Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Get ready...the ground squirrels are out and ready to multiply!

               Recently I’ve started seeing the Richardson ground squirrels start popping out of their burrows, a reminder that it’s time to begin their control.  The Richardson ground squirrel, which is commonly referred to as a ‘gopher,’ is a medium sized ground squirrel with yellow-tan to gray coloring and typically weighs 11 to 18 ounces.  The Richardson ground squirrel predominately lives east of the Continental Divide of Montana and causes extensive damage in croplands, pastures, and hay fields.  Research has shown hay yields in alfalfa fields infested with ground squirrels have shown a 24% reduction.  Today, we’ll cover a bit on the biology on the ground squirrel, and then cover management next week.  By understanding the ground squirrel’s biology, we can better manage these pests.
Richardson ground squirrels can have up to 14 young
per litter!  By controlling the adults now, there will be
far less to control in May and June when the young
emerge as well.  Photo by Kari Lewis.
                Ground squirrels emerge from hibernation between February and April, depending on local weather conditions and elevation.  The first ground squirrels to emerge from hibernation are the males.  The males establish their breeding territories in preparation for the females that emerge from hibernation 10 days to two weeks after the males emerge.  Once the females emerge from hibernation, again, right about now, there is a short breeding season and then after a three to four-week gestation period, the females give birth to a single litter in April or May.  Ground squirrels reproduce quite prolifically.  Typically, litters average six to seven ground squirrels per litter, but could have as many as 14 per litter.
                When the ground squirrel young are approximately five weeks of age, they emerge from the burrow and begin feeding on grass, crops, etc.  So, if we assume that the adult males emerged from hibernation March 15, that would put the females emerging approximately March 25.  After a short breeding season and an approximate four-week gestation period, they would likely have their litter in early May and by the end of May, their 2 to 14 ground squirrel young have joined them in feeding on crops, rangeland, etc. 
                This biology lesson of the ground squirrel helps illustrate why it is so critical to provide early management control.  By controlling now, in March and April, there are only the adult males and females to control.  By waiting until May or June to provide control (when the ground squirrel damage is clearly visible), there will be a much, much larger population of ground squirrels to control.  
For managing ground squirrels in large areas, such as on rangeland or cropland, toxicants are commonly used.  Toxicants are poisonous items that are designed to kill the animals that eat them.  Zinc phosphide and diphacinone are two toxicants registered for the control of Richardson’s ground squirrels. 
Zinc phosphide bait is most effective when applied early in the spring, shortly after ground squirrels emerge from hibernation, and before spring green-up.  Zinc phosphide should not be applied if moisture is forecasted within two days of application.  Zinc phosphide may be applied by hand baiting or broadcast baiting.  Broadcast baiting may be used in rangelands, pastures, non-crop areas, orchards and crop areas including barley, wheat and alfalfa. 
Ramik Green is an example of an anticoagulant which is a general use pesticide.  Ramik green must be placed in rat-sized tamper-resistant bait stations.  Stations must be maintained regularly to ensure a constant supply of bait for at least 30 days. 
In large acreages, the use of toxic grain bait may be the most cost-effective control method.  Bait should be applied when the entire squirrel population is active and readily accepting grain.  The breeding period, which is going on now, is the ideal time to control ground squirrels.  By controlling now, we can eliminate both adults and potential young as well, to help minimize crop damage.  If we wait to control ground squirrels, vegetation begins to green-up and the ground squirrels’ acceptance of grain bait is reduced.

If using a restricted use product, applicators must have a private pesticide applicator’s license prior to purchasing a restricted use product.  Licenses can be obtained through taking the test at your local extension office or attending an upcoming class, such as the one April 25 in Great Falls.  If you have any questions on receiving your private pesticide applicators license, please call your local extension office.

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