Arizona’s Mount Graham Red Squirrel Moves Toward Expanded Habitat Protection

TUCSON, Ariz.— In response to a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed that designating additional critical habitat for the Mount Graham red squirrel may be warranted.

The groups petitioned for more acreage for the squirrel in 2017 and filed a lawsuit in April to compel the agency to issue a decision on the petition.

The squirrels live only in the Pinaleño Mountains, an isolated “sky island” range in southeastern Arizona. Only about 75 of them remain on Earth.

“This finding is a step in the right direction, but without greater habitat protection we could lose the Mount Graham red squirrel to extinction,” said Robin Silver, a Center cofounder. “We’re urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to quickly finalize expanded safeguards for the forests where these squirrels live before it’s too late.”

The current designated critical habitat includes only spruce-fir forests above 9,200 feet. But telescope construction, wildfires and fires set to protect the telescopes have pushed the squirrels to lower elevations and mixed-conifer forests that lack official habitat designation.

The “90-day finding” on the petition launches a public comment period, after which the Service should issue a proposal outlining new areas of critical habitat. The proposal will also undergo public review before the designation is finalized.

“With fewer than 100 surviving individuals, the Mount Graham red squirrel is one of the most endangered mammals on the planet, and they desperately need the lower elevation habitats where they actually live to be protected,” said Mark Larson, Maricopa Audubon president.

An additional threat to the squirrel is that the best remaining habitat is occupied by a camp and recreational cabins that were supposed to have been removed to mitigate impacts from the telescopes, but never were.

In response to a previous notice sent by the Center, the U.S. Forest Service, which issues the leases for the camp and cabins, is currently consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service over how it can avoid violating the Endangered Species Act by jeopardizing the squirrel’s survival.