The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes listing a bird found in the North Cascades as threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to the likelihood that climate change will shrink its high-elevation habitat throughout the state.
The Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan is found in the Cascade Mountains from southern British Columbia to southern Washington. The birds are one of few animals that spend their entire lives on mountaintops, and they move seasonally between snow-covered habitat and summer alpine meadows.
As temperatures continue to warm, the region’s snowpack will decline. Alpine meadows may also be at risk as conditions allow tree lines to climb to higher elevations.
“As the iconic alpine meadows of Washington diminish with climate change, this alpine bird ... will be pushed out of the home it is specially adapted to,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Andrew LaValle said.
The state Department of Fish & Wildlife lists the Mount Rainier white-tailed ptarmigan as a species of greatest concern and as highly vulnerable to climate change.
The overall white-tailed ptarmigan species is part of the grouse family, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. There are several subspecies across North America, one of which is the Mount Rainier population.
A State Wildlife Action Plan published in 2015 estimated there could be about 1,000 of the birds in the Cascades.
Despite being named for Mount Rainier, the birds are more common in the North Cascades. According to the 2005 book “Birds of Washington,” the majority of sightings recorded between the 1960s and 1990s were in the North Cascades, and according to newer Fish and Wildlife Service data, 75% of sightings have taken place in the North Cascades.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, white-tailed ptarmigans camouflage with their mountain habitat, with their plumage turning white in winter and brown in summer to blend with snow or rock. Their tail feathers remain white year-round.
During the winter, the birds congregate in areas with soft snow and dig burrows that provide shelter. They migrate to higher elevations in the spring for breeding and nesting, and they go to the highest elevations — where temperatures are coolest and where rocky areas provide shelter — during the summer.
“Every part of this ptarmigan is adapted to help it thrive in a forbiddingly frigid climate, from its feathered, snowshoe-like talons to its seasonally changing plumage to its remarkable metabolic ability to gain body mass even throughout the harsh winters of its home,” a Center for Biological Diversity web page about the subspecies states. “But on a planet with a warming climate, these same adaptations could spell the bird’s doom.”
In 2010, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species as threatened. The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 agreed that the listing might be warranted.
The Center for Biological Diversity is counting the proposed listing, which was filed Tuesday in the Federal Register, as a win, but expressed disappointment in a news release that more steps to protect the birds aren’t being taken.
“These beautiful winter birds are immediately threatened by our warming world,” the center’s Endangered Species Director Noah Greenwald said, also calling the birds “a canary in a coal mine.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal includes rules to protect the birds from types of intentional and unintentional harm, and states that a species recovery plan will be written after the listing becomes official.