Wildfires Imperil Endangered Red Squirrel

Wildfires Imperil Endangered Red Squirrel


(publishedby: GuardianUnlimited, 09 July2004)


TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) – The littlest potential victim of two wildfires on Arizona’s Mount Graham could be an endangered type of red squirrel that has been living on the peak since the Ice Age.

The world’s only colony of Mount Graham red squirrels – numbering fewer than 300 – has been threatened in recent days by flames lapping toward the animals’ spruce and fir forest near the 10,700-foot summit.

State and federal biologists have been drawing up plans for trapping some of the squirrels for a breeding program if it appears that their forest canopy is about to be destroyed.

“They are one of the most endangered mammals in the world,” said University of Arizona biologist John Koprowski. “These guys have weathered fires in the past, have dealt with small habitat, and have survived. But the big concern here is that with past forest management strategies of fire suppression, these fires burn a lot hotter than they did traditionally.”

The Mount Graham red squirrel – which weighs 8 ounces, is 13 inches long and is grayish-brown, with rusty and yellowish markings along their backs – is a subspecies found nowhere else in the world. It has been on the mountain nearly 10,000 years and has been classified as endangered since 1987.

The squirrel has been at the center of controversy for more than 20 years.

Environmentalists waged numerous lawsuits in an attempt to stop construction of a University of Arizona observatory on Mount Graham, contending the project would kill off the squirrels. The lawsuits held up the project for two years, but the mountaintop observatory finally opened in 1993.

Now the lightning-caused wildfires threaten the $200 million observatory as well.

“Over and over and over, the university astronomers were asked to please not build this facility in a volatile, fragile forest system,” said Dr. Robin Silver, a physician and environmentalist who fought the project. “Those of us who warned them, who begged them and who pleaded with them are not going to feel sympathetic to whatever fate they might suffer.”

The red squirrel population has fluctuated markedly in recent decades, affected by weather and the availability of pine cones, its primary source of food. The latest survey, released this week, showed a population of 284. The lowest on record was 146 in 1989; the high came 10 years later, at 562.

Koprowski said that before the fires, this had been a great year for squirrel reproduction. Almost 90 percent of all adult females had litters of three to four offspring, he said. But most of the young are still nursing, and so the blazes come at an especially bad time.

Tree ring studies show that with the exception of a fire in 1996 that killed more than 20 red squirrels, the last major blaze atop Mount Graham was in 1685, said Thomas Swetnam, director of the University of Arizona’s Tree Ring Laboratory.

The wildfires had scorched nearly 25,000 acres as of Thursday. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that as of Tuesday, the fire had damaged only 5 percent of the red squirrel habitat, which covers 8,000 to 10,000 acres.

Other threatened species on the mountain range include the Mexican spotted owl, the Wet Canyon talussnail and the northern goshawk – the squirrel’s principal predator.

Koprowski said the blazes are unlikely to wipe out all the red squirrels, since the flames are burning in an uneven, mosaic pattern. But the forest could be left in sorry shape, and a reduced population of squirrels will raise the risk of genetic problems from inbreeding, he said.

Still, the squirrels are “a scrappy, battling species,” he said. “I’m hopeful.”



Associated Press Writer



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