Public invited to submit comments by Oct. 2
The western gray squirrel has seen its habitat in Washington disappear, leaving the species in danger of extinction.
The North Cascades mountains near the Methow Valley are among only three areas in the state where the western gray squirrel can still be found, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
To increase protection for the rare squirrels, WDFW is taking steps to change the species’ status from “threatened” to “endangered” under state law.
The public is invited to submit comments on a proposed rule that would uplist the western gray squirrel to endangered, meaning the species is seriously threatened with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Comments may be submitted through Oct. 2.
The change in listing status must be approved by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is tentatively scheduled to vote on the issue at its monthly meeting in October.
The western gray squirrel 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 greatest threat to western gray squirrels is the loss of suitable habitat due to timber extraction, wildfire and land conversion. Climate change is a current and future threat to habitat, as stand-replacing wildfires change forest composition and affect food supply for the squirrels, according to WDFW.
The squirrel’s habitat has become degraded and fragmented, leaving only three isolated populations of western gray squirrels in Washington.
The squirrels are found in low-elevation and mid-elevation conifer forests on the eastern slopes of the North Cascades in Okanogan and Chelan counties; in oak woodlands and conifer forests of Klickitat and southern Yakima counties; and in oak woodlands and conifer forests on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce and Thurston counties.
A periodic status review completed this year by WDFW provided the basis for the recommended change in the listing status for western gray squirrels. The review found the species was in decline by the end of the 1800s and was considered rare by 1970.
The squirrel population has declined in the North Cascades due to destruction of habitat by wildfires in 2014, 2015 and 2021, the status review reported. Between 1993 and 2017, 20.8% of western gray squirrel habitat was estimated to have been lost in the North Cascades, and 21.2% percent in the South Cascades. The habitat loss is expected to continue, the status review found.
Uplisting the species to endangered “would communicate the elevated conservation concern for the western gray squirrel and its habitat, opening the door to more urgent conversation with partners about conservation recovery efforts,” said Taylor Cotten, WDFW conservation assessment section manager.
“This change would also allow WDFW to re-prioritize its own recovery efforts to try and change the trajectory of the species and its habitat,” Cotten said.
When a species is listed as threatened or endangered, WDFW prepares recovery plans to guide conservation and recovery efforts.
As a protected species in Washington, western gray squirrels cannot be harmed or killed, and penalties are greater for an endangered species. Harming or killing a threatened species is a misdemeanor; for endangered species, it is a gross misdemeanor for the first offense and a Class C felony for a second offense.
The rule-making proposal to change the listing status, and links to submit comments via the web form or email is available on the WDFW website: wdfw.wa.gov/about/regulations/development/periodic-status-review-western-gray-squirrel.
The public may also comment by mail to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ATTN: Wildlife Program, PO Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission will accept in-person and virtual public comments on the proposed rule change at a public hearing during their Sept. 28-30 meeting in Yakima. People interested in providing comments during the meeting should pre-register online. Information on how to pre-register will be on the commission meeting web page: dfw.wa.gov/about/commission/meetings/2023.