By Rodney Bartgis
A lot can change over a quarter century. Back in 1988, as a young zoologist for West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources, I wrote about the uncertain future of the West Virginia Northern flying squirrel for Nature Conservancy magazine, the flagship publication of the organization that would later employ me.
At the time, the outlook was grim for this diminutive creature with its oversized eyes and folds of skin that allow it to parachute though the treetops. At the time, the squirrel was known to exist in just a handful of sites in West Virginia because so much of its spruce forest habitat had been lost.
In the magazine, I explained that the future of the flying squirrel would remain uncertain unless a comprehensive conservation program was developed for the spruce ecosystem in West Virginia’s mountains. That wasn’t exactly going out on a limb. Except under unusual circumstances — a poison like DDT or relentless poaching come to mind — extinction is almost always the result of habitat loss. And so protecting a species usually means protecting the land and water critical to that creature’s biological success.
And few animals are as closely integrated with habitat as the West Virginia Northern flying squirrel. In the 1980s, scientists were just beginning to understand the complex connection between the spruce forest and the squirrels, which feed primarily on truffle-like fungi which grow at and below the forest floor. These fungi, entwined in the shallow roots of red spruce and the other trees associated with that type of forest, help the trees extract nutrients from the soil. The fungi feed the squirrels and the squirrels transport fungi spores to new areas, where the cycle begins again.
That cycle has persisted for thousands of years until industrial logging all but eliminated spruce from the Alleghenies. By the mid-1980s, the spruce forest was at 10 percent of its original range, and the squirrel was added to the Endangered Species List.
But, indeed, a lot can happen in 26 years. Since the squirrel was added to the Endangered Species List, the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge was created and thousands of acres have been added to the Monongahela National Forest, especially on and around Cheat Mountain and Dolly Sods. Over 100,000 acres of the national forest is being managed primarily for red spruce. And through the work of the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, a partnership of public and private organizations, hundreds of thousands of new trees have been planted in and around the national forest.
Last year, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel was removed from the endangered species list. And this month, the most recent issue of Nature Conservancy includes a feature-length article titled “Flying High,” which tells a much different story about the squirrel, one that focuses on a much brighter future. It’s a story of hope, and a story that all of us in West Virginia can read with pride.
The squirrel’s story serves as a testament to the success of the Endangered Species Act, which recently turned 40 years old, but it also underscores the most critical aspect of that law — that protecting habitat, not counting individual animals, is key to protecting species. That to maintain our natural heritage we need to focus on maintaining ecological connections and, when needed, restoring those connections.
This work can and does take decades. The fact is, it’s harder to recover a species than it is to imperil one. Our work to protect our high country and restore red spruce forest already has taken years — and we’re still many decades from finishing it.
Today, conservationists for private organizations and public agencies alike work to protect a variety of species still included, at one level or another, on this list. They include animals like the Cheat Mountain salamander, the Virginia big-eared bat, the diamond darter (a fish) and plants, such as Virginia spiraea.
Never seen them? Remember the story of the squirrel — that by protecting these species, we protect iconic Mountain State landscapes like Dolly Sods, Mount Porte Crayon, Smoke Hole Canyon and the Gauley Canyon. Because no plant or animal lives in a vacuum.
It’s likely you’ll never see a West Virginia northern flying squirrel. But its future is being determined by what conservationists here in West Virginia are doing. The future of other plants and animals also depends upon decisions and actions — or inaction, we take in West Virginia to protect them and with them, West Virginia’s natural beauty.
Rodney Bartgis is state director of the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.