Climate change drives Washington bird to ESA | Washington
The US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed federal protection for a grouse based solely on climate change predictions for the Washington waterfalls.
Smaller snow packs, receding glaciers and warmer temperatures will threaten the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan, the USFWS said in a report on Monday. The bird perches in the snow.
The service said it plans to ban intentional harm to the ptarmigan, but neither designate a “critical habitat” or restrict activities, such as recreation or logging.
While individual birds can be disturbed by human activity, this is not what threatens the species, according to the USFWS.
“The Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan is in danger of extinction for the foreseeable future due to the predicted effects of climate change,” the service said.
The ptarmigan inhabits the high altitudes of the Cascades between Mount Adams in southwest Washington State and the Fraser Valley in British Columbia. The USFWS does not know the historical abundance of the bird, so it cannot tell if the population is in decline.
Regardless of their number, the service says rising temperatures will harm the heat-sensitive ptarmigan. The bird gasps when temperatures reach 70 degrees, according to the USFWS.
Higher temperatures are also expected to degrade the quality and quantity of snow. The heat will melt the snow that will refreeze at night, creating a hard crust that is difficult to roost in, according to the USFWS.
The agency will take public comments for 60 days before deciding whether to designate the ptarmigan as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Biological Diversity asked the USFWS in 2010 to list the ptarmigan.
Center endangered species director Noah Greenwald said the ptarmigan serves as a warning for impending water shortages that will affect agriculture.
“This bird is really the canary in the coal mine for glacial retreat and snow loss,” he said.
Birds are rarely found in forests, preferring alpine areas with few or no trees, the USFWS said.
“I don’t think logging is a big threat for this,” Greenwald said.
The federal government owns about three-quarters of the bird’s US range. Greenwald said he was disappointed the USFWS had not identified critical habitat.
The status of the bird as an endangered species should be taken into account when evaluating proposals for the development of recreational facilities, he said.
“It would raise concerns,” he said. “If we develop these areas for recreation, that could be the nail in the coffin.”
The ptarmigan likely once inhabited the slopes of Mount St. Helens, but not after the 1980 eruption blew off the mountaintop, according to the USFWS.
The service cited a study that found Washington’s snowpack decreased by 30% between 1955 and 2016.
The decline has not been so obvious over the past decade. Statewide snowpack has been above average for eight of the past 10 years, according to measurements by the Natural Resources and Conservation Service.
USFWS has listed other species based on predicted effects of climate change. The service cited the loss of sea ice in the list of polar bears as an endangered species in 2008.