By Ann McCreary

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is seeking updated information on western gray squirrels as the agency considers whether to change the species’ status from threatened to endangered in Washington.

The Methow Valley is among only a few isolated areas in the state where the squirrels are still found, and they have been the subject of research here for several years.

WDFW is looking for information on topics such as the condition of western gray squirrel habitat, population levels in different regions, or private conservation efforts that have benefited the species.

“The scientific data we gather from individuals as well as private and public groups will help the department determine whether to reclassify the western gray squirrel,” said Penny Becker, WDFW listing and recovery section manager.

Gray squirrels have been studied in the Methow Valley since 2009 by Pacific Biodiversity Institute (PBI). PBI has sponsored research in the Methow Valley on the use of large, old ponderosa pines by western gray squirrels.

The squirrels live in old ponderosa pines, which were plentiful on the Methow Valley landscape a century ago. Because the expansive, park-like ponderosa pine forests have largely disappeared in the Methow Valley, the squirrels have lost most of their habitat here.

PBI has trained dozens of “citizen scientists” over the years to help locate and observe the squirrels in remaining ponderosa pine stands.

WDFW will accept public input on western gray squirrels through March 28, 2015.

Once hunted in Washington, western gray squirrels have been protected in the state since 1944 and were added to the state’s list of threatened species in 1993.

Western gray squirrels historically were more widespread in Washington but today inhabit three isolated regions: the North Cascades (Chelan and Okanogan counties); the Puget Trough in Pierce County; and the southeastern foothills of the Cascade range (primarily Klickitat County).

The amount of suitable habitat for the species has declined due to the effects of urbanization, logging and land conversion, Becker said.

WDFW initiated the status review after accepting a citizen petition to consider giving western gray squirrels a greater level of protection by elevating the species’ status to endangered. The petition presented sufficient information to warrant a more detailed status review, Becker said.

“We were planning to evaluate the status of western gray squirrels as part of the initiative we announced earlier this year to review all species currently listed in Washington as endangered, threatened or sensitive,” Becker said. “The petition just bumped up how soon we’ll look at western gray squirrels.”

Written information may be submitted through WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/endangered/status_review/comments.html, via email to TandEpubliccom@dfw.wa.gov or by mail to Penny Becker, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 600 Capitol Way N., Olympia, WA 98501-1091.

WDFW would seek additional public comment should the agency propose a change to the western gray squirrel’s listing status in Washington.

For more on western gray squirrels and other species under review, visit WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/endangered/status_review/index.html.