Arctic Ground Squirrel

“Sik rik.” The noise is something anyone will encounter who treks through rocky terrain of Northern Alaska.  It is the call of the Arctic Ground Squirrel, or the sikrik as named by the Inupiat after its call.  The ground squirrel is a small mammal, often no more than two pounds in mass.  Despite their small size, they have been sought after as a food source by people and other large animals, like the grizzly bear.  While small, the ground squirrels build up a large layer of fat during the summer months for the winter season.  The ground squirrel is a seasonal animal, going into hibernation in the Fall (September-October) and emerging as the snow melts in the spring (April).  Known as one of the true hibernators of the north, the ground squirrel goes into a comatose like state, letting its body temperature drop below freezing and its heart rate to as low as 8 beats per minute.

Traditionally, the Arctic Ground Squirrel served as a staple to the Nunamuit people.  The animals hold many traits that make them a viable food source, most notably being the fact that they are stationary, found in predictable terrain and maintain a stable population. Whereas the caribou, the main staple of the Nunamuit people fluctuates dramatically in size and is on the move for much of the year.  During the days of limited ammunition and before the onset of steel traps, people caught ground squirrels by setting snare poles outside their holes.  Upon exiting, the ground squirrel would become ensared, tripping the willow pole that lifted the small mammals into the air to their death.  Through the use of these sinew snares and willow poles, Nunamuit people were able to catch hundreds, making the ground squirrel a consistent food in their diet.

I often fantasize about living in a Nunamuit band before they settled down in 1950.  Visions dance through my mind of constantly roaming the country on foot and by dog team throughout the year in search of game.  It is a romantic view that disregards the hunger and starvation that often accompanied the people. But nonetheless, I figured that ground squirrels were something that I would have to try myself.  This past summer, they were abundant in the Wiseman area, living along the road and the dike near the highway *.  I borrowed two number 1 traps from my neighbor, Jack and set out on my bike in search of my quarry.

With the traps set among the rocks, I paced back and forth along the road.  If the traps were placed correctly, directly outside one of the squirrel’s holes, it could be minutes before I had my first catch.  I don’t doubt that I seemed odd to those who passed me by, seeing a bearded man walk back and forth with a thick, small weathered stick.  The waiting produced nothing but some good exercise and the traps remained empty for the rest of the day.  Eventually, I was able to find success, catching two ground squirrels in roughly a week’s time.  The traps were nowhere near as productive as I had hoped. There were instances where I encountered sprung traps, but no ground squirrels. Unfortunately, there were also two incidents where I caught and killed two other animals, a snowshoe hare and a least weasel.  After the killing of the least weasel, I had enough and pulled the traps.

The ground squirrels did prove to be as tasty as advertised.  There isn’t much meat on each animal, but a layer of fat covers the meat, making it a rich treat.  In each instance, I was able to share with friends, spreading the animals further. I do intend to catch more ground squirrels in the future, but will be looking towards other means of capture.  Killing the other animals needlessly is something that pains me greatly and something that I wish to avoid in the future.  I will likely experiment with snares going forward, like the Nunamuit of the past, or resort to using my .22.

*My hypothesis is that the large population is mainly due to the abundance of snowshoe hares.

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