USFWS Lists Mount Rainier Ptarmigan As Threatened Due To Climate Change, Lives In High Country Cascades From Mount Adams To Canada

A bird that spends its entire life near mountaintops in the Pacific Northwest is likely to become in danger of extinction as a result of climate change, the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service has announced. Following a review of the best available science, the Service has finalized a listing of the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Service has determined that the loss and degradation of its habitat resulting from climate change will endanger the bird in the foreseeable future. The ESA defines a threatened species as likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

The Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan is a unique alpine bird in the grouse family and one of the few animals that live in high-elevation environments throughout their entire life. These birds are well-adapted to life above the tree line, with feathered, snowshoe-like feet and seasonally changing plumage. Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan require a mix of specific moist alpine vegetation communities, rocks and nearby snow or water. The species’ range includes the Cascade Mountains of Washington State from Mount Adams northward into southern British Columbia, Canada. 

Climate change is expected to significantly diminish the alpine habitat upon which the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan depends, driven chiefly by decreases in meltwater from snowpack and glaciers and a rising tree line. As the climate warms and prompts changes in vegetation, the bird’s habitat is projected to disappear. Climate change is likely to result in the loss of up to 95% of the bird’s currently available alpine tundra habitat in coming decades.

“We look forward to continuing to work with federal partners and other stakeholders to conserve and recover the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan,” said Hugh Morrison, Pacific Regional Director for the Service. “Our long-standing research and conservation partnerships will provide a firm foundation for working together to recover this species, as well as others under pressure from our changing climate.”

This listing comes shortly after the 50th anniversary of the ESA in 2023. “It reflects the growing extinction crisis and highlights the importance of the law and efforts to conserve species before population declines become irreversible. The growing impacts of climate change further exacerbate these threats and their interactions for many species and ecosystems. The listing of Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan serves as an alarm bell but also as a call to action,” said the Service in a press release.

The Service is also finalizing a 4(d) rule that provides measures for its conservation by prohibiting take, except as otherwise authorized or permitted. Critical habitat has been found non-determinable at this time.

The listing comes as a response to a petition and litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity.

“These beautiful winter birds are immediately threatened by our warming world,” 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 alarming and we have to protect these birds and the places they live.”

The ptarmigan lives year-round above the tree line in the Cascades from southern British Columbia to Mt. Adams in southwest Washington. In winter, they rely on dry, fluffy snow to bury themselves and stay warm. Climate change is resulting in more rain-on-snow events that create hard crusts unsuitable for the bird. In summer, ptarmigans prefer wet meadows created by melting snowfields and glaciers that are rapidly disappearing.

The tree line is also moving up and threatening to eliminate the bird’s meadows altogether. Ptarmigans are poorly adapted to warm temperatures, showing stress above just 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Center first petitioned for protection of the ptarmigan in 2010. It’s taken the Service 14 years to provide protection, when under the law it should have taken just two years, said the Center.

“Our world is changing and changing fast,” said Greenwald. “The Service continues to move at a glacial pace to protect species like this highly imperiled bird. The agency desperately needs an overhaul to make sure we don’t lose so many vulnerable plants and animals.”

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