June 17, 2010 -- Arizona is spending $1.25 million to build bridges for endangered squirrels over a mountain road so they don't become roadkill and then monitor their health.
The money is being spent, officials said, because cars kill about five of these squirrels each year.
While most suburbanites may be baffled why anyone would protect a pesky squirrel, these are Mount Graham red squirrels, a breed once thought to be extinct. Only 250 of them are known to live near the top of Mount Graham.
The Federal Highway Administration grant will be used to build rope bridges over the lone road through the squirrels' habitat, according to Arizona Department of Transportation Community Relations Director Timothy Tait. The DOT plans to install 41 of the "canopy tunnel crossings" at a cost of $400,000.
Another $160,000 will be spent on cameras to monitor the bridges, and the rest of the money will fund a project to monitor the rodents.
That works out to about $5,000 per squirrel.
The red squirrels have been the subject of much attention ever since they were rediscovered in the 1970s after many thought they were extinct. They were declared an endangered species in 1987 and are now closely monitored by researchers at the University of Arizona, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Tim Snow, non-game specialist at the Game and Fish Department, monitors the population of the squirrels on a yearly basis. He said the population fluctuates from year to year, but it has averaged 250 squirrels over the last 10 years. In the nineties, the squirrels numbered between 300 and 350.
A variety of factors are responsible for the population decline, Snow said.
"The biggest threat to the squirrel is loss of habitat," he said. A wildfire in 2000 destroyed a quarter of the squirrels' habitat, which Snow said is one of two major sources of habitat loss. Insects on the trees are the other major threat.
"The basis of the project is recognizing that traffic on Mount Graham in southeast Arizona is creating impacts on the environment," Tait said. Each day, an average of 650 cars use the lower, paved portion of the road, and 150 cars travel on the gravel portion of the road.
According to Snow, motorists cause roughly five squirrels' deaths each year. Assuming the bridges work and no squirrels die, over 100 squirrels could be saved throughout the 20 to 25 year lifespan of the bridges.
Sen. John McCain Is Opposed to Squirrel Bridge
Tait defended the expense of the rope bridges.
"It's a pretty specialized item," Tait said. "They are made of military grade nylon. They're fire retardant and will be dyed a green color to fit in with the environment."
The bridges also have an easy release mechanism that allows workers to disconnect them from the trees in the event that a tall truck needs to drive up to the Mount Graham International Observatory at the top of the mountain, or in the case of a forest fire.
They are called "canopy tunnel crossings" because they include a mesh tunnel through which only the Mount Graham red squirrels – and not other larger squirrel species – can fit. The tunnel will protect the squirrels from predators like birds of prey.
The money for the project comes from the Federal Highway Administration and must be used for Federal Transportation Enhancement programs. One part of the enhancement initiative is Category 11, whose goal is to "reduce vehicle-caused wildlife mortality while maintaining habitat connectivity."
Arizona receives resources each year for enhancement projects like this one as part of their Federal Highway grant money, but it is up to the Arizona Department of Transportation to decide how to use the money.
Community response has been overwhelmingly negative, according to David Kincaid, city manager of Safford, the town nearest to the squirrel's habitat.
"The community at large is pretty cynical towards the project," he said. "I think people are thinking, this is just another piece of the government spending that is out of control when it could be spending that money to create real jobs for real people."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has repeatedly criticized what he deems wasteful government spending, was asked about the squirrel bridge meeting in the town of Clifton.
"He expressed opposition to the Mount Graham red squirrel preservation effort, saying it puts unreasonable limits on forest resources that could be used to help the community's economy," McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan told ABCNews.com.
Squirrel Bridge Takes Precedence Over Regular Roads
Graham County Supervisor Mark Herrington thinks that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
"I don't think it's the smartest allocation of resources," he said. "With all the problems were facing today, with the economy the way it is…that's a huge expense and how do you guarantee that the squirrels are going to cross the bridge?"
Herrington said he was not consulted about the project. Instead, the Department of Transportation sent him a letter announcing the start of the project a few weeks ago.
"We could have used this money to improve roads for our citizens," Herrington said. "There are 600 miles of bad roads in Graham County that need to be improved for the people that live here."
The people of Graham County will have to wait for better roads. For now, it's the squirrels' turn.