Squirrels and scopes in the line of fire

The Mount Graham red squirrel suffers an ecological shock

  • Smoke billows from the old-growth spruce-fir forest near the $110 million Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham

    Ron Smallwood photo, Coronado National Forest
  • The Mount Graham red squirrel

    Mitch Tobin
 

TUCSON, Arizona — During the 1980s and 1990s, environmentalists and American Indians tried just about everything, including lawsuits and chaining themselves to cattle guards, to stop the University of Arizona from building a telescope complex atop Mount Graham (HCN, 7/24/95: Making a mountain into a starbase: The long, bitter battle over Mount Graham). Environmentalists predicted the road-building and forest-clearing needed for the three telescopes would sound the death knell for the Mount Graham red squirrel, an endangered species found only atop southern Arizona’s tallest mountain range.

Construction on the telescopes began in 1989, with the agreement that they would only impact 8.6 acres of the mountaintop — and the squirrel survived.

But this summer, lightning-sparked wildfires nearly destroyed both the squirrels and the scopes. According to environmentalists, the crisis also let firefighters complete a controversial forest-thinning project on one of the Southwest’s most heavily litigated patches of land.

The Mount Graham red squirrel has been isolated on this mountaintop for thousands of years. In the cooler, wetter period before the end of the last Ice Age — when piñon and juniper grew in Tucson instead of saguaros and cholla cacti — the squirrels found suitable habitat in the region’s lower mountains. But as the Southwest warmed and dried, the squirrels and the forests they depend on retreated upslope, disappearing from all but the highest terrain.

Because of the squirrel’s vulnerability, public access to nearly 2,000 acres around the observatories — which the government declared a refugium for squirrels in 1988 — is forbidden. Despite that, the university had won approval over the past two years to clear about 850 trees 100 feet out from the telescopes to reduce fire danger. This year, it proposed extending that work another 100 feet, asking the Coronado National Forest to approve the project with only a limited environmental study.

That proposal was still under review when the 29,400-acre Nuttall and Gibson blazes converged in early July to become crown fires as they hit the mountaintop’s old-growth spruce-fir forest. With flames approaching the telescopes, firefighters removed 1,000 to 1,500 trees from the area, clearing even more fuel than astronomers had proposed.

Had the trees not been removed, says Jack Cohen of the Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, the inferno would have come within 50 feet of the $110 million Large Binocular Telescope.

But Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity says the university took advantage of the fire to expand its footprint. "They’ve sterilized an area that’s now a 200-foot radius around what was supposed to be their 8.6-acre limitation," says Silver.

The fire did scorch the heart of critical habitat for the squirrel, and the ecological shock hit a population already in grave condition. Just 284 squirrels were found in this spring’s survey — half the peak recorded in 1999.

Before the fires, biologists were hopeful the overall squirrel population would rise because of a bumper crop of the cones squirrels eat. Nine out of 10 females produced litters this spring, potentially adding 400 young squirrels, says John Koprowski, head of the University of Arizona’s squirrel monitoring project.

Now, however, newborn squirrels that escaped the flames will struggle to make it through the winter because cones, mushrooms and other food sources are gone. Many middens — piles of debris where squirrels squirrel away their food — also burned.

"It certainly burned incredibly hot up top," says Koprowski. "We’re probably talking a century before you have real habitat up there." But there is still hope: "Things could have been much worse," he says. "The burn wasn’t as severe as many feared, and it was controlled before it hit some of the best areas of squirrel habitat."

The author is the environment writer at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org