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Global warming: Can the San Bernardino flying squirrel be saved?

August 25, 2010 |  8:49 pm

Glaucomys_sabrinus-285x226 Environmentalists have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the San Bernardino flying squirrel, a nocturnal glider native to Southern California mountains, as an endangered species, threatened by climate change.

The petition, filed Tuesday by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, opens a new front in an effort to combat global warming through the Endangered Species Act. The moves come after the federal government in 2008 granted protected status to the polar bear based on shrinking ice sheets caused by climate change.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration denied the center's petition to list the American pika, a rabbit-like mammal that lives at high elevations in nine Western states, saying that the animal was sufficiently abundant to survive climate change.

With Congress deadlocked on global warming legislation, environmentalists see the Endangered Species Act as a way to force a clampdown on coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities that spew carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat in the atmosphere.

As the climate warms from these greenhouse gases, animals and plants in cooler regions -- whether polar bears or pikas -- are threatened with extinction, environmentalists argue. Under the Endangered Species Act, the government is obligated to protect threatened forms of life, and, arguably, could do so through enacting curbs on greenhouse gases.

The center also filed petitions asking federal protection on climate-change grounds for the ‘I‘iwi, a Hawaiian songbird; the white-tailed ptarmigan, a grouse-like bird of the Rocky Mountains; and Bicknell’s thrush, a northeastern U.S. songbird.

“Climate change will have disproportionate impacts on species that live at high elevations,” said Noah Greenwald, the center's endangered species program director. “These four species are literally going to be pushed off the top of the mountain.”

(UPDATE: However, Damien Schiff, an attorney with the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative non-profit group, called the petitions “speculative conjecture about what might or might not…affect these species. The law doesn’t allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to substitute a crystal ball for hard data.” The foundation has filed a lawsuit challenging the polar bear’s listing.")

The San Bernardino flying squirrel, a subspecies of the northern flying squirrel, has parachute-like panels of skin that stretch from wrist to ankle, allowing it to glide for 300 feet or more between trees. It lives year-round in high-elevation conifer forests of Southern California and feeds on truffle fungi that thrive among large trees and downed logs.

The squirrel is thought to have disappeared from the San Jacinto Mountains in recent decades, and the remaining population appears to be confined to the higher peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains.

According to the center, the squirrel's habitat is moving up-slope as temperatures warm. Truffles, its primary food, depend on wet, cool conditions that could be altered by climate-induced drought. Air pollution, urban development and forest-clearing also may be affecting the squirrel's range, according to the petition.

In a State of the Climate report released last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  compiled research from 300 scientists in 48 countries and concluded that "all point to the same finding: the scientific evidence that our world is warming is unmistakable ... that the past decade was the warmest on record and that the Earth has been growing warmer over the last 50 years." 

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: The San Bernardino flying squirrel is a subspecies of the northern flying squirrel, pictured here. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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