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Groups Leap in for Northern Flying Squirrel

WASHINGTON (CN) - Environmentalists say that Bush-era agencies blew off the law to take the West Virginia northern flying squirrel of the endangered species list. Five groups say the Interior Department's delisting decision did not consider climate change or other factors.

The Friends of Blackwater, The Wilderness Society and others sued the Department of Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service in Federal Court.

The northern flying squirrel is covered in dense, silky fur and glides between trees by extending its limbs, pulling taut a "parachute" of loose skin between its legs and arms. The nocturnal animal has big eyes, long whiskers and a flat tail, which it uses as a rudder. It has been seen gliding nearly 150 feet, though a typical glide is about 16 feet.

The small rodent is a relic of the Pleistocene epoch, isolated from other species when ice sheets receded in North America about 10,000 years ago. It lived in old-growth spruce forest, which was decimated during the logging boom in the earlier part of the 20th century.

The mammal was listed as endangered in 1985, and a 1990 recovery plan set out criteria for delisting. Plaintiffs say the Bush administration delisted the squirrel though the delisting criteria were not met.

The environmental groups say that global warming may damage or eliminate high-elevation forest habitat, allowing lower-elevation hardwood forest to take over. The southern flying squirrel would spread into this, its favored habitat, and could pass on a deadly parasite to its northern relative.

The delisting decision also failed to consider the effects of logging, development and tree pests in the fragmentation and alteration of squirrel habitat in the Virginia and West Virginia Allegheny Highlands, the groups say.

Despite 2004 agency testimony against delisting, the Bush administration in 2006 declared the squirrel's recovery completed though the criteria had not been met, the complain states. Agencies merely dismissed the recovery criteria without explanation.

The suit cites the scientific community's objections to the delisting. Scientists say the surviving populations of the squirrel could constitute disconnected "sinks" destined for extinction.

Plaintiffs say that the Carolina northern flying squirrel, a species with nearly identical threats, remains listed as endangered.

Represented by Eric Glitzenstein with Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, the groups seek declaratory and injunctive relief setting aside the final delisting rule, which went into effect in August 2008.

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