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Western gray squirrel

Logging, urbanization, and other development threaten the oak-conifer prairie communities that the western gray squirrel needs to survive.

A woodland prairie mainstay

Western Gray Squirrel

In collaboration with other conservation organizations and concerned individuals, Conservation Northwest is working diligently to save the western gray squirrel and its habitat: the rare and unique oak-woodland prairies of Washington.

One of three subspecies of native tree squirrels, the western gray relies on the diverse old-growth canopies of pine, oak, and fir, for natal dens, food, travel, and protection. 

With an average body length of twelve inches and tail length of an additional twelve, the western gray is the largest of the native tree squirrels. This arboreal rodent has white-tipped gray hairs along much of its body and a white underbelly. It is noted for its large feet, pronounced reddish brown ears, and long bushy tail.

Western gray squirrels do not hibernate, but will remain confined to their nests during periods of bad weather. Their diet is made up of fungi, insects, acorns, seeds, nuts, and berries. Like other squirrel species, they plan ahead and collect reserves of food when it is plentiful.

Unlike other squirrel species, the western gray has only has one litter of young per year. Slower reproduction is one of the reasons they are at risk.

Threatened

Oak-conifer prairie communities and late-successional forests that serve as western gray squirrel habitat in Washington have been degraded and destroyed by logging, urbanization, and other development throughout the last century, causing a drastic decline in populations. Today, only 3% of these prairies remain in Washington, and western gray squirrels are found primarily in three isolated regions: the southern Puget Sound, the lower Columbia River, and the north-central region of the state.

The western gray squirrel is currently classified as “threatened” with extinction by Washington State and recognized as a priority species by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In 2000, the Tahoma Audubon Society and Conservation Northwest filed a petition for an emergency rule to list this species under the federal Endangered Species Act. When the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to act, Conservation Northwest filed a lawsuit, which is still pending in the courts.

Cross-Base Highway Proposal

The western gray squirrel faces another threat to habitat loss: the proposed Cross Base Highway in Pierce County. This four-lane, six-mile highway would bisect the largest remaining oak-woodland prairie in Washington, effectively undermining the western gray’s critical habitat in that area. Learn more about this proposed highway and how local residents have prevented it thus far.

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