The western gray squirrel was once a common sight in the oak and conifer forests of the southern Puget Lowlands, Columbia Gorge and on the east side of the Cascades. In 1993, surveys showed that the squirrel’s distribution shrunk to three isolated populations in Klickitat and southern Yakima counties; Okanogan and Chelan counties; and on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. As a result, Washington state listed the species as threatened. One of the primary reasons for the decline of the species has been habitat loss and degradation associated with development, logging, fire suppression, catastrophic wildfires, and the invasion by weeds.
To date, conservation of western gray squirrels and their habitat has been accomplished using a voluntary management
approach: landowners work with WDFW biologists to develop a management plan that protects nests and important habitat attributes during harvest and other forest management activities. However, the effectiveness of a voluntary management approach has been challenged, and Washington’s Forest Practices Board has directed DNR and WDFW to make improvements that will help to ensure the success of this approach. The board will continue evaluating the value of this approach for adequate protection of the western gray squirrel and determine if alternate approaches, such as development of formal rules, are needed.
How can small forest landowners help?
The following actions are simple steps landowners can take to help conserve and rebuild western gray squirrel populations:
- Look for western gray squirrel habitat on your property, which can be identified by a concentration of stick nests in ponderosa pine- and Douglas fir-dominated stands with a multi-layered and well-connected canopy.
- Preserve patches of suitable nest trees and maintain connected tree canopy between nests during forest management activities.
- Avoid disturbing important habitat features like oak trees, native shrubs, and ground cover of forest litter and/or moss.
- Contact WDFW biologists for help in identifying nests, habitat, and creating a voluntary management plan.
- Read up on the state’s efforts to conserve western gray squirrels. Additional information on western gray squirrels and what you can do to help conserve this species can be found in Management Recommendations for Washington’s Priority Habitats and Species, Western Gray Squirrel and in the Western Gray Squirrel Recovery Plan.
The western gray squirrel is the largest native tree squirrel in Washington. The species use stick nests for resting and sleeping, and females use cavity nests for giving birth and rearing their young. These solitary creatures forage on the ground for pine nuts, acorns, seeds, green vegetation, truffles and fruit, but they rarely stray far from their nest trees.
Although western gray squirrels are sometimes confused with eastern gray and fox squirrels, the squirrels size and coloring set them apart from each other:
- Western gray – Dark gray with pure white underparts, large ears and a large tail as long as the body.
- Eastern gray – About 20 percent smaller than adult western gray’s with shorter ears and tail, eastern gray squirrels are pale gray with a brown to reddish tinge.
- Fox squirrel – Similar in size to western gray squirrels, but with a cinnamon colored belly and short ears.
For more information or assistance with western gray squirrel conservation, please contact Gary Bell by phone at 360-902-2412 or via email at Gary.Bell@dfw.wa.gov
By Gary Bell, Wildlife Biologist, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife