threatened ptarmigan

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced June 14 it plans to list the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan as a threatened species solely because of climate change.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed federal protection for a grouse based solely on climate change forecasts for the Washington Cascades.

Smaller snowpacks, retreating glaciers and higher temperatures will threaten the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan, USFWS said in a report Monday. The bird roosts in the snow.

The service said it planned to prohibit intentionally harming the ptarmigan, but neither designate "critical habitat" nor restrict activities, such as recreation or logging.

While individual birds may be disturbed by human activity, that's not what's threatening the species, according to USFWS.

"Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan is in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future due to the projected effects of climate change," the service stated.

The ptarmigan inhabits high elevations in the Cascades between Mount Adams in southwest Washington and the Fraser Valley in British Columbia. The USFWS doesn't know the bird's historic abundance, so it can't say whether the population is declining.

Whatever their numbers, the service asserts rising temperatures will harm the heat-sensitive ptarmigan. The bird pants when temperatures reach 70 degrees, according to USFWS.

Higher temperatures are expected to degrade the quality and quantity of snow, too. The warmth will melt snow that refreezes at night, creating a hard crust difficult to roost in, according to 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 petitioned USFWS in 2010 to list the ptarmigan.

The center's endangered species director, Noah Greenwald, said the ptarmigan serves as a warning for impending water shortages that will affect agriculture.

"This bird really is the canary in the coal mine for receding glaciers and loss of snowpack," he said.

The birds are rarely found in forests, preferring alpine areas with few or no trees, USFWS said.

"I don't think logging is a big threat to it," Greenwald said.

The federal government owns about three-quarters of the bird's U.S. range. Greenwald said he was disappointed the USFWS didn't designate critical habitat.

The bird's status as a threatened species should be considered in evaluating proposals to develop recreational facilities, he said.

"That would raise concerns," he said. "If we develop these areas for recreation, it could be the nail in the coffin."

The ptarmigan probably once inhabited the slopes of Mount St. Helens, but not after the 1980 eruption blew off the mountain's top, according to USFWS.

The service cited a study that concluded Washington's snowpack declined by 30% between 1955 and 2016.

The decline has not been as evident in the past decade. The statewide snowpack has been above average for eight of the past 10 years, according to Natural Resources and Conservation Service measurements.

The USFWS has listed other species based on projected effects of climate change. The service cited loss of sea ice in listing polar bears as a threatened species in 2008.

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