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Healing a Rare Forest and Recovering a Native Flying Squirrel
Kristin Haider and Thomas Barnes
Photo Credit: Larry Master / USFWS
If you catch a glimpse of a critter gliding through the night at the highest points of West Virginia's mountains, it might be the once-endangered West Virginia northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus fuscus). Efforts to protect and restore the squirrel's natural habitat across the Mountain State has helped significantly increase the number of flying squirrels and bring the species back from the brink of extinction.
West Virginia northern flying squirrels prefer to make their home in northern hardwood forests, with old-growth red spruce (Picea rubens). These forests in central Appalachia are a rare holdover from the last Ice Age; when the Wisconsin glacial sheet retreated northward, the only red spruce trees that remained took hold in isolated patches high on mountain peaks.
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, industrial logging destroyed much of the squirrel's habitat, using the spruce for paper products, fine instruments or shipbuilding. An estimated 1 million acres (400,000 hectares) of high elevation red spruce forests declined to just 53,000 acres (21,450 ha).
West Virginians almost lost their native northern flying squirrel, a subspecies as ancient as the mastodon. In 1985, the squirrel was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Prior to listing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) biologists documented only 10 squirrels within the range.
Since the time of listing, a number of partners, including members of the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI), have supported efforts to restore habitat and recover the species. CASRI is a partnership of diverse interests with the common goal of protecting the remaining red spruce stands and restoring red spruce-northern hardwood ecosystems where they have disappeared.
Photo credit: USFWS
"CASRI aims to move forest or wetland vegetation and other natural processes back onto a course of development and function that existed prior to the severe logging and associated fires that threw the ecosystem off course," says Elizabeth Byers, an ecologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. "Setting our forests back on course not only preserves West Virginia's native plants but also helps our important wildlife species."
Another partner of the recovery effort, the Monongahela National Forest, set aside over 153,000 acres (61,900 ha) of the national forest in 2006, specifically to restore and manage the red spruce to benefit the West Virginia northern flying squirrel and other rare, threatened, and endangered species.
In 2013, CASRI supported on-the-ground projects across this land, clocking nearly 1,200 volunteer hours spent planting over 53,000 native tree seedlings on over 340 acres (138 ha), bringing the total acres planted since 2006 to over 1,100 (445 ha). Additionally, partners conducted habitat restoration on nearly 200 acres (81 ha) by releasing red spruce from the understory forest using commercial and non-commercial forestry practices, and permanently protected 773 acres (312 ha) of high elevation red spruce habitat.
The red spruce numbers were not the only ones growing. Federal and state agency biologists and researchers have captured more than 1,100 northern flying squirrels at over 100 sites. While the squirrels may not be plentiful in the near future, they no longer face the immediate threat of extinction. In March 2013, the Service removed the squirrel from ESA protection. Monitoring continues to show that the squirrels occupy suitable habitats throughout their range.
Decades from now, the restoration efforts of conservation groups like CASRI will provide the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, and other rare species that depend on red spruce habitat, a better chance to flourish.
Kristin Haider, a biologist in the Service's West Virginia Field Office, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-363-6586. Thomas Barnes is a communication intern in the Service's Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Massachusetts.
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