For Immediate Release, June 4, 2012
Contact: Noah Greenwald, (503) 484-7495
White-tailed Ptarmigan One Step Closer to Endangered Species Act Protection
Climate Change Threatens Snow-adapted Bird on Mt. Rainier, Southern Rockies
DENVER— In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found today that the Mt. Rainier and southern subspecies of white-tailed ptarmigans may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act and initiated a status review. Populations of the grouse-like bird are currently stable, but are predicted to be lost from the contiguous United States in the face of warming temperatures. The decision is the result of a historic 2011 legal settlement with the Center requiring the Service to decide by 2017 whether 757 rare and threatened species should be added to the endangered species list.
“Climate change will have disproportionate impacts on species that live at high elevations — species like the white-tailed ptarmigan,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center. “The ptarmigan is uniquely adapted to living its entire life on the tops of mountains, but because of global warming it’s at risk of being pushed off those mountaintops.”
With its extensive adaptations to cold, snowy climates, the ptarmigan is threatened by warmer winter temperatures and forests that will creep uphill and eliminate its alpine meadow habitat. The Mt. Rainier subspecies occurs in the Washington Cascades, and the southern subspecies occurs in the southern Rockies — primarily in Colorado but also in New Mexico and potentially Wyoming. As acknowledged in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s finding, changes in climate are already apparent in these areas, where studies show warming trends above the national average, reduced spring snowpacks and an increased proportion of precipitation falling as rain rather than snow.
“Climate change is already hurting wildlife species like the ptarmigan,” said Greenwald. “If we don’t rapidly reduce greenhouse gas pollution, animals and plants around the globe will be lost forever. People will suffer too, from rising sea levels, drought and other extreme changes.”
The smallest birds in the grouse family, white-tailed ptarmigans are also one of the few animals that live on alpine mountaintops throughout their entire life. They’re adapted from head to toe to thrive in a frigid climate, from its feathered, snowshoe-like talons, to its seasonally changing plumage, to its remarkable ability to gain body mass throughout harsh winters. But as the climate warms, precisely these adaptations could spell the bird’s doom. The ptarmigan’s range is severely limited by its sole dependence on alpine habitat, which is shrinking as hotter temperatures sneak up the mountainsides, threatening to push the tree line — and the ptarmigan — to ever-higher elevations until there’s no more room to rise.