Context. The arctic ground squirrel (Urocitellus parryii) comprised 17% of the biomass of herbivores in the Yukon boreal forest during the summer months from 1987 to 1996 and was responsible for 23% of the energy flow at the herbivore level. By 2000, ground squirrel populations in this region collapsed to nearly zero and have remained there.
Aims. We summarise the population monitoring (since 1975) and recent experimental work that has been done on this key herbivore in the Kluane area of the southern Yukon to test one mechanistic hypothesis as the possible explanation for this population collapse and subsequent lack of recovery: predation.
Methods. Ground squirrels are the preferred summer prey of bird and mammal predators when snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) populations are declining. We used translocations into formerly occupied habitat and radiotelemetry to determine movements and causes of death from 2009 to 2014. We surveyed 158 sites between 2008 and 2013 to measure the disappearance of colonies in alpine and forest habitats over 25 000 km2.
Key results. Ground squirrels from 2000 to 2013 comprised a small fraction of the herbivore biomass in the boreal forest zone, down from 17% earlier. Most forest populations (∼95%) are currently extinct, whereas just over half (65%) of low-elevation meadow populations are locally extinct. One hypothesis is that ground squirrels in the forest have been driven into a predator pit from which they cannot recover. They remain abundant in alpine tundra (93% occupancy rate) and around airport runways and human habitations (97% occupancy), but there is no apparent dispersal from alpine areas down into the boreal forest.
Conclusion. The predator pit hypothesis is a likely explanation for the initial collapse and sustained decline in population size from 2000 to 2013. Recent attenuation of the hare cycle and milder winter climate have allowed shrubs to expand throughout the forest, thereby reducing visibility and increasing predation risk. This conclusion will be tested in further research using reintroductions to formerly occupied sites.
Implication. If the loss of this herbivore from the boreal forest is not reversed, predator pressure on the other major herbivores of the montane forest zone is likely to change significantly.