Multiple threats to species identified
State wildlife officials are proposing to re-classify the western gray squirrel, currently listed as a threatened species in Washington, as an endangered species that is at risk of extinction.
The North Cascades mountains near the Methow Valley are among only three areas in Washington where the western gray squirrel can still be found, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
WDFW is recommending changing the conservation status of the western gray squirrel primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation, according to a news release from the agency.
The recommendation to list the squirrel as endangered was made in a periodic status review for the western gray squirrel. The public is invited to submit comments on a draft of the periodic status review until May 10.
The new status review identified multiple threats to the species, said Taylor Cotten, WDFW conservation assessment section manager. “The department’s conservation concern for the western gray squirrel has increased since the last periodic status review, suggesting that uplisting may be appropriate,” she said.
The western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus) is the largest tree squirrel native to the Pacific Northwest and is distinguishable by its very long, bushy tail that is primarily gray with white-frosted edges.
The remaining populations of the western gray squirrel in Washington are isolated and face numerous threats including habitat loss and degradation, wildfires, highway mortality, and disease, according to WDFW. As a protected species in Washington, western gray squirrels cannot be hunted, trapped, or killed.
The western gray squirrel’s habitat in Washington today is limited to three areas: low to mid-elevation conifer forests in on the eastern slope of the North Cascades in Okanogan and Chelan counties; oak woodlands and conifer forests of Klickitat and southern Yakima counties; and oak woodlands and conifer forests on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce and Thurston counties.
The species was in decline by the late 1800s and was considered rare by 1970, according to WDFW. In 2007, the statewide population was estimated to be between 468 and 1,405 squirrels.
The squirrel population has likely declined in the North Cascades due to destruction of habitat by wildfires in 2014, 2015 and 2021, an executive summary of the status review said.
The squirrel’s habitat was estimated to have declined between 1993 and 2017 by 20.8% in the North Cascades, primarily due to wildfire. In the South Cascades the squirrel’s habitat is estimated to have declined by 21.2%, primarily due to timber harvest, the executive summary said.
Climate change is a current and potential threat to habitat through increased frequency and severity of wildfires, the summary said.
When a species is listed as threatened or endangered, WDFW prepares recovery plans to guide conservation and recovery efforts.
The draft periodic status review for the western gray squirrel is available on WDFW’s website at wdfw.wa.gov/publications.
The public can submit written comments on the document until May 10 via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by postal mail to Taylor Cotten, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, P.O. Box 43141, Olympia, WA 98504-3200.
“Following the public comment period, we will initiate rulemaking and brief the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission on the species’ status and public input received,” said Cotten. “The commission will then use this information to vote on recommended changes to the classification of the western gray squirrel.”
The commission is tentatively scheduled to consider this topic in summer 2023.