Nov 28, 2023 - News

Western gray squirrel listed as endangered in Washington state

The Western gray squirrel  is now endangered in Washington state.

Western gray squirrels are now considered an endangered species in Washington. Photo: Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife

Western gray squirrels are now considered an endangered species in Washington.

What's happening: Washington's Fish and Wildlife Commission voted last week to name western gray squirrels an endangered species, meaning they are "seriously threatened with extinction."

Why it matters: The designation could prompt state officials to enact stronger protections for forests where the animals live.

Catch up quick: Western gray squirrels were once found in a range of Washington forests.

  • But they have lost about 20% of their habitat near the Cascade Mountains since 1993, when they were first listed as a threatened species, wildlife officials say.
  • They now live mainly in three isolated areas of the state: around Okanogan County in the North Cascades; in the Klickitat region of the South Cascades; and around Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Tacoma.
  • The squirrels benefit forest ecosystems by distributing seeds and fungi that help new trees grow, according to experts at the University of Washington and Oregon State University.

By the numbers: State wildlife officials estimate there were somewhere between 468 and 1,405 western gray squirrels living in Washington from 1994–2005, when data was last collected.

  • That's "a critically small population," the Center for Biological Diversity said in a news release.
  • Logging and climate change-driven forest fires have contributed to the animals' loss of habitat, Taylor Cotten of the Department of Fish & Wildlife said at a commission meeting last week.

Of note: Western gray squirrels are distinct from eastern gray squirrels, which are found in many urban areas and aren't native to Washington.

What's next: The state Forest Practices Board will consider whether to change timber harvest rules or other regulations to preserve the squirrels' habitat.

  • "We hope to see changes that favor this vanishing species," said Rudy Salakory, conservation director at Friends of the Columbia Gorge, in a news release.

People will also face stiffer criminal penalties for killing one of the animals — a gross misdemeanor for a first offense, and a class C felony if convicted twice in five years.

avatar

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Seattle.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Seattle stories

No stories could be found

Seattlepostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Seattle.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more