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West Virginia northern flying squirrel
Mountain Xpress, March 28, 2011

Flying squirrel back on endangered species list; federal court decision may stop clearcuts in WV
By Susan Andrew, from The Wilderness Society

WASHINGTON – The West Virginia northern flying squirrel may have eye-popping ability to glide from tree to tree, but it needed a federal court decision on March 25 to help it land back on the endangered species list where it belongs.

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia vacated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service move that resulted in the poster critter of the state’s mountaintop forests being removed from the list. Sullivan’s decision came in response to a suit filed by conservation organizations including Friends of Blackwater Canyon and The Wilderness Society. They contended that the Bush administration removed the flying squirrel from the list after the Fish and Wildlife Service completely ignored their own procedures and the population data for the squirrel.

“The squirrel is now back on the list – and not a moment too soon,” said Judy Rodd, director of the West Virginia-based Friends of Blackwater Canyon organization. The Monongahela National Forest has proposed a project spanning almost 70,000 acres with lots of herbicide use and over 20 million board feet of timber harvest. This Upper Greenbrier North project would have devastated flying squirrel habitat. This project wouldn’t have been allowed when the squirrel was listed and shouldn’t be now.” (Read more about the decision and listen to the flying squirrel’s song at the Friends of Blackwater Canyon site, http://www.saveblackwater.org.)

Flying squirrels live in mature and old growth interior forest habitat. Logging, road building and oil and gas development are quite injurious to them. Fighting to protect the squirrel has been one of the most effective ways to protect these wildest lands on the Monongahela National Forest.

“This decision means the flying squirrel is back on the Endangered Species list and all of the protections it affords to endangered species are back in place to help the squirrel recover,” said Mary Krueger, a forest policy analyst with The Wilderness Society. “It also means the Fish and Wildlife Service has to follow its own rules and should help the cause of other species that have been unceremoniously and we believe, illegally dropped from the endangered species list.”

Krueger adds that the federal court decision means that the Monongahela project as its proposed shouldn’t be able to move forward because “the project makes it pretty clear that the squirrel would suffer harm or death if it did.”

The tiny squirrel who appears to fly with a brown cape when in flight is dearly loved throughout its Appalachian Mountain homeland. Local protectors have even rallied around a mascot representative of the species they affectionately call “Ginny.” The effort has caught the attention of some powerful allies. U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and long time supporter of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), conducted two hearings on the issue during the past few years. At a 2007 hearing on the ESA, Rahall said that the U.S. Interior Department “seems bent on abdicating its mandated responsibilities” under the law “to protect God’s creatures for future generations.”

An attorney for the groups who successfully obtained the federal court ruling, meanwhile, said the impact of the ruling will go well beyond the flying squirrel.

“This ruling is important not only to conservation of the flying squirrel, but for the proper implementation of the Endangered Species Act,” said Jessica Almy of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, a Washington, D.C. public interest law firm. “The ruling means that scientifically-based recovery criteria for endangered and threatened species, once having been adopted in the Fish and Wildlife Service's formal recovery plan, cannot be ignored due to political motivation or simple bureaucratic expediency -- in the Service's haste to remove a species from the protections of the Act. Rather, if the agency believes that such recovery criteria are in need of revision (which was not established for the squirrel) then the agency must do so pursuant to the publicly and scientifically accountable process embodied in the law.”

The organizations defending the flying squirrel are: Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of Blackwater, Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, The Wilderness Society, and Wild South.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton