Conservation groups suing federal agency over plight of red tree voles

Conservation groups intend to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for federal protection of a small mammal that lives in tree tops and is considered by conservationists to be a harbinger of forest health.

In a notice last month, officials from the Center for Biological Diversity, Bird Alliance of Oregon, Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild said they will challenge the agency’s denial of federal protection for red tree voles under the Endangered Species Act.

In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to extend that protection to the elusive animal that used to be abundant in the north Oregon coast forests, according to Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

But decades of clear-cutting on the north coast and six-year intervals of forest fires known as the Tillamook Burn that struck from 1933 through 1951 have wiped out the majority of old-growth stands. The red tree voles that remain are concentrated on federal land managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

“There’s really no other animal as closely tied to Oregon’s old forests as the red tree vole, as it lives its entire life in big, tall trees. It’s the only mammal that feeds, in its case exclusively, on conifer needles,” Greenwald told the Capital Chronicle. “Thus, if we can save the tree vole, we will have saved the region’s old-growth forests, which store tremendous amounts of carbon, provide clean drinking water and homes to thousands of other species.”

The announcement comes at a time of renewed publicity about the plight of old-growth trees, with protesters occupying stands in southern Oregon in recent months to prevent them from being logged in thinning projects aimed at preventing forest fires. The Biden administration has called for protecting old-growth forests, and the U.S. Forest Service is moving to update the Northwest Forest Plan to further protect fragile species. The land management plan is designed to protect threatened and endangered species while promoting economic and social sustainability on nearly 25 million acres of federal land in western Oregon and Washington and northwest California.

Conservationists noted that the voles had some protection under the Northwest Forest Plan, but they said the mammal’s long-term survival hinges on improving state and private forest management. 

“The state forests are in the process of adopting a habitat conservation plan that will provide some protection to the vole,” the center said in a release. “But the plan will also allow continued logging of thousands of acres of potential vole habitat without any surveys to determine if the species is present.”

Greenwald said the conservationists’ suit will not try to change the forest plan, but he said the groups are watching developments closely.  

Center efforts to conserve the vole date to 2007, when it petitioned the wildlife agency for federal protection. The Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2011 that protecting the north Oregon coast red tree voles was “warranted but precluded.” It put the animals on a list of candidate species for protection. But in 2019, under the Trump administration, the agency determined after a year-long study that endangered or threatened protection was “not warranted.”

Survival of the red tree vole is vital to the survival of northern spotted owls, which feed on them, along with other species, according to Danielle Moser, wildlife program manager for Oregon Wild. 

“These forests and wildlife are a critical part of Oregon’s natural heritage, and they should be protected as a legacy for future generations; not destroyed for short-term profit,” Moser said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.