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Center for Biological Diversity:
Saving the White Tailed Ptarmigan
Summit County Citizens Voice, June 06, 2012

Ptarmigans To Be Considered For Endangered Listing
By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Shrinking alpine habitat and declining mountain snow cover may push ptarmigans to the brink of extinction, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which announced this week that it will do an in-depth study to determine if the birds should be listed as threatened or endangered.

As so often, the push came from the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the federal agency to consider a listing. Ptarmigans are one of the species included in a settlement agreement between the USFWS and conservation groups on a slate of species. Under the deal, the agency has agreed to make determinations on more than 750 potentially threatened species.

This week’s decision means the USFWS will take a close look at the best available science on both he southern and Mt. Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan. The southern white-tailed ptarmigan lives in the southern Rockies, including Colorado.

The birds are well-adapted to life above treeline both winter and summer, changing their plumage to pure white in the winter and mottled gray-brown in the summer to blend in. Their well-feathered feet enable them to walk on deep, powdery snow, and they can burrow into the snow to stay warm and avoid predators.

Federal biologists said the birds may be threatened by the loss and modification of alpine habitats due to global climate change. Some studies have also suggested indicated that warming temperatures may depress population growth rates and increase susceptibility to heat stress.

Generally, a final decision is made one year after the species is proposed.

For more information on the southern and Mt. Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan and this finding, please visit the USFWS ptarmigan web page. The agency also maintains a Flickr gallery with photos of ptarmigans.

To comment, write to:

Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2012-0023; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042–PDM; Arlington, VA 22203;

Comment online at http://www.regulations.gov. After accessing the regulations.gov website, in the box that reads “Enter Keyword or ID,” enter the docket number for this finding stated above. Check the box that reads “Open for Comment/Submission,” and click the search button. Comments are due by by August 6, 2012.

According to the Center for Biological diversity, ptarmigan populations are currently stable but predicted to decline as temperatures warm.

“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.”

According to Greenwald,  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.”

White-tailed ptarmigans are the smallest birds in the grouse family and one of only a few species that live on alpine mountaintops throughout their entire life.

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.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton