Flying squirrel photo by Steve Shaluta.
I can still remember the smell of dog food and peanut butter mixing and melting beneath Kentucky’s July sun. My vertebrate zoology class was preparing to trap the Southern flying squirrel and my group received a special assignment: “make raccoon bait.” So, while my other classmates assembled cages and rolled up squirrel-sized peanut butter and oat balls, I tucked my nose under my shirt and stirred our thick concoction with a broken branch.
Once finished, we scattered the raccoon bait away from the squirrel traps so that eager raccoons would not attack the trap cages. We were taught that raccoons would not only eat the squirrel bait inside but, driven by the promise of peanut butter, would kill or injure the trapped squirrels. After pieces of sugar-coated dog food expand in the raccoons’ bellies, however, the fat and lazy scavengers are much less motivated to thieve.
I recently read that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the West Virginia northern flying squirrel (WVNFS), a relative to my furry friends in Kentucky, from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Reminiscing on my experience from summers ago -- especially witnessing that first glide, when the animal appeared to be suspended in air, exposing his cream-colored underbelly before diving down with impressive agility -- I began to research the plight and recovery of the species. The West Virginia northern flying squirrel (pdf), isolated from the Northern flying squirrel thousands of years ago when ice sheets began to recede, now lives in secluded clusters atop Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia in spruce-northern hardwood forests.
Scientists have actually found that the presence of West Virginia northern flying squirrels is beneficial, if not necessary, to the health of such forests. The squirrels often forage on fungi, dispersing fungal spores and nitrogen-fixing bacteria which form a symbiotic mycorrhizal association critical to the growth of many forest trees.
In my research, I found the most paramount factor affecting the decline and resurgence of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel is its amount of appropriate habitat. Fortunately, conservation efforts have aided in regeneration of the forest ecosystem of the Allegheny Highlands and, as a result, the squirrels have seemingly been increasing in number. According to previous Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, the population is stable enough that it no longer requires federal protection.
Certain environmental groups disagree, however.
The concerned organizations claim that the Service’s information on the squirrel’s population is not credible and that climate change is going to have serious and adverse effects on the species’ habitat. Climate models illustrate a decline in the northern hardwood forests so critical to the squirrel’s survival. In concluding that the West Virginia northern flying squirrel should be de-listed, the Service also failed to provide an adequate examination of land development impacts on the species -- even though science shows specific habitat fragmentation due to road construction and other development isolates populations from food sources and mates.
The controversy over West Virginia northern flying squirrel management illustrates the necessity of continuing efforts to defend its habitat. Thinking back on those days my fellow students and I stood in awe, watching the squirrels parachute, I worry about the future of the flying squirrel. As important habitat is given away to special interests, so goes the opportunity for our children to experience one day the “flight” of this rare creature.
photo: Flying squirrel by Steve Shaluta.