: Because a given burrow may have one to many entrances, trapping is a more reliable method of Townsend's ground squirrel census than counting burrow entrances [16]. Predator-prey relationships: In areas where exotic annuals are increasing, Townsend's ground squirrel predators will probably face an increasingly unstable prey base [28].


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Urocitellus townsendii
DIRECT FIRE EFFECTS ON ANIMALS: Wildfire normally occurs in summer or fall in Townsend's ground squirrel habitats, after grasses have cured. Since Townsend's ground squirrels are aestivating in their burrows at that time, wildfire probably has no direct effect on them [11,28]. HABITAT RELATED FIRE EFFECTS: Due to the arid climate, postfire recovery of vegetation in Townsend's ground squirrel habitats is slow. In the short term, fire usually reduces abundance of Townsend's ground squirrels because less forage is available on burned sites, and because predation increases with reduced escape cover [8]. Studies on the long-term effects of fire on Townsend's ground squirrels have only been conducted in communities invaded by exotic annuals. In these communities, frequent fire has harmed the Townsend's ground squirrel. Occasional fire in other Townsend's ground squirrel habitats probably benefits the species in the long term by reducing shrub density and providing a nutrient pulse to grasses and other Townsend's ground squirrel forage. Examples: A year following a July 1985 wildfire on the SRBPSA, more than twice as many active Townsend's ground squirrel holes were found on unburned control plots than on burned, partially burned, and burned-rehabilitated plots. Burned plots had been drill-seeded to crested wheatgrass, yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis), and fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens) the fall and spring after fire. In the first postfire summer, the burned, paritally burned, and burned-rehabilited sites were dominated by cheatgrass, whereas the unburned control sites were dominated by fourwing saltbush. Cheatgrass cover was 26 percent on burned, 9 percent on partially burned, 14 percent on burned-abd-seeded, and 5 percent on control sites. Winterfat, an important food source for Townsend's ground squirrels on the SRBPSA, had 7 percent cover on control sites, less than 1 percent cover on burned sites, and was absent on partially burned and burned-rehabiliated sites. Bottlebrush squirreltail (Elymus elymoides) and Sandberg bluegrass, which, along with winterfat, presumably comprised the bulk of the Townsend's ground squirrel diet prior to cheatgrass invasion, were present only on partially burned and control sites. At postfire year 1, numbers of active Townsend's ground squirrel burrows were [8]: B P R C --------------------------------------------------------- burrows 9 19 7 29 --------------------------------------------------------- B=burned P=partially burned R=burned-rehabilitated C=control Groves and Steenhof [8] speculated that Townsend's ground squirrel numbers may have been reduced in the cheatgrass-dominated areas by impeded movement through the thick stands of cheatgrass, which affected breeding and population size, increased predation due to loss of shrub cover, and changed available food resources. Fire in wet years: Townsend's ground squirrel populations may show a short-term increase when fire is followed by above-average precipitation. Townsend's ground squirrel numbers increased after fire in a big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) community in southeastern Washington. A wildfire occurred in August 1973, when Townsend's ground squirrels were belowground and dormant, burning 10,000 acres (4,000 ha). Townsend's ground squirrels had been trapped prior to the fire, from March to May of 1973, for census. They were trapped on the same site from March to May of 1974. Precipitation from October to May was 4.8 inches (120 mm) in 1973 and 13.2 inches (330 mm) in 1974. Townsend's ground squirrel numbers were [11]: Prefire Postfire ------- -------- Mar Apr May Mar Apr May ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Townsend's ground squirrels 13 20 18 10 33 28 ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Where fires are frequent in Townsend's ground squirrel habitats, the species may decline. As fire frequency has increased in shrub steppe of the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau, shrubs have been lost and cheatgrass and other annuals have become dominant. With short fire return intervals, annuals are able invade large blocks of land. The effects on Townsend's ground squirrel will probably be increased vulnerability to predation and to annual climatic fluctuations, with attendant unpredictability of forage [21]. With fewer bunchgrasses and forbs, exotic annual communities have lower plant species diversity and thus less nutritional variety for Townsend's ground squirrels. Although Townsend's ground squirrel numbers will increase during years when exotic annual production is high, unreliable production will probably result in high-amplitude population fluctuations of Townsend's ground squirrels [28]. FIRE REGIMES: Find fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".

