Checking in with the Northern Flying Squirrel

By John McFerrin

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has done a review of how the Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus fuscus) is faring.  It found that the Squirrel is hanging in there.

The Northern Flying Squirrel has a long history of varying degrees of protection under the Endangered Species Act.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) first placed the West Virginia northern flying squirrel on the endangered species list as an endangered species in 1985. At the time, the threats identified included: species rarity; habitat loss; human disturbance; and competition with, and transfer of, a lethal parasite from the more common southern flying squirrel.

In 1990, the Fish and Wildlife Service did a recovery plan for the West Virginia northern flying squirrel. This plan is a series of steps that the agency is supposed to take to help the species recover to the point that it can safely be taken off the endangered species list.  

By 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the squirrel was, in fact, doing well.  It kicked it off (or “delisted” it, as they say) the list of endangered species.  

In response to the delisting, several environmental groups said, “Hold your horses!  The squirrel still needs protection.” (There were lawyers involved so they said it in more words and in a less colorful way.)  The groups filed suit in the United States District Court.  The District Court agreed; the squirrel was put back on the list.  Then the Fish and Wildlife Service appealed to the Unites States Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service was right in the first place so the squirrel was kicked off the list again.  This was in 2013.

The squirrel was not, however, just rudely kicked out of Endangered Species Act protection, told to spread its little patagia and fly away.  The Fish and Wildlife Service prepared another recovery plan, designed to help the squirrel recover.  It was supposed to monitor the squirrel for ten years; if it was not thriving it could put it back on the list.

2018 was five years from the time the recovery plan was adopted in 2013. The Fish and Wildlife Service decided to see how the squirrel is doing.

Much of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s study is devoted to studying the availability of squirrel habitat. Flying squirrels respond in the same way as do the ghosts of early 20th Century baseball players: if you build it, they will come.  The Fish and Wildlife Service looked at what flying squirrel habitat had been available at the beginning of the study period and how much had been gained or lost.

During the five years that the Fish and Wildlife Service monitored habitat gain and loss, it documented 284 acres of habitat loss.  The most significant loss in habitat came from the construction of Corridor H between Davis and Bismarck, West Virginia. This habitat was low quality habitat.

The loss of habitat was more than offset by the gain in habitat elsewhere.  The Nature Conservancy, the United States Forest Service, the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI), the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources had all had red spruce planting programs or designed other programs in a way that enhanced stands of red spruce. Collectively, this resulted in 983 acres planted and 4,762 acres restored. 

In order to determine if improved habitat resulted in more squirrels, the Fish and Wildlife Service counted squirrels, using such things as monitoring nest boxes and trapping squirrels.  With the help of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and the Monongahela National Forest, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the squirrel was present in the majority of the places where it was known to exist.  In addition, they found it in several places where it had not been known to exist in the past.

            On the whole, the Fish and Wildlife Service is pleased with the prospects for the Northern Flying Squirrel.  When it was delisted in 2013, the Service was supposed to monitor it for ten years, see how it was doing, and put it back on the endangered species list if it was not persisting.  Halfway through, it appears that its habitat is expanding and there are more squirrels than there were five years ago.  

What’s West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Got to Do with It?

       The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy is one of twenty two members of the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI) and shares its mission of restoring red spruce habitat.  CASRI was recognized in the Forest Service’s report for its role in recovery of the Northern Flying Squirrel:

Members of Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative have made significant progress to date working together to conserve and restore the red spruce-northern hardwood ecosystem. During the remaining years of implementing the Post-delisting Monitoring Plan and beyond, we encourage CASRI to continue this great work, especially planting trees and restoring the red spruce/northern hardwood ecosystem in priority areas, moving toward the goals of increasing the amount of young forest, advancing development of mature forest, and increasing habitat patch sizes and connectivity.