• Flying High

    Scientists work to protect a flying squirrel and its red spruce home.
    By Madeline Bodin
    Photographs by Patrick Cavan Brown
 

C

raig Stihler holds the squirming rodent

in his gloved hands. “It’s a biter,” warns the bespectacled biologist as he handles the animal using only calm, deliberate movements. With its impossibly large eyes built for seeing in the dark, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel looks and acts like an agitated Muppet.

And rightfully so: A few minutes ago, this young female specimen was napping in one of hundreds of nest boxes that Stihler and other researchers installed throughout the Monongahela National Forest. But now she’s being weighed, ear-tagged and measured by a small group of scientists.

One of them—Virginia Tech doctoral student Corinne Diggins—blows in the squirrel’s face, trying to stop it from writhing in Stihler’s hand long enough for her to slip a radio collar around its neck. The animal finally holds still after a Forest Service technician gamely offers the finger of his glove for the squirrel to gnaw on, which allows Diggins to crimp the collar in place. Once she is done, Stihler releases the squirrel onto a tree trunk. It darts up into the canopy, then freezes in place, waiting for the group to leave.

A biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Stihler has held more West Virginia northern flying squirrels than just about anyone. He has been studying the animals since 1985, when this subspecies of the northern flying squirrel was listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. At the time, scientists could find the squirrel at only a handful of sites in West Virginia, and its only known habitat had been reduced to a small fraction of its historical footprint in the area. To make things worse, not much was known about the animal—including what it ate, where it slept and how it differed from its more common cousin, the northern flying squirrel, which ranges across North America. With so few of the feisty, nocturnal animals to study, figuring out why the squirrel had declined—let alone how to save it—was going to require some sleuthing.

Only three decades later, the outlook for the flying squirrel’s survival has changed dramatically. The species is no longer endangered and was delisted in 2013—a remarkable feat, given how few squirrels remained and how little was known about them. The story of the squirrel’s turnaround isn’t about saving just one species; it’s the story of the restoration of an entire landscape that had become unbalanced by more than a century of logging and mining.

The West Virginia northern flying squirrel is a rare sight in the wild. Compared with the typical gray squirrel you might see in your yard, the flying squirrel is smaller, lighter, active at night and can soar through the air. It uses folds of skin, called patagia, that stretch between its front and hind legs to glide from tree to tree. It is so adept with these “wings” that it can execute 180-degree turns in midair.


Before the 1980s, scientists had observed this high-flying rodent scratching out a meager living eating tree buds, lichens and mushrooms. But it wasn’t until the subspecies was listed as endangered that researchers uncovered the mainstay of its diet: truffles—or a close approximation from the genus Elaphomyces. These truffle-like fungi grow below ground, entwined in the roots of trees commonly found in the high-elevation red spruce forests of central Appalachia’s Allegheny Mountains. Further investigation found that the trees, fungi and squirrels were mutually dependent: The fungi and the trees exchange nutrients, and the squirrels eat the fungi and spread their spores to new areas.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of the relationship between the forest, the fungi and the squirrel,” says Donna Mitchell, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources biologist who conducted research on the subspecies’ diet—work that offered major clues toward understanding the animal’s decline. “I’m not sure what you would do without one of those components.”

A second piece of the puzzle came into place when the U.S. Geological Survey published a report finding that the Allegheny Mountains’ spruce forests were among the most endangered ecosystems in the United States. The forests had been reduced to just 10 percent of their former range.

“This was a spruce-driven ecosystem, with a million acres of spruce-influenced forest,” says Shane Jones, a biologist with the Monongahela National Forest, looking out at a mountainous horizon that today shows only small patches of red spruce. “Then in the 1800s, mass timber extraction arrived with the railroad logging era.” Not only were the trees cut down, but sparks from the trains’ engines ignited fires in the hillsides, which were littered with slash from timber cutting. Having thin bark, a shallow root system and small seeds that burn easily, the red spruce is poorly adapted to fires. Eventually the hardwood trees, such as beech, maple and oak, grew back; the spruces didn’t.

For most of the past century, that situation suited the Forest Service. Maples, cherries and oaks were more valuable as timber. But as the flying squirrel mobilized local conservation groups—including The Nature Conservancy—during the 1980s and ’90s, they found that the red spruce forest held this ecosystem together. The trees shaded trout streams, provided habitat for an endangered salamander and supported the West Virginia northern flying squirrel.

The first step in restoring the squirrel population, then, was securing its remaining habitat: Logging was halted in areas of the national forest that could support the squirrels. The second was developing and implementing a restoration plan for the red spruce forest.

Since the early 1990s, the Conservancy has helped the Forest Service protect more than 65,800 acres of scattered parcels within national forest boundaries. The largest deal occurred in 2000, when the Conservancy coordinated the purchase of mineral rights for 57,300 acres on the flanks of Cheat Mountain, situated on the forest’s western edge. The Forest Service already owned the surface of the land, but a mining company owned the mineral rights, which meant it could tear up the forest to get to the coal. Once secured, the mineral rights were transferred to the Forest Service.
In the late 1990s, the Conservancy’s three-person staff from nearby Elkins, West Virginia, started experimenting with red spruce restoration at the Cheat Mountain preserve. Early efforts included transplanting seedlings from the maintenance areas under large power lines (where they would inevitably be mowed down by work crews) to various test sites around Monongahela. The young trees’ roots were often injured in the process, causing high mortality rates. But each attempt refined the techniques. As the Conservancy helped the Forest Service scale up its restoration plans, local partners had to be found that could raise red spruce in nurseries, since a large-scale effort would require tens of thousands of saplings that could be planted easily and have high survivability rates.

