Rock squirrels have long been common residents of canyons throughout central and western Colorado and of the varied rock formations that rise along the base of the Front Range foothills. Our largest ground squirrel is easily recognized by his attractive salt-and-pepper coat and his large bushy tail. Most often seen lounging on rocks early or late in the day, these omnivores consume a wide variety of plant materials (nuts, fruits, vegetation) in addition to insects, carrion, bird eggs and even small mammals on occasion. Two litters are produced each year (mid spring and late summer) and, though they retire to their dens for most of the winter, they store food and are not true hibernators, becoming active during periods of mild weather.
Over the past few decades, rock squirrels have ventured onto the Colorado Piedmont and High Plains, following river channels from their original homeland in the foothills and lower mountains. Their expansion has been well documented along the Cache la Poudre River, in northern Colorado, and along the Arkansas River, from Pueblo all the way to the Kansas border. In all of my years hiking along the South Platte, I had not encountered rock squirrels until this week, when I saw a pair at the major rapids area in South Platte Park (just east of the golf course).
Though I am not familiar with scientific studies regarding their dispersal, I suspect that rock squirrels are spreading eastward due to both opportunism and human encroachment on their native habitat. Suburbs have increasingly pushed into the areas just west of the Dakota Hogback as well as along the primary canyons that incise the foothills. In addition, we humans have lined our river channels with rocky embankments, protecting our homes while producing new living quarters for the rock squirrels. Of course, over time, their presence becomes a nuisance as their digging and foraging creates havoc for human engineers and gardeners; once viewed as fascinating residents of our foothill parks, they are now despised as invasive varmints to be trapped or killed.