In response to a petition and litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed this week to protect the Mt. Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
This week’s notice says “the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), propose to list the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura rainierensis), a bird subspecies in Washington, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). After a review of the best available scientific and commercial information, we find that listing the subspecies is warranted. Accordingly, we propose to list the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan as a threatened species with a rule issued under section 4(d) of the Act (“4(d) rule”). If we finalize this rule as proposed, it would add this subspecies to the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and extend the Act’s protections to the species. We have determined that designation of critical habitat for this subspecies is not prudent.”
“These beautiful winter birds are immediately threatened by our warming world, so even these limited protections are helpful,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center and author of the petition to protect the ptarmigan. “Like a canary in a coal mine, the ptarmigan is telling us that we’re losing the snowpack that keeps Washington’s streams cool and flowing throughout the summer. It’s very alarming.”
The ptarmigan lives year-round above the tree line in the Cascades from southern British Columbia to Mt. Adams. In winter, it relies on dry, fluffy snow to bury itself and stay warm, but climate change is resulting in more rain on snow events, creating hard crusts unsuitable for the bird, says the Center.
In summer, the ptarmigan prefers wet areas created by melting snowfields and glaciers that are rapidly disappearing. It is poorly adapted to warm temperatures, showing stress above just 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Cascade alpine meadows used by breeding ptarmigans are expected to decline by 95% in the next 50 years under current climate change projections.
“Our world is changing and changing fast,” said Greenwald. “If we don’t move quickly to drastically reduce fossil-fuel usage and protect more of the natural world, the ptarmigan will be one of many special things we’ll lose in the Pacific Northwest.”
The smallest bird in the grouse family, white-tailed ptarmigans are one of the few animals that live on alpine mountaintops throughout their entire life. They’re adapted from head to toe to thrive in a frigid climate, with feathered, snowshoe-like talons, seasonally changing plumage and a remarkable ability to gain body mass throughout harsh winters.
But as hotter temperatures sneak up the mountainsides, pushing tree lines — and the ptarmigan — to ever-higher elevations, there may be no more room to rise in the near future.
In addition to climate change, the ptarmigan is threatened by recreation in both winter and summer, which can disturb birds.
“It’s disappointing to see the Service following Trump administration rules and denying the ptarmigan critical habitat,” said Greenwald. “Protection of critical habitat could have helped identify the most important places for the bird and ensure these areas aren’t unduly disturbed.”