Undetermined or Under Researched? The Franklin’s Ground Squirrel

Researched, written, and illustrated by Bria Griffin, Junior Science Communicator

Scurrying to and fro amidst the parkland ecosystems of Alberta is a charismatic creature that until recently, was noticed by many: the Franklin’s ground squirrel (Poliocitellus franklinii). While this charming rodent may not be on everyone’s radar, its recently noted apparent scarcity has become a concern for local naturalists. Officially classified as “undetermined” in Alberta due to a lack of population data, there is a growing urgency to understand and protect this species before its too late. Community scientists and researchers are working together to try to understand why the numbers of these ground squirrels appear to be dwindling, while at the same time considering precautionary actions to preserve the squirrel and its habitat.

The Franklin’s ground squirrel is one of 14 squirrel species in Alberta. Identifiable by its long bushy tail, grey head, and preference for shrub land habitats (Schneider & Schneider, 2023), they exhibit many distinct differences from the more commonly spotted Richardson’s ground squirrel. Because Franklin’s ground squirrels favour bushier, more vegetated environments compared to the various types of prairie-roaming ground squirrels, the Edmonton River Valley and many of Alberta’s parks should serve as perfect places for it to thrive. This used to be the case, with sightings of the squirrel being common. However, naturalists in Edmonton began to notice a decline over the past decade, with not a single squirrel being spotted recently within the city boundaries, even in protected parks.

This is where ecologist and assistant teacher Dr. Jessica A. Haines comes into this story. Noticing the recent absence of squirrels and the lack of data on their population, Dr. Haines is attempting to collect enough information to change the squirrel’s conservation designation to “sensitive”, which would give it and its habitats special management consideration. Connecting with the community of naturalists across Alberta, Dr. Haines has partnered with Nature Alberta (an association of Alberta nature clubs) to initiate a community science project, intended to help fill the gaps on squirrel whereabouts. Dr. Haines’s project team is gathering data through citizen observations, collecting genetic samples, and revisiting old sites to hopefully provide more insight into the species’ population (Verma 2023).

Utilising community science data offers an opportunity to have diverse and widely spread data collection, and provides scientists with many more “eyes on the ground” than the limited resources their research budget might otherwise afford. Although there are limitations to the ways that community science data can be used, the submissions to the Nature Alberta project revealed valuable insights about the suspected trends in Franklin’s ground squirrel locations. Spatial data from 136 submissions suggests that historically the Edmonton region was a hub for the squirrel’s population (Schneider & Schneider, 2023). Even though historical data cannot offer a conclusion on population numbers due to varying efforts over the years, it was shown that there has been a stark change in squirrel sightings in Edmonton over the past 10 years. Previously abundant sightings have decreased sharply, from plentiful, to none, in the past decade. The number of sightings of other squirrels, and of observations immediately surrounding the city of Edmonton, has led to the conclusion that people are still searching for, or noting the occurrence of squirrels—they just aren’t finding any Franklin’s ground squirrels in Edmonton anymore.

The data collected through the project provides substantial evidence that the squirrel population may be decreasing. However, the data does not inform on why the squirrels may be disappearing. If the Franklin’s ground squirrel were to receive a “sensitive” status, it would likely trigger management requirements that would facilitate systematic surveys to provide population data to inform the necessary protections that would preserve the species. Understanding why the number of Franklin’s ground squirrels is declining would allow for proper measures to be put in place to protect the remaining squirrels. Having more data about Franklin’s ground squirrel numbers and distribution increases the chances of them receiving a “sensitive” status designation, and the Nature Alberta project’s goal is to collect enough data to achieve this.

Continuing to advocate for the Franklin’s ground squirrels from both scientists and the public is one way that we might halt the long-term population decline. The Nature Alberta project serves as a prime example of how community science and public involvement can alert researchers to a potential issue, as well as contribute to finding a solution. The significance of community science cannot be underestimated, and participating in projects like this one is a way for naturalists and nature lovers alike to engage with environmental advocacy and research. So, as spring draws you out of your house and into the Alberta outdoors, keep an eye out for the Franklin’s ground squirrel. If you see one, take a picture and submit it to iNaturalist. You can learn more about Nature Alberta’s Franklin’s Ground Squirrel Project at Nature Alberta.


Schneider, R., & Schneider, R. 2023. Citizen scientists come to the aid of the tenacious Franklin’s ground squirrel – Nature Alberta. Nature Alberta – A community connected by a love of nature. Nature Alberta Magazine 52: 28-31. Available:,more%20common%20Richardson%27s%20ground%20squirrel

Verma, I. 2023. Researchers scramble for data on Franklin’s ground squirrels to protect species. CBC online article posted July 9. Available:

Franklin’s Ground Squirrels in Alberta. Dr. Jessica a. Haines. 2023. Online article posted July 12. Available:

Wild Species Status Search. (n.d.). Available: