For Immediate Release, November 30, 2020

Contact:

Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity, (602) 799-3275, rsilver@biologicaldiversity.org
Mark Larson, Maricopa Audubon, (480) 310-3261, larsonwarren@gmail.com

Lawsuit Targets Feds’ Failure to Protect Endangered Mount Graham Red Squirrel Habitat

TUCSON, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to protect habitat essential to the survival and recovery of southeast Arizona’s highly endangered Mount Graham red squirrels.

Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson, said the Service has failed to update the designation of critical habitat as federal law requires. The Mount Graham red squirrel lives only in the Pinaleño Mountains on Mount Graham, an isolated “sky island” range in southeastern Arizona.

Nearly all the squirrels are now living outside of the currently designated protected areas. An October census found 109 squirrels, though historically the population numbers fluctuate dramatically.

“We must help Mount Graham red squirrels get through this perilous habitat bottleneck or they’ll go extinct,” said Center co-founder Robin Silver. “The squirrels have found ways to survive destruction of their habitat, but now there are so many forces aligned against them. Climate change, university astronomers, recreational buildings and uncaring federal agencies could wipe these little animals off the planet.”

Much of the squirrel’s forested habitat has been destroyed by wildfire. Firefighting efforts have focused on protecting the University of Arizona’s telescopes and recreational structures instead of habitat. The squirrels no longer live in the area originally designated as critical habitat because it has been destroyed by the construction of mountaintop telescopes, wildfires and fires set unnecessarily to protect the telescopes.

In December 2017 the Center and Maricopa Audubon petitioned the agency to update the squirrel’s critical habitat to include lower-elevation, mixed-conifer forests. The groups sued in April 2019 to compel the agency to expand the habitat, but so far the agency has failed to act, violating the Endangered Species Act.

In the meantime, the Forest Service has claimed that cabins and other recreational buildings that should have been removed to protect the squirrel should not be removed because they are not in designated critical habitat. In fact, that area is the only substantive restorable habitat and is critically needed to help the squirrels get through the habitat bottleneck and move from one area to another.

“If we don't protect habitat that’s essential for recovery and survival, and if we don't restore habitat currently occupied by recreational structures, the Mount Graham red squirrel will not survive,” said Maricopa Audubon Society President Mark Larson.

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Mount Graham red squirrel critical habitat. Credit: Curtis Bradley/Center for Biological Diversity Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.