Fight Is On to Save Critically Endangered Red Squirrel in Arizona

Forest fires and development have nearly decimated the Mt. Graham red squirrel, with only about 100 left in their “bottleneck habitat.”

A Mt. Graham red squirrel matriarch. (Photo by Robin Silver)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Encroaching development and wildfires exacerbated by climate change have conspired to leave a squirrel species unique to a tiny niche of Arizona forest teetering near extinction.

Mt. Graham, a 10,000-foot peak in the Pinaleño Mountains, is home to a University of Arizona observatory, a telescope owned by the Vatican, an abandoned church camp, and 14 privately owned summer cabins — all of which threaten the Mt. Graham red squirrel.

The sub-species, thought to be extinct by the 1950s but rediscovered in the 1970s, was added to the Endangered Species List in 1987. It has been squeezed in recent years by competing squirrels, wildfires, and firefighting efforts — including prescribed burns and the cutting of fire breaks which destroy the squirrels’ “middens” or food caches.

A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey counted just 109 individuals. That’s up from a low point of fewer than 40, but those squirrels face a forest so fractured that only a handful of the animals still live in federally recognized habitat. Most have been forced to lower elevations.

If nothing changes the squirrels will soon be extinct according to Robin Silver, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that has sued the federal government over the squirrels a dozen times in the past 30 years.

“It might be 20 years. It might be 100 years,” Silver said. “We don’t know that they’ve ever faced as severe a habitat bottleneck as they are facing right now. We know that when species go extinct, it’s usually because of loss of habitat, and that’s where we are now.”

In June, the Center for Biological Diversity, Maricopa Audubon Society, and Mount Graham Coalition sued the directors of the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Department of the Interior over protection of the squirrels.

The government is not properly studying the impact of the cabins and vacant church camp, which don’t have proper permits, the lawsuit claims. The conservationists asked the court to block use of the camp and cabins and to force the government to develop a plan including removal of the buildings.

The Fish and Wildlife Service declined comment on the lawsuit, but biologist Marit Alanen said efforts to save the squirrel species are ongoing and include replanting in areas where fires and bark beetle infestation destroyed habitat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has culled about 400 Abert’s squirrels — a non-native competitor of the red squirrels that was introduced in the mountain range in the 1940s when the red squirrels were thought to be extinct, Alanen said.

“It will be impossible to remove all Abert’s squirrels from the Pinaleño Mountains considering how rugged the mountain is and how populous the Abert’s squirrel is, which is why the project focuses on areas currently providing red squirrel habitat to try to reduce resource competition with red squirrels present in those areas,” Alanen said in an email.

Although Mt. Graham is not on recognized tribal land, it is sacred to the San Carlos Apache Nation according to Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former chairman of the tribe whose reservation sits just north and west of Mt. Graham. Dził Nchaa Si’An, as the tribe knows the mountain, is the home of their deity, he said.

In 1997, Nosie was arrested for trespassing on University of Arizona property when he went to Mt. Graham to pray for his daughter’s coming of age. It was a turning point for the San Carlos Apaches, who along with Arizona’s Yavapai Indians were forced onto the reservation in 1872.

“When I was arrested, it really changed everything for us here,” said Nosie, who grew up in the shadow of Mt. Graham. “We were no longer going to believe the Forest Service and other federal agencies, that they were protecting our interests, protecting our religious rights. It was a new beginning for us to know that none of these places were safe under the Forest Service.”

Much like the Apaches themselves, the squirrels were forced onto a reservation — their designated habitat — and will never be allowed to return to their homeland on the developed areas of the mountain.

“If you look at what happened to us, it’s happening to them, so we can relate to them,” he said.

Nosie considers the red squirrel a bastion, blocking further development of the land he considers sacred. The way things stand, the land is protected by the Endangered Species Act, under which the squirrel’s habitat is protected. But if the squirrel is extinct that protection goes away, clearing the path for corporations to come for natural resources like minerals or the trees themselves, Nosie said.

“That’s what scares me,” he said. “Once you remove them, once they die out, then the land is up for grabs.”

Much of the squirrel’s habitat was lost in two fires and the efforts to contain them — the 2004 Nutall Complex and 2017 Frye Fire, Alanen said. 

“After the 2004 Nuttall Complex fire, only about (750 acres) of spruce-fir remained, comprised of relatively small trees mixed with fallen and standing insect-killed timber,” he said. “After the 2017 Frye Fire only (35 acres) of spruce-fir forest remain.”

A big part of the problem came during the Nuttall Complex Fire when, in an effort to protect telescopes, the Forest Service ordered what Silver called an unnecessary “arson event” — a back-burn to halt the fire in the higher elevations. Then in 2017, the lower elevation habitat burned, Silver said.

“So now the squirrels are just holed up in isolated pockets” trapped by large areas with no forest canopy where the squirrels travel, he said.

Silver hopes the incoming Biden administration will offer a new landscape for the squirrels and other endangered species. But he is skeptical, given the early hints the president-elect is tapping former officials and not a new generation of leaders for his administration.

“We have to remain hopeful,” Silver said. “If Biden appoints the same people who were there when Clinton was there or when Bush was there, then we’re going to have a problem.”

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