Among alfalfa farmers in Northern California, Public Enemy No. 1 is a promiscuous, photogenic fur ball that weighs only half a pound and spends most of its life asleep. But with the critter helping the state weather its worst drought in 1,200 years, that perception may soon be a thing of the past.
The diminutive Belding’s ground squirrel, an important link in the food chain for coyotes, bobcats, foxes, weasels, and raptors, has a long and troubled history as a major agricultural pest.
Blame the squirrel’s voracious appetite for alfalfa. Blame its fleas, which can carry plague. Above all, blame the complex network of burrows it digs, which trip up livestock and damage farm machinery.
All told, there are few animals in greater need of an image makeover than the rodent known to biologists as Urocitellus beldingi, and to detractors as pot gut, sage rat, and picket pin.
But now, courtesy of climate change and California’s record-setting drought, Belding’s ground squirrels may be on the brink of a reversal of fortune. The same rodents responsible for millions of dollars’ worth of lost crops and damaged equipment might just turn out to be highly valuable eco... Read more