Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan protected under Endangered Species Act


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan is a protected species under the Endangered Species Act.

The determination came in response to a petition and litigation from the Center for Biological Diversity.

“We have determined that the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan meets the definition of a threatened species due to habitat loss and degradation resulting from climate change within the foreseeable future,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in a draft decision set to be published July 3. “Rising temperatures associated with climate change are expected to have direct and rapid impacts on individual birds. Changing habitat conditions, such as loss of suitable alpine vegetation and reduced snow quality and quantity, are expected to cause populations to decline. This threat and responses are reasonably foreseeable because some are already evident in the range of the subspecies, and the best available information indicates that the effects of climate change will continue to alter the subspecies’ habitat within the foreseeable future. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan will adapt to the changing climate by moving northward because alpine areas north of the subspecies’ current range are expected to undergo similar impacts due to climate change and any potential connectivity to areas north of the current range is expected to decline.”

The agency stated it would reconsider protecting the bird’s critical habitat, providing a chance that areas where ptarmigans live may be protected, according to a news release from 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.”

According to the center, the ptarmigan lives year-round above the tree line in the Cascades from southern British Columbia to Mount Adams in Southwest Washington.

“In winter, they rely on dry, fluffy snow to bury themselves and stay warm,” the center stated in the release. “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.

“Our world is changing and changing fast,” Greenwald said. “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.”

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, according to the center.

“They’re adapted from head to toe to thrive in a frigid climate — from feathered, snowshoe-like talons to their seasonally changing plumage to their remarkable ability to gain body mass during harsh winters,” the center stated. “But as hotter temperatures sneak up the mountainsides, pushing tree line — and the ptarmigan — to ever-higher elevations, there may be no more room to rise in the near future.”