There's no better way to celebrate the squirrel, that tiny powerhouse of the forest, than with some good news about one of the more unique subspecies, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel.
The squirrel — called the Virginia northern flying squirrel or more commonly the West Virginia northern flying squirrel (WVNFS) — was listed as an endangered species in 1985. But restoration efforts have helped the species rebound, and in 2013 the West Virginia northern flying squirrel joined an exclusive group of success stories — species that have been taken off the endangered list.
Since then, restoration work has ramped up. Now a new report assessing the status of the squirrel in its first five years since coming off of the endangered species list indicates there are many reasons to be optimistic.
To save a species, save its habitat
Survival of the squirrel depends on survival of its habitat — red spruce-northern hardwood forest, which consists of red spruce, fir, beech, yellow birch, sugar or red maple, hemlock and black cherry. It used to be that the iconic, high-elevation red spruce forest blanketed hundreds of thousands of acres of the Central Appalachians. But much of that was destroyed in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to logging and wildfire.
"This habitat is really special," said Barb Douglas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service senior endangered species biologist. "There's some old-growth left, but a lot of it was cut over at the turn of the 20th century."
"If you go into a really old-growth spruce forest, it's mossy and green and smells good," added Laura Hill, a retired fish and wildlife biologist for the service. "It's surreal. It's quiet, the ground is spongy and soft. It's calming and soothing."
In the decades preceding and following the listing of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, protection and restoration efforts were successful in bringing the red spruce-northern hardwood forest habitat back to more than 173,000 acres in West Virginia.
And the work didn't stop when the squirrel was taken off the endangered species list in 2013. In the following five years, more than 7,455 acres of West Virginia northern flying squirrel habitat has been created, protected or restored. Additionally, even without formal protections, federal biologists have coordinated with project proponents to keep habitat loss at a negligible level of 285 acres — amounting to 26 times more habitat saved than lost.
As a result, the five-year report finds that the squirrel remains well distributed across all seven core areas and continues to be found at new, expanded and historical sites, with long-term potential for a slowly growing population.
"Since the time of delisting, we are still finding squirrels in the places we were finding them, and we've also found them in new locations, which reflects the improving conditions of the habitat," Douglas said.
A partnership tale
These flying squirrels are nocturnal and like to nest up high in trees. They are notoriously difficult to spot, making them hard to monitor as well, which is why tagging is so important. (Photo: Corinne Diggins/Virginia Tech)
This success is due entirely to a partnership of groups called the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative or CASRI. All are committed to restoration and protection efforts in the Central Appalachians. The CASRI partnership has grown from seven to 22 groups since it was created in 2007, with members ranging from the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge to the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"The squirrel was really what crystallized restoration efforts in this region," said Douglas. You can learn more about this important squirrel in the video below.
Shane Jones, a wildlife biologist for the USDA Forest Service, agrees that the squirrel pulled many disparate groups together.
"The Endangered Species Act drew attention to the red spruce habitat used by the squirrel," Jones said. "The Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy saw that energy, and instead of delisting and moving on, they used that energy to sign an MOU [memorandum of understanding] that later evolved to the group known as CASRI."
Partners are motivated to restore red spruce for many reasons, whether it's for the conservation of the flying squirrel or Cheat Mountain salamander, or because the soil in red spruce forests can trap more carbon from the atmosphere than hardwood, or because it stores significant amounts of water that ease flooding and drought. Or perhaps simply because red spruce and the wildlife that call it home are part of what makes West Virginia wild and wonderful.
The partnership focuses on planting spruce trees, helping red spruce reach advanced age more quickly, and increasing forest patch sizes and connectivity. The Nature Conservancy is just one leader in reforestation, and has engaged in land purchases of key habitat from willing sellers in the region.
"I'm very proud of the work this partnership has done," said Ben Rhodes, ecological restoration coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. "Every single organization in CASRI has played an integral role."
This time of year, Rhodes and his team are busy preparing for the spring planting season. They're getting seedlings lined up and are on target to plant 70,000 red spruce and 65,000 northern hardwoods. It's more than last year, he noted, and every year it's been more.
"Ten years ago we were planting about 30,000 trees and now we're planting 135,000," he said. "It's because we have this strong, partnership-based collaborative effort."
According to Rhodes, it used to be hard to get these seedlings. Norway spruce is similar and widely available, but it's non-native and not an ideal substitute for red spruce. Through CASRI, partners have been able to collect red spruce seeds locally that are then grown in a greenhouse and brought back to be planted as seedlings.
"This is all due to the partnership," he said. "And now we have enough that we can work on increasing the genetic diversity of our seeds, to maximize their resilience to climate change."
Climate change is a wild card for the squirrel and its habitat. Red spruce are highly vulnerable to drought, which is predicted to grow across the region as temperatures warm. But Rhodes noted that all the positive work — from the CASRI restoration partnership and large quantity of seedlings being planted to the fact that air pollution has greatly decreased in the region due to the Clean Air Act — might hopefully balance out the negative impacts of climate change.
"We're not sure how all these positives and negatives will play out," he acknowledged, "but we're hopeful."
'Delisting is not the end of the story'
Red spruce thrive in Monongahela National Forest. (Photo: Kelly Bridges, USFS [public domain]/Flickr)
Much of the work has happened in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest, which provides the majority of the squirrel's habitat. The Forest Service has committed to making progress toward long-term forest goals that support the squirrel.
They are already meeting their initial goals and are taking some innovative approaches to restore large tracts of degraded lands that were once coal mine sites.
"They developed a whole new technique on how to restore that habitat," Hill said.
This work is turning former mining sites into forests of red spruce and other native vegetation, with wetlands to restore hydrology. This meant working with abandoned mineland folks, the Office of Surface Mining and other non-traditional partners.
"It's become such a part of our doctrine that whenever we go to an area from a planning perspective we ask, 'What do we have here for spruce?'" Jones said.
The West Virginia northern flying squirrel has a more sophisticated palate than your average squirrel, preferring truffles (shown) and lichen to nuts and seeds. Truffles are exclusively associated with spruce and hemlock trees. (Photo: Corinne Diggins/Virginia Tech)
"This really shows that delisting a recovered species is not the end of the story," said Douglas. "In this case, partnership-based efforts are strong and the forest habitat should continue to expand. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to working with partners to ensure that recovered wildlife populations stay healthy, even after removal as a threatened or endangered species."
There will be another report in five years that monitors a decade of work since removal from the endangered species list.
"It is kind of cool going back to early spruce planting sites, and they aren't just little baby trees anymore — you've got a forest now," said Douglas. "This certainly gives me hope."
Darci Palmquist is a public affairs media specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Atlantic-Appalachian Region. Palmquist wrote this story for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and it is published with permission here.