If you’ve ever cruised through Alaska’s Inside Passage, you’ve seen the Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest reserve on the continent. The Tongass is bursting with wildlife, providing habitat for five species of salmon, brown and black bears, bald eagles, wolves, moose, mountain goats, and Sitka black-tailed deer. Migratory birds from all over the continent spend the warm season feeding, breeding, and nesting in these spectacular wildlands. Offshore, the waters are alive with magnificent marine mammals, including orca and humpback whales, sea lions, seals, and sea otters.
The Tongass National Forest includes about two dozen forested islands that host a number of endemic animals (that is, wildlife that don’t live anywhere else in the world). And among these, a small cluster of islands, including Prince of Wales Island, is home to a unique subspecies of northern flying squirrel: the Prince of Wales flying squirrel.
The Prince of Wales flying squirrel is a “flying squirrel,” and like other flying squirrels, the Prince of Wales squirrel launches from a perch on a tree and glides using highly specialized membranes known as patagia. These flaps of skin allow the squirrel to stay airborne for almost 150 feet!
The Prince of Wales flying squirrel is considered a keystone species for island old growth forests, dispersing conifer seeds and fungal spores across the forest, while serving as prey for a variety of predators. While northern flying squirrels feed primarily on fungi, Prince of Wales flying squirrels are more generalists, known to feed on lichens, tree seeds, berries, bird eggs and chicks, carrion, insects, buds, and flowers.
Logging is a threat to this charismatic flying squirrel. While they can easily glide from tree to tree, large gaps in the forest — including areas where old-growth forest is cut down — may be too far for even the most courageous fliers. Those squirrels that do attempt to make the leap, and those who choose to cross the gap rambling across the forest floor, are suddenly much more exposed to predators. Without the cover of a closed forest canopy, the squirrels can more easily be spotted by watchful hawks and owls, prowling coyotes and foxes, mischievous raccoons and voracious martens. One could imagine squirrels even being snatched from the air as they attempt to bridge expanses that are too far or too exposed.
And now comes the U.S. Forest Service, proposing to cut 200 million board feet of old-growth forest on Prince of Wales Island — the largest old-growth sale on the Tongass in decades. The Alexander Archipelago that includes Prince of Wales Island is a global biological hotspot, hosting Prince of Wales flying squirrels and other endemic and sensitive species, including the Alexander Archipelago wolf and the Queen Charlotte goshawk. The destruction of this pristine and important temperate rainforest habitat would put the flying squirrel and many other wildlife in danger.
It’s tough living in a forest fragmented by logging, which is why preserving the Tongass’ old growth stands is essential to conserving this the Prince of Wales flying squirrel and all the wildlife that depend on this unique habitat.