Press Releases

Washington, D.C. ­– U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) sent letters today to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) calling on both agencies to expand their captive breeding programs for the nearly extinct Mount Graham red squirrel.

The red squirrel subspecies on Mount Graham has been on the endangered species list since 1987. In 2016, there were 252 surveyed squirrels, but after this summer’s 48,000-acre Frye wildfire that devastated their habitat and food supply, only 35 squirrels currently remain in the wild. According to some experts, the remaining squirrels may not survive the winter.

The USFWS, AZGFD, and the U.S. Forest Service currently operate a pilot breeding program in collaboration with the Phoenix Zoo, but no offspring have been produced to date. Senator McCain is calling on the partners to increase research and resources to the program through the use of Arizona’s Heritage Fund, a grant program that provides up to $10 million each year in Arizona lottery proceeds to fund wildlife conservation projects.

In the first letter, sent to USFWS Acting Director Greg Sheehan, Senator McCain wrote: “I am concerned that current pace of the pilot program may not be sufficient to sustain or recover the population. We must expand options for augmentation through captive breeding and release. ”

In the second letter, sent to AZGFD Director Ty Gray, Senator McCain wrote: “I respectfully request that you review the program needs of the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation, which operates the Phoenix Zoo. Under its collaborative agreement with the Department, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Zoo currently holds and studies five squirrels ... I am confident that your continued support will greatly improve the chances of survival for this Mount Graham subspecies.”

The letters are below, here and here.

 

Mr. Greg Sheehan

Acting Director

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

5275 Leesburg Pike, 2N035

Falls Church, VA 22041

Dear Acting Director Sheehan:

I write to request the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) assess and expand its recovery and captive breeding program for the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel.

As you know, the Mt. Graham red squirrel is a subspecies found only in the forests of the Pinaleno Mountains in Graham County, Arizona.  The red squirrel population is in a freefall following the 48,000-acre Frye Fire that occurred this summer.  The number of squirrels on Mount Graham has dropped to just 35, down from 252 squirrels surveyed in 2016.  Much of the existing habitat for the squirrels has been lost to fire and insect damage.  Only an estimated 590 acres of suitable squirrel habitat remains.  By some accounts, the Mt. Graham red squirrels may not survive this winter. Squirrel experts believe it will take significant human intervention to help the Mt. Graham red squirrels survive this winter. 

In 2013, the USFWS initiated a pilot captive breeding program in coordination with the Phoenix Zoo, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and other members of the Mt. Graham Red Squirrel Recovery Team.  Currently, only five squirrels are in captivity and wildlife biologists have not yet successfully reared offspring.  I am concerned that current pace of the pilot program may not be sufficient to sustain or recover the population.  We must expand options for augmentation through captive breeding and release.

To this end, I respectfully request your assessment of the pilot program in the wake of the Frye Fire.  Please identify next steps and a timeline for expanding the program.  Thank you for your attention to this request and I look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

John McCain

Unites States Senator

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The Honorable Ty Gray

Director

Arizona Game and Fish Department

5000 W. Carefree Highway

Phoenix, Arizona 85086

Dear Director Gray:

I write to encourage the Arizona Game and Fish Department to increase its support for the Mount Graham red squirrel recovery effort.  I believe the Department’s Heritage Fund could be utilized to develop a more robust captive breeding program. 

As you know, the red squirrel population on Mt. Graham has rapidly declined in recent months largely because of this summer’s Frye Fire.  Only 35 squirrels remain in the wild following substantial loss of their habitat and food supply.  The survival of the subspecies may ultimately depend on the release of captive bred animals into forested habitats. 

To that end, I respectfully request that you review the program needs of the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation, which operates the Phoenix Zoo.  Under its collaborative agreement with the Department, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Zoo currently holds and studies five squirrels.  I understand that the Zoo’s program would benefit from the addition of squirrel enclosures for 10 more squirrels, a dedicated technician to conduct reproduction assessments, and related research equipment.

The Department has long been a leader in protecting the red squirrel in the face of forest insect infestation and damaging wildfires.  I am confident that your continued support will greatly improve the chances of survival for this Mount Graham subspecies.  Thank you for your attention to this request.

Sincerely,

John McCain

Unites States Senator

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