By 2009, the Forest Service and its partners were ready to begin converting wide tracts of badly scarred land into future red spruce forests. At one former surface coal mine, where the soil had been compacted to prevent erosion, workers needed an auger to dig planting holes in the hard ground. Still, just 15 percent of those trees survived.

In 2011, researchers tried a new method. “Ripping the soil with a D9 dozer is not the most intuitive way people think of when restoring nature,” says Thomas Minney, the Conservancy’s central Appalachians program director.

“These bulldozers are just massive,” says Jack Tribble, a district ranger, describing the mining machinery needed to break up soil as hard as concrete. “When they are working, the ground shakes.” It is a violent but effective technique that loosens the soil enough that the saplings’ roots can eventually take hold. At a 90-acre pilot site, 85 percent of the trees survived.

This year, 30,000 saplings will be planted at the most recent soil-ripping site. A 120-acre tract near Cheat Mountain has been strewn with the remnants of the non-native spruces that were planted there years ago but had struggled to grow. The churned soil and woody debris will help re-create the natural conditions of a forest opening and speed the brand-new trees to maturity. “It looks messy,” says Andrea Brandon, the Conservancy’s central Appalachian program coordinator, “but old-growth forests are messy.”

Without the soil ripping, Tribble says, it would take much longer for a functional red spruce ecosystem to return to the site. With the boost provided by the mining equipment and the scattered trunks and root masses, he expects this ecosystem to mature in 40 to 60 years.

By this spring, the Conservancy and its partners, known as the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, will have planted 300,000 new trees in and around the national forest. The plan is to restore 150,000 acres of red spruce forest in the central Appalachians in the coming years; this will include Monongahela, as well as other federal, state and privately owned properties.

With solutions to the squirrel’s restoration becoming clear, officials revamped the management plan for Monongahela National Forest in 2007. The plan addressed managing for restoration, rather than just managing for timber and game species, according to Barbara Douglas, endangered species biologist at the West Virginia field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


That year, squirrels were found at more than 100 sites in and near Monongahela. With the careful management of timber harvesting near the animal’s habitat and the Forest Service’s commitment to protect and restore Monongahela’s spruce, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the squirrel from its Endangered Species List in 2008.

Because it is not common to delist a species based on the discovery of new populations, six conservation organizations filed a lawsuit to keep the squirrel on the list, saying that the terms of the original recovery plan had not been met. The squirrel was relisted until the suit was resolved in 2013, when the squirrel was again removed from the list.

“We think that the lack of active disturbance in its habitat and the natural recovery of those forests over time—as they were left alone—resulted in the squirrel doing well, having successful reproduction and being able to spread from what used to be its patchy habitat into larger blocks of contiguous forest,” says Douglas. Stihler and other scientists are satisfied that the species is secure as long as restoration continues.

Now that the squirrel is no longer endangered, the consortium of partners can take more aggressive steps to restore the former balance of spruce and hardwood trees. For instance, Brandon and Jones are experimenting with the Forest Service on girdling selected hardwood trees to benefit the squirrels in two ways: First, since the squirrels often nest in the old woodpecker holes of dead hardwood trees, the new snags will increase their housing stocks. Second, without the shade of those taller leafy trees, the tiny spruces that have been waiting for a break in the forest canopy will be able to shoot up and become mature trees.

Although the West Virginia northern flying squirrel is not the mystery it was 30 years ago, there is still more to learn to help speed up the restoration work. As the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative partners plan to replant larger tracts of land, their work already is informing restoration efforts from North Carolina to China.

Stihler and the other researchers will continue to monitor the animals. And Diggins is seeking answers to questions that might help the recovery, such as where the squirrels tend to travel at night.

Two evenings after she collared the feisty squirrel, Diggins sets up a camo-patterned camp chair just off a trail near the nest box. She and an assistant, seated 50 yards down the trail, take directional readings on the squirrel after twilight.

Every few minutes, Diggins raises what looks like a small, old-fashioned rooftop television antenna. The differential beeps of the radio signal indicate the squirrel’s proximity. Computer software will combine the readings and derive coordinates that show its location, and consecutive readings from the same spot indicate where the squirrel likely stopped to look for food—more clues to the secretive animal’s life revealed.

After two hours, Diggins turns off her headlamp to take in the night. To her left, two 75-foot red spruces are silhouetted against a sky bright with stars. Eventually, Monongahela will again have hundreds of thousands of trees like them. Diggins picks up a walkie-talkie and tells her assistant, “She seems to have settled in for the night.” The readings indicate that the squirrel probably denned in one of the many trees at the top of a nearby hill and, for now, is safe and secure. •

Monongahela at Play

Monongahela National Forest encompasses nearly a million acres, which is plenty of room for a variety of outdoor recreation activities, all within a day’s drive of the East’s population centers. It includes, not surprisingly, opportunities for hiking and camping. Miles of narrow, dirt forest roads are open to mountain bikers.

For the hard-core, there is rock climbing at Seneca Rocks, said to be one of the most difficult climbs in the East, and whitewater kayaking and canoeing at Smoke Hole Canyon. Native brook trout await the fly-fishing faithful, but many other hunting and fishing opportunities can be found within the forest.

You can find lodging at the national hotel chains along the commercial strip in Elkins, while bed-and-breakfasts are found in the out-lying areas. A Civil War battlefield, Rich Mountain, is a short drive from the highway between Elkins and the national forest.