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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Columbian Ground Squirrel - Urocitellus columbianus

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S5

Agency Status


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Copyright Jeff Rice and the Acoustic Atlas at Montana State University. Audio file courtesy of the Acoustic Atlas at Montana State University (
General Description
The Columbian Ground Squirrel is easily distinguished from other Montana ground squirrels by its larger size and distinctive coloration. An average adult weighs more than a pound. Its head and body measure 10 to 12 inches in length. The tail is 3 to 5 inches long and tends to be bushy, particularly when the squirrrel is excited. Reddish-brown fur is found on the nose, forelegs, and hindquarters. The back and upper limbs are mottled gray and brown (Montana Department of Agriculture 1985).

Species Range
Montana Range

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Western Hemisphere Range


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 585

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Relative Density



(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)


Intermontane valleys, open woodland, subalpine meadows, even alpine tundra (Hoffmann and Pattie 1968). Subalpine basins, clearcuts, and other disturbed areas (Ramirez and Hornocker 1981). At high elevations, may use rockslides/forage in meadows. Prefers grasslands and sedges.
Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
In early summer: grasses, leafy vegetation, and bulbs. May increase use of fruits and seeds as season progresses. Uses a small amount of animal matter: insects, fish, carrion.

Have an allopatric distribution with S. richardsonii from Canada border south to Madison and Beaverhead Counties, but overlap with S. richardsonii, S. columbianus, and S. armatus in portions of Beaverhead and Madison Counties (Hoffmann and Pattie 1969).

Reproductive Characteristics
Breeding dates vary depending on location/elevation. April at lower elevations. As late as June at higher elevations. One litter per year. Young reach full growth during second season.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Hoffmann, R.S. and D.L. Pattie. 1968. A guide to Montana mammals: identification, habitat, distribution, and abundance. University of Montana, Missoula. 133 pp.
    • Montana Dept. of Agriculture, Helena, MT. 1985. The Columbian ground squirrel : Its biology and control.
    • Ramirez, P., Jr. and M. Hornocker. 1981. Small mammal populations in different-aged clearcuts in northwestern Montana. J. Mamm. 62(2):400-403.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Barash, D. P. 1971. Cooperative hunting in the lynx. J. Mammal. 52:480.
    • Barash, D. P. 1973. Habitat utilization in three species of subalpine mammals. J. Mammal. 54(1):247-250.
    • Baril, Steven F., and Daniel Sullivan, 1983, Brodifacoum in bait stations for managing Columbian ground squirrels. Tech. Rep. 83-2. December 1983.
    • Dice, L.R. 1923. Mammal associations and habitats of the Flathead Lake Region, Montana. Ecology 4(3):247-260.
    • Douglass, Richard J., DMI Ecological Research, Butte, MT., 1995, Small animals potentially living in the proposed Cottonwood Mining Area. August 1995. In Gem River Corporation Application for Operating Permit and Plan of Operations. Marc I Mine, Dry Cottonwood Creek, Deer Lodge County, Montana. Vol. 2, Apps. App. L. No date.
    • Elliot, C. L. and J. T. Flinders. 1991. SPERMOPHILUS COLUMBIANUS. Mamm. Species 372:1-9.
    • Farmer, Patrick J., and Thomas W. Butts, Western Technology & Eng., Inc., Helena, MT., 1994, McDonald Project Terrestrial Wildlife Study, November 1989 - November 1993. April 1994. In McDonald Gold Project: Wildlife & Fisheries. [#18]. Seven-up Pete Joint Venture, Lincoln, MT. Unpub. No date.
    • Farmer, Patrick. J., et al., Western Technology and Eng., Inc., Helena, MT., 1984, Montana Tunnels Project Baseline Terrestrial Wildlife Study. December 14, 1984. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit, Montana Tunnels Project, Jefferson County, Montana. Vol. 3. Environmental Baseline Reports. (Centennial Minerals, Inc., Hydrometrics, 1984?)
    • Foresman, K.R. 2001. The wild mammals of Montana. American Society of Mammologists, Special Publication Number 12. Lawrence, KS. 278 pp.
    • Manville, R. H. 1959. The columbian ground squirrel in northwest Montana. J. Mammal. 40:26-45.
    • Martin, Steve A., ECON, Inc., Helena, MT., 1982, Flathead Project Wildlife Report, 1981-1982. November 30, 1982.
    • Mont. Dept. of Agriculture., 1988, Managing ground squirrels with bait stations. Inform. Bul. No. 5.
    • Montana Dept. of Agriculture, Environmental Management Division, Helena, MT. 1885? The Biology and control of the Richardson ground squirrel.
    • Montana Dept. of Livestock., 1977, Special local need registration application for sodium monofluoroacetate (1080) grain bait to control Columbian ground squirrel damage in western Montana. May 18, 1977.
    • Montana Tunnels Mine, Inc., Jefferson City, Helena, MT., 1988?, Application for an Amendment to the Montana Tunnels Operating Permit for the Prickly Pear Water Supply System, Jefferson County, Montana.
    • OEA Research, Helena, MT., 1982, Beal Mine Wildlife Report. June 17, 1982.
    • Reichel, J. D. 1986. Habitat use by alpine mammals in the Pacific Northwest. Arc. Alp. Res. 18(1): 111-119.
    • Reid, F. 2006. Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America, 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston and New York, 608 pp.
    • Rust, H. J. 1946. Mammals of northern Idaho. J. Mammal. 27(4): 308-327.
    • Sullivan, Daniel, 1982, Bait stations as a means of rodenticide presentation to control Columbian ground squirrrels. Technical Rep. 82-3. Sept. 1982.
    • Sullivan, Daniel, 1982, Determination of an effective single lethal dose for bromadiolone to Columbian ground squirrels. Tech. Rep. 82-4. Dec. 1982.
    • Sullivan, Daniel, and Monty Sullins., 1985, Acceptance of various rodenticide baits under field conditions by Columbian and Richardson Ground squirrels. Tech. Rep. 85-05. Sept. 1985.
    • Sullivan, Daniel, and Monty Sullins., 1986, Field evaluation of chlorophacinone treated bait for management of Columbian ground squirrels. Tech. Rep. 86-2. September 1986.
    • Sullivan, Daniel, and Steven F. Baril, 1981, A Field efficacy study of strychnine and zinc phosphide grain baits using nontoxic prebait for the control of the Columbian ground squirrel (Spermophilus columbianus). Tech. Rep. 81-2. August 1981.
    • Sullivan, Daniel., 1983, Field evaluation of bromadiolone treated bait for control of the Columbian ground squirrel. Tech. Rep. 83-1. August 1983.
    • Thompson, Richard W., Western Resource Dev. Corp., Boulder, CO., 1996, Wildlife baseline report for the Montana [Montanore] Project, Lincoln and Sanders counties, Montana. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit and Proposed Plan of Operation, Montanore Project, Lincoln and Sanders Counties, Montana. Vol. 5. Stroiazzo, John. Noranda Minerals Corp., Libby, MT. Revised September 1996.
    • Turner, L. W. 1972. Habitat differences between Spermophilus beldingi and S.columbianus in Oregon. J. Mammal. 53(4):914-917.
    • Western Technology and Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH), Helena, MT., 1994, Terrestrial Wildlife Reconnaissance: Interim Report. Golden Sunlight Mines, Inc., Oxide Expansion. February 1994.
    • Zackheim, Karen, 1973?, Exhibit H: Wildlife Study. In Ash Grove Cement Co. files.
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Citation for data on this website:
Columbian Ground Squirrel — Urocitellus columbianus.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on May 26, 2016, from