Last week, I fulfilled a longstanding ambition, and went Kaibab squirrel hunting north of the Grand Canyon.
Kaibab squirrels are a subspecies of the Abert’s, a common, ear-tufted rodent seen through the more arid parts of western North America. The Kaibab developed its distinctive white tail and dark body due to geographic isolation, and are singular enough that the part of the Kaibab plateau is a national natural landmark because of this unique subspecies. Tassel-eared squirrels are almost exclusively seen in ponderosa pine forests, and the Kaibab has developed life habits highly synced with that tree, making it the most pure representative of this class of rodents. It does not hibernate, for instance, nor does it store food in anticipation of the winter, and their diet (to quote Hall) “…consists almost exclusively of items produced by the tree [ponderosa] or of plants symbiotic with it.” Seeds, cones, and the bark of new shoots are the most significant food sources, with the later being the potentially most relevant, for the Arizona squirrel season, which generally runs for the last three months of the year.
I’ve seen plenty of Kaibab squirrels in my life, with the best directly relevant experience being in mid-October of 2014, when after a canyoneering backpack we spent a few days up on the Kaibab Plateau proper, and saw the squirrels seemingly everywhere we went. The correlation between seasonal conditions and tree squirrel numbers is not precise, but there was reason last week to assume that the stout winter of 2018-2019, and the dry summer of 2018, might make for slim pickings. While there is a decent body of ecological literature on the Kaibab squirrel (for a rodent, that is), there is almost nothing out there about hunting them. There are two broad types of ponderosa habitat on the plateau; pure stands in the flatter parts, and stands more mixed with either pines (Doug Fir, more commonly Pinon and Juniper) or Aspens in the transitional and more broken areas. The plan was to hunt a representative of each type, and see what happens.
Combining hunting with anything else is complicated. M and I had met my parents in southern Utah for an early Solstice celebration, and adding a 300 mile day trip from our base near Zion when we had driven 800 two days before was pushing things still further. Fortunately, we had great weather that morning, and the toddler slept all the way from Hurricane to Jacob’s Lake. Drawing on my knowledge from the Kaibab Monstercross days I had a spot a little ways south of Jacob’s Lake in mind: extensive stands of mature ponderosa, some gentle gullies to provide different aspects, and flat areas for the kids to roam while my stepdad and I went and looked for squirrels. It seemed obvious they’d be favoring sunny aspects this late in the year, both for warmth and snow-free ground, and 45 minutes in we spotted one, which ran hell for leather away from us and disappeared up the far side of a stout tree and into a nest 60 feet up. Oops. I felt like an idiot; as the person with the shotgun I had waited for the classic pine squirrel pause and lookback at 40-50 yards, rather than taking the running shot I should have almost immediately. Knowing how few chances we could expect to have, especially given the dearth of sign, had me concerned, and irritated with myself.
Back at the cars the kids were collecting pine cones and enjoying the relative warmth outside, so we two hunters took a short walk around the hill to the south. The sign we’d seen on our first outing had been concentrated exclusively in a small area with a mix of old growth and new (20-60 feet) ponderosa trees. The far side of the hill had this habitat, but no squirrel tracks in the patchy, crusty snow. All morning the wind had been strong enough that hearing anything was improbable, and I scanned continuously between the ground and the canopy, trying to tread that line of possibility between being attentive and trying too hard. Which was when I saw one.
On the opposite hillside, 100+ yards away, and as with the first one running full speed straight away from us. But this one climbed the near side of a big ponderosa to the first stubby branch 30 feet up, where it sat, tail curled up, looking at me with seeming passivity. The question now was whether its tolerance for me moving closer would overlap with the effective range of a improved modified choke and 1 ounce of #8 shot. I kept eyes glued to it as I closed the distance. It didn’t seem purturbed, indeed didn’t give any sign of disturbance, while I closed to 45 yards and almost the same level, across the gully, went through the full calming breath cycle as if I were about to take a 300 yard shot on a deer, and at the bang of my shotgun fell immediately to the ground.
I sprinted down and then up the hill to it, not because I was worried about it running away, or because if it did I might somehow catch it with my bare hands, but just to look at it. The process of hunting obliges one to look at a place in a particular way, here the framing is an objective and potentially foreign as navigation through a tangle of cliffs and canyons. These days I fully embrace this, and the way in which hunting a place can provide new depth of place, if not an entirely novel experience. Shooting this squirrel, whose finding took all of two hours, and which may have weighed a bit over a pound, was almost as exciting as shooting a six point bull at ten yards last month, because of the context built up over years. All on a tag which cost 20 dollars.
I hope to go back for a truly extensive Kaibab squirrel hunt, hopefully soon.