TUCSON, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon filed a lawsuit in federal district court today to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand critical habitat for Arizona’s highly endangered Mount Graham red squirrel.
The squirrels live only in the Pinaleño Mountains, an isolated “sky island” range in southeastern Arizona. Only about 75 remain on Earth.
Their current designated critical habitat includes spruce-fir forests above 9,200 feet. But telescope construction and fires have pushed the squirrels to lower elevations, which is where they need new habitat protections.
“With so few Mount Graham red squirrels left, federal officials need to safeguard the last places they still live,” said Robin Silver, a Center cofounder. “Telescope construction and fires destroyed so many of the trees where they made their homes. These incredibly rare animals desperately need new habitat protection.”
In December 2017 the groups petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that the agency expand critical habitat to include lower-elevation, mixed-conifer forests.
Those forest areas were not included in the original 1990 critical habitat designation since, at that time, the great majority of squirrels occupied spruce-fir forests at the highest elevations of the mountain. The Service was required to issue a 90-day finding in response to the 2017 petition, but has failed to do so.
The squirrels no longer live in the area originally designated as critical habitat because it has been destroyed by the construction of mountaintop telescopes, wildfires and fires set unnecessarily to protect the telescopes.
“After widespread loss of their homes to the telescopes and fire, the squirrels desperately need new habitat protection,” said Mark Larson, Maricopa Audubon president.
One challenge for 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.