By Ann McCreary

Two species native to the Methow Valley — western gray squirrels and northern spotted owls — will retain threatened and endangered status, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission (WDFW) has decided.

The commission voted recently to keep western gray squirrels on the state’s threatened species list, and northern spotted owls on the state’s endangered species list.

Western gray squirrels have seen their ranges shrink over time and continue to face threats, including loss of habitat, according to an announcement from WDFW.

The Methow Valley is one of three locations in the state known to provide habitat for western gray squirrels, but wildfires of the past two years have damaged or destroyed some of the best squirrel habitat in the valley, said Jeff Heinlein, assistant district biologist with WDFW.

The core population of western gray squirrels in the Methow Valley is concentrated in the lower valley — including Black Canyon and the Squaw, McFarland and French Creek areas. All of those areas were impacted by wildfires in 2014 and 2015, with varying degrees of intensity.

“Black Canyon was a stronghold [for squirrels] and it was burned in the Carlton complex and in the Chelan Complex,” Heinlein said.

“McFarland and Squaw Creek were solid occupied habitat and were impacted,” Heinlein said.

The squirrels like to live in large ponderosa pines with interlocking limbs and relatively open ground beneath, Heinlein said. Drainages in the lower Methow Valley provided good squirrel habitat, and loss of habitat during the past two summers of wildfire likely influenced the decision to maintain western gray squirrels on the state endangered species list, he said.

“Fires are the driver for western gray squirrels’ survivability. The fires were a negative impact,” Heinlein said.

A three-year survey of western gray squirrels throughout the state is being conducted by WDFW in collaboration with Pacific Biodiversity Institute, a Methow Valley-based conservation organization. This year is the second year of the study, which aims at providing a better understanding of the distribution and population of western gray squirrels.

In addition to Okanogan County, western gray squirrels are found in Pierce County and Klickitat County, Heinlein said.

Northern spotted owls, listed as endangered in 1988 by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, have continued to decline in numbers. The owls are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

John Rohrer, a biologist with the Methow Ranger District, has been studying northern spotted owls in the Methow Valley since 1991, when “there were probably eight or 10 nesting areas.”

Biologists are not able to monitor the nesting areas every year, but “in half of those [areas] we know they are no longer there,” Rohrer said.

Barred owls a threat

The owls are protected under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which establishes the Methow and Chewuch rivers as the eastern edge of their distribution area on federal forest land in the Methow Valley, Rohrer said.

The owls live in mature and old growth coniferous forests with multiple level canopies, he said.

Loss of this habitat due to timber harvest was the primary reason for listing spotted owls as endangered.

Most of the forests believed to be spotted owl habitat in the Methow Valley have not been affected by recent wildfires like the Carlton or Tripod fires, with the exception of the 2003 Needles Fire near Mazama “that probably burned up some suitable spotted owl habitat,” Rohrer said.

“We haven’t had a big fire west of the Methow River yet,” Rohrer said. However, in the Chelan Ranger District “we have lost huge amounts of spotted owl habitat,” he said.

While loss of habitat is a concern for the survival of spotted owls, “one of the most significant factors that is continuing to depress their numbers is the presence of barred owls,” Rohrer said.

“Barred owls are more aggressive and will just take over a territory that a spotted owl had. They’ll just move in and spotted owls will move out,” Rohrer said.

“We see them [barred owls] all over now. I don’t remember barred owls in 1991.”

Barred owls expanded their range across North America and arrived in the Pacific Northwest about 45 years ago, according to WDFW.

A variety of management actions are underway to enhance spotted owl conservation in Washington and elsewhere. In particular, a landscape-scale experiment to remove barred owls from spotted owl territories at four study areas was implemented in autumn of 2015. One of the study areas is in the eastern Cascade Mountains, according to WDFW.

The continued decline of spotted owls makes it a critically imperiled species, WDFW said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently is evaluating whether to change the species’ status from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

In addition to spotted owls and gray squirrels, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to keep greater sage grouse on the state’s threatened species list and snowy plovers on the state’s endangered species list.