References for species: Urocitellus townsendii

1. Alcorn, J. R. 1940. Life history notes on the Piute ground squirrel. Journal of Mammalogy. 21: 160-170. [26156]
2. Bernard, Stephen R.; Brown, Kenneth F. 1977. Distribution of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians by BLM physiographic regions and A.W. Kuchler's associations for the eleven western states. Tech. Note 301. Denver, CO: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. 169 p. [434]
3. Callahan, J. R. 1993. Squirrels as predators. The Great Basin Naturalist. 53(2): 137-144. [21515]
4. Clary, Warren P.; Medin, Dean E. 1992. Vegetation, breeding bird, and small mammal biomass in two high-elevation sagebrush riparian habitats. In: Clary, Warren P.; McArthur, E. Durant; Bedunah, Don; Wambolt, Carl L., compilers. Proceedings--symposium on ecology and management of riparian shrub communities; 1991 May 29-31; Sun Valley, ID. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-289. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station: 100-110. [19103]
5. Davis, William B. 1939. The recent mammals of Idaho. Contribution from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkeley, CA. Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, Ltd. 400 p. [26163]
6. Eyre, F. H., ed. 1980. Forest cover types of the United States and Canada. Washington, DC: Society of American Foresters. 148 p. [905]
7. Garrison, George A.; Bjugstad, Ardell J.; Duncan, Don A.; [and others]. 1977. Vegetation and environmental features of forest and range ecosystems. Agric. Handb. 475. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. 68 p. [998]
8. Groves, Craig R.; Steenhof, Karen. 1988. Responses of small mammals and vegetation to wildfire in shadscale communities of southwestern Idaho. Northwest Science. 62(5): 205-210. [6584]
9. Hall, E. Raymond. 1981. The mammals of North America. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 1271 p. [14765]
10. Hansen, Richard M. 1954. Ground squirrels (Citellus) of Utah. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah. 197 p. Dissertation. [29139]
11. Hedlund, J. D.; Rickard, W. H. 1981. Wildfire and the short-term response of small mammals inhabiting a sagebrush-bunchgrass community. Murrelet. 62: 10-14. [1114]
12. Janes, Stewart W. 1985. Habitat selection in raptorial birds. In: Cody, Martin L., ed. Habitat selection in birds. Orlando, FL: Academic Press Inc.: 159-188. [23121]
13. Johnson, Mark K. 1977. Food of Townsend ground squirrels on the Arid Land Ecology Reserve (Washington). The Great Basin Naturalist. 37: 128. [26157]
14. Jones, J. Knox, Jr.; Hoffmann, Robert S.; Rice, Dale W.; [and others]. 1992. Revised checklist of North American mammals north of Mexico, 1991. Occasional Papers No. 146. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University, The Museum. 6 p. [22160]
15. Kindschy, Robert R. 1986. Rangeland vegetative succession--implications to wildlife. Rangelands. 8(4): 157-159. [22]
16. Knick, Steven T. 1993. Habitat classification & the ability of habitats to support populations of Townsend's ground squirrels and black-tailed jackrabbits. In: Steenhof, Karen, ed. Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area research and monitoring annual report: 1993. [Boise, ID]: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Boise District: 237-263. [25899]
17. Koehler, David K.; Anderson, Stanley H. 1991. Habitat use and food selection of small mammals near a sagebrush/crested wheatgrass interface in southeastern Idaho. The Great Basin Naturalist. 51(3): 249-255. [16868]
18. Kuchler, A. W. 1964. United States [Potential natural vegetation of the conterminous United States]. Special Publication No. 36. New York: American Geographical Society. 1:3,168,000; colored. [3455]
19. Laundre, John W. 1989. Horizontal and vertical diameter of burrows of five small mammal species in southeastern Idaho. The Great Basin Naturalist. 49(4): 646-649. [25652]
20. Medin, Dean E.; Clary, Warren P. 1989. Small mammal populations in a grazed and ungrazed riparian habitat in Nevada. Res. Pap. INT-143. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station. 6 p. [10530]
21. Nydegger, Nicholas C.; Smith, Graham W. 1986. Prey populations in relation to Artemisia vegetation types in southwestern Idaho. In: McArthur, E. Durant; Welch, Bruce L., compilers. Proceedings--symposium on the biology of Artemisia and Chrysothamnus; 1984 July 9-13; Provo, UT. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-200. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station: 152-156. [1787]
22. Ogden, Verland T.; Hornocker, Maurice G. 1977. Nesting density and success of prairie falcons in southwestern Idaho. Journal of Wildlife Management. 41(1): 1-11. [22976]
23. Rickart, Eric Allan. 1982. The ecology of Townsend's ground squirrel, Spermophilus townsendii mollis. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah. 74 p. Dissertation. [26160]
24. Rickart, Eric A. 1982. Annual cycles of activity and body composition in Spermophilus townsendii mollis. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 60: 3298-3306. [26158]
25. Rickart, Eric A. 1987. Spermophilus townsendii. Mammalian Species. 268: 1-6. [25654]
26. Shiflet, Thomas N., ed. 1994. Rangeland cover types of the United States. Denver, CO: Society for Range Management. 152 p. [23362]
27. Smith, Graham W.; Johnson, Donald R. 1985. Demography of a Townsend ground squirrel population in southwestern Idaho. Ecology. 66(1): 171-178. [26159]
28. Yensen, Eric; Quinney, Dana L.; Johnson, Kathrine; [and others]. 1992. Fire, vegetation changes, and population fluctuations of Townsend's ground squirrels. The American Midland Naturalist. 128(2): 299-312. [19682]
29. Bradley, Robert J.; Ammerman, Loren K.; Baker, Robert J.; Bradley, Lisa C.; Cook, Joseph A.; Dowler, Clyde Jones; Schmidly, David J.; Stangl, Frederick B.; Van Den Bussche, Ronald A.; Wursig, Bernd. 2014. Revised checklist of North American mammals north of Mexico, 2014. Occasional Papers No. 229. Lubbock, TX: Museum of Texas Tech University. 27 p. [91953]

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