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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet


Why the future of West Virginia's rare flying squirrel looks bright

Darci Palmquist

A tagged West Virginia northern flying squirrel. The species was listed as endangered in 1985, but recovery efforts have been so successful that it was delisted in 2013. (Photo: Corinne Diggins/Virginia Tech)

Is the West Virginia northern flying squirrel poised to be America’s latest great species recovery story? A new report assessing the status of the squirrel in its first five years since coming off of the endangered species list indicates it is doing well and its habitat is expanding.

The squirrel — called the Virginia northern flying squirrel or more commonly the West Virginia northern flying squirrel — was listed as an endangered species in 1985. But restoration efforts helped the species rebound, and in 2013 the West Virginia northern flying squirrel joined an exclusive group of species to successfully be recovered and taken off the endangered list.

Since then, restoration work has continued and ramped up year after year. Partners working behind the scenes have many reasons to be optimistic about the future of this unique subspecies.

A rare photo capture of a West Virginia northern flying squirrel in flight. The species is nocturnal and likes to nest up high in trees. They are notoriously difficult to spot. Credit Jack Wallace/WVDNR

To Save a Species, Save Its Habitat

Survival of the squirrel depends on survival of its habitat — red spruce-northern hardwood forest, which consists of red spruce, fir, beech, yellow birch, sugar or red maple, hemlock and black cherry. It used to be that the iconic, high-elevation red spruce forest blanketed hundreds of thousands of acres of the Central Appalachians. But much of that was destroyed in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to logging and wildfire.

High elevation red spruce forest on Red Spruce Knob in Monongahela National Forest. Credit: Kelly Bridges/USDA Forest Service

“This habitat is really special,” said Barb Douglas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service senior endangered species biologist. “There’s some old-growth left, but a lot of it was cut over at the turn of the 20th century.”

“If you go into a really old-growth spruce forest, it’s mossy and green and smells good,” added Laura Hill, a retired fish and wildlife biologist for the Service. “It’s surreal. It’s quiet, the ground is spongy and soft. It’s calming and soothing.”

In the decades preceding and following the listing of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, protection and restoration efforts were able to bring the red spruce-northern hardwood forest habitat back to more than 173,000 acres in West Virginia.

And the work didn’t stop when the squirrel was taken off the endangered species list in 2013. In the following five years, more than 7,455 acres of West Virginia northern flying squirrel habitat has been created, protected or restored. Additionally, even without formal protection, federal biologists coordinated with project proponents to keep habitat loss at a negligible level of 285 acres — amounting to 26 times more habitat saved than lost.

As a result, the five-year report finds that the squirrel remains well distributed across all seven core areas and continues to be found at new, expanded and historical sites, with long-term potential for a slowly growing population, as hoped for.

“Since the time of delisting, we are still finding squirrels in the places we were finding them, and we’ve also found them in new locations, which reflects the improving conditions of the habitat,” Douglas said.

A Partnership Tale

Tagging and monitoring of the species is crucial to its long-term success. Credit: Barb Sargent/WVNDR

This success is due entirely to a partnership — called the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative or CASRI — of groups committed to restoration and protection efforts in the Central Appalachians. The CASRI partnership has grown from seven to 22 groups since it was created in 2007, with members ranging from Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge to the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“The squirrel was really what crystallized restoration efforts in this region,” said Douglas.

Shane Jones, a wildlife biologist for the USDA Forest Service, noted that the squirrel’s status catalyzed a landscape-scale effort.

“The Endangered Species Act drew attention to the red spruce habitat used by the squirrel,” Jones said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy saw that energy, and instead of delisting and moving on, they used that energy to sign an MOU [memorandum of understanding] that later evolved to the group known as CASRI.”

Partners are motivated to restore red spruce for many reasons, whether it’s for the conservation of the flying squirrel or Cheat Mountain salamander, or because the soil in red spruce forests can trap more carbon from the atmosphere than hardwood, or because it stores significant amounts of water that ease flooding and drought. Or perhaps simply because red spruce and the wildlife that call it home are part of what makes West Virginia wild and wonderful.

Virginia northern flying squirrels don’t really fly but glide, using loose folds of skin that stretch from wrist to ankle and form a type of parachute. Video: PBS

The partnership focuses on planting spruce trees, helping red spruce reach advanced age more quickly, and increasing forest patch sizes and connectivity. The Nature Conservancy is one leader in reforestation, and has engaged in land purchases of key habitat from willing sellers in the region.

“I’m very proud of the work this partnership has done,” said Ben Rhodes, ecological restoration coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. “Every single organization in CASRI has played an integral role.”

Ben Rhodes from The Nature Conservancy plants red spruce seedlings on the Mower Tract, a former mine site, in Monongahela National Forest. Credit: Kelly Bridges/USDA Forest Service

This time of year, Rhodes and his team are busy preparing for the spring planting season. They’re getting seedlings lined up and are on target to plant 70,000 red spruce and 65,000 northern hardwoods. It’s more than last year, he noted, and every year it’s been more.

“Ten years ago we were planting about 30,000 trees and now we’re planting 135,000,” he said. “It’s because we have this strong, partnership-based collaborative effort.”

According to Rhodes, it used to be hard to get these seedlings. Norway spruce is similar and widely available, but it’s non-native and not an ideal substitute for red spruce. Through CASRI, partners have been able to collect red spruce seeds locally that are then grown in a greenhouse and brought back to be planted as seedlings.

The West Virginia northern flying squirrel has a more sophisticated palate than your average squirrel, preferring truffles (shown) and lichen to nuts and seeds. Truffles are exclusively associated with spruce and hemlock trees. Credit: Corinne Diggins, Virginia Tech

“This is all due to the partnership,” he said. “And now we have enough that we can work on increasing the genetic diversity of our seeds, to maximize their resilience to climate change.”

Climate change is a wildcard for the squirrel and its habitat. Red spruce are highly vulnerable to drought, which is predicted to grow across the region as temperatures warm. But Rhodes noted that all the positive work — from the CASRI restoration partnership and large quantity of seedlings being planted to the fact that air pollution has greatly decreased in the region due to the Clean Air Act — might hopefully balance out the negative impacts of climate change.

“We’re not sure how all these positives and negatives will play out,” he acknowledged, “but we’re hopeful.”

“Delisting Is Not the End of the Story”


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