Letter: Squirrel population on Mount Graham hurt by UMN supported University of Arizona project

Letter to the Editor

In Arizona, one of the most imperiled mammal species on the planet, the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel, is rapidly being shoved into the abyss of extinction by people who claim to be scientists. The situation is so desperate that without immediate intervention, the squirrels may not even make it through the winter.

A recent fire that scorched the remaining ancient forest on Mount Graham has reduced the squirrel population from 252 to just 35.

By supporting and endorsing the actions of the University of Arizona-led Mount Graham International Observatory project, University of Minnesota astronomers, administrators and their allies have supported extinction since 2002.

Astronomers and journalists claim that the Mount Graham red squirrel’s most recent plight is because of the catastrophic fire this summer on the mountain. Although there has always been fire on the mountain, there have not always been Abert’s squirrels, Bible camp, astronomers and pine bark beetles, which came in droves when the astronomers launched their astrophysical development work and telescopes. All of this fragments the Mount Graham red squirrel’s habitat and makes their movements precarious.

Even if conservation biologists and astronomers cannot agree on who is to blame for the squirrel’s impending extinction, we can agree on the following: if the only thing humans cannot control is fire, then get the hell off the mountain. Yield to the squirrel. Begin radical habitat restoration.

As was determined nearly 30 years ago, astrophysical developments that include tree clearing, road construction and other related activities that make way for Big Science are never compatible with the squirrel’s needs. In fact, biological assessments showed that the astronomers’ plans would negatively impact the squirrel’s critical habitat and impede its recovery, making a viable, long-term population of squirrels unlikely. The University did not listen.

Because of fire suppression and other conditions, scientists have long predicted a catastrophe was likely. In fact, the last catastrophic fire that the Mount Graham red squirrel experienced was more than 300 years ago. The squirrels have been able to adjust, but not when there are structures occupying their territory and inhibiting their movements.

As the Arizona Daily Star reported in 2000, “A former UA researcher who now works at the University of Tennessee, [Henri] Grissino-Mayer studied the wildfire history of Mount Graham and determined from fire scars in tree rings that the spruce-fir forest last burned in 1685. The summit of Mount Graham is overdue for a ‘catastrophic, stand-replacing, wipe-out-everything-on-the-face-of-the-Earth-type fire,’ he said. It was a mistake to allow telescopes to be built there, and the thousands of dead, insect-ravaged trees will compound the fire threat, he said. ‘As far as I’m concerned, those telescopes are just gonna become melted gobs of goo,’ Grissino-Mayer said.”

The planet is currently experiencing a biodiversity crisis — one that humans are causing. It is estimated that dozens of species per day, mostly insects and mollusks, perish. Common and rare species have been lost in the Earth’s sixth great mass extinction event.

Ground zero for such activities are places such as Mauna Kea, Galapagos and Madagascar, as well as “Sky Islands” such as Mount Graham, which contains at least 30 rare, threatened, endangered and unique distributions of plants and animals — at least 18 of which are endemic.

Extinction is forever. The University of Minnesota’s promotion of astronomy on Mount Graham should not be.

This letter has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Joel Helfrich received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 2010 and currently teaches history at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York.