Western gray squirrels are now considered endangered in Washington state:

Climate change and land development have added another animal population to the endangered species list in Washington state. The state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission said Friday that a more than decade-long plan to recover the threatened western gray squirrel species has failed, and that the dwindling population is now “seriously threatened with extinction.” 

The reclassification of the squirrels’ status comes after months of reviewing information about the species. In October, the Department of Fish and Wildlife warned that the species would likely soon become endangered “without cooperative management or removal of threats,” Taylor Cotten, conservation assessment section manager at the department, said during Friday’s commission meeting. 

“We are recommending reclassification as endangered wildlife, which is ‘seriously threatened with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range within the state,'” he said. 

Western gray squirrels had been considered a threatened species since 1993. The state implemented a recovery plan in 2007 to try and bring population numbers back up. Despite that, the squirrels’ primary habitat in the Cascades has declined by more than 20% since they were deemed to be threatened, Cotten said, and today, here are just three isolated populations of the animals throughout the state, with “squirrel occupancy” appearing to be “low and fragmented.”

It had also been proposed that they be placed on the federal endangered species list in 2001, but Cotten said the government decided such a designation was “not warranted” in 2004. To date, Cotten said conservation efforts made as part of the more than decade-old recovery plan “have been insufficient.” 

The reason for the steep decline? At least in part, climate change

“The frequency and severity of wildfires are increasing with climate change,” Cotten said, adding that the time it takes to rotate harvests in the South Cascades, between 35 and 45 years, is also “likely limiting” suitable structures for the animals. 

In 2022, there were more than 660 wildfires in Washington that burned more than 55,600 acres across the state’s Department of Natural Resources jurisdiction. While those numbers are well below the 10-year average, state officials said in an end-of-year report that this was linked to a “very wet spring,” and it was in July when “conditions turned hot and dry” that a “volatile fire threat” developed. Several fires were started by lightning. 

Essentially, it was a year of extremes — a situation that is expected to worsen as rising global temperatures fuel severe weather events and conditions ranging from droughts to heavy precipitation. 

“Washington’s 2022 fire season began with the wettest April to June period on record and ended with the driest July to October on record,” the report said. “…Overall, critical fire weather events were mainly driven by hot and unstable conditions in the Cascades associated with the persistent ridge over the state.” 

According to the Fish and Wildlife Department website, western gray squirrels are also sensitive to diseases that “could become more frequent with warmer temperatures.” 

And this species is just the latest to feel the impact of climate change. A report last year published by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature found that out of nearly 32,000 animal populations worldwide, there was an average decline of 69% since 1970. That sharp decline, the report warned, is a “code red for the planet (and humanity).” 

“The message is clear and the lights are flashing red,” WWF International’s director general Marco Lambertini says in the report. “Our most comprehensive report ever on the state of global vertebrate wildlife populations presents terrifying figures: a shocking two-thirds decline in the global Living Planet Index less than 50 years.”

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