October 26, 2021 | By:

Protecting the Kaibab Plateau Ancient Forest and Larger Grand Staircase Wildlife Corridor: Refuge for an Endemic Squirrel and Other Imperiled Wildlife

Saddle Canyon from Powell Plateau

Saddle Canyon from Powell Plateau © Elsbeth Atencio

Editors’ note:  When Kim Crumbo disappeared – a loss to Rewilding as hard to take as the recent losses of Michael Soulé and Nancy Morton – we were working with him on several papers and many projects.  The papers were still rough drafts, which we Rewilding Earth editors were helping Kim, our Wildlands Coordinator, refine and complete.  Kim’s tragic disappearance left us all wondering how to carry on his heroic work for wild places and creatures.  We quickly decided one of the many ways we need to help solidify Kim’s great legacy is by publishing his wild visions, even if they are in rough form.  The world should know what Kim aimed to achieve, in what we all hoped would be his many more years of tireless work.  The proposal below begins to paint a vision of a wild and protected Grand Staircase Wildlife Corridor, from Grand Canyon National Park through Bryce Canyon National Park, including an old-growth forest preserve on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.  With Kim’s words echoing in our minds and hearts, we call upon our fellow wilderness and wildlife advocates to push for protection of this whole area, as an extension of the Mogollon Wildlife Corridor that Kim described in an earlier article, a major step toward completing a Western Wildway, and a major contribution to 30×30 and Half Earth goals.

DRAFT April 2021
By Kim Crumbo, Wildlands Coordinator, The Rewilding Institute

Climate change and loss of biodiversity are widely recognized as the foremost environmental challenges of our time[1] and the conservation of high quality existing habitats should remain the primary focus of conservation efforts to maintain biodiversity.[2] Globally, forests are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.[3] Forests, especially intact forests, help stabilize the climate.[4] They regulate ecosystems, protect biodiversity, play an integral part in the carbon cycle,  and can support sustainable livelihoods.[5]

Today, less than 20% of the world’s original forests remain intact (i.e., largely free from logging and other forms of extraction and development).  Remaining intact blocks are largely tropical forests of South America and Africa and boreal forests in Canada and Russia.[6] In the U.S.—a global pioneer in national parks and wildlife reserves—the percentage of intact forest in the contiguous 48 states is only an estimated 6–7% of total forest area,[7] with a higher proportion in the West and a lower proportion in the East.[8] While international emphasis remains on preventing loss of tropical forests, intact and/or older U.S. forests have the potential for rapid atmospheric CO2 removal rates and biological carbon sequestration[9] adequate to remove sufficient atmospheric CO2 to reduce national annual net emissions by 11%.[10]

Ancient forests provide ample other values as well. These wildlands possess intrinsic value, that is, they have value in themselves, and not merely for something else.[11] Such forests possess instrumental value (also called extrinsic value) as well, that is, value for others.[12] Ecology is the branch of biology that deals with the instrumental value of living relationships and reliances most easily perceived as natural beauty.[13]

The Kaibab Plateau, the mountain through which the Colorado River carves the Grand Canyon, rises over 9,000 feet above sea level with its diverse stands of aspen, ancient pine and fir forests, woodlands, grasslands, and montane meadows. The Paiutes call it Kai Awvahv, the “mountain lying down,” and its people Kai’vahv Eetseng.[14] Clarence Dutton, a seasoned explorer and geologist, receptive to its intrinsic and aesthetic value, described the mountain in 1880 as “the most enchanting region it has ever been our privilege to visit.”[15]

Concerns over degradation of the northern Arizona Kaibab Plateau forest led to the establishment in 1893 of a forest reserve surrounding Grand Canyon. In fact, between 1882 and 1886, Senator (later President) Benjamin Harrison introduced three Grand Canyon National Park bills that evidently included the North Kaibab.[16] By 1905, Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt recognized that forests like the Kaibab should be set aside “for the wild forest creatures…[to] afford perpetual protection to the native fauna and flora.” In 1906, and in accordance with earlier Congressional authorization, Theodore Roosevelt established the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve for “the protection of game animals… recognized as a breeding place therefore…”[17] Unprotected, usually persecuted “non-game” included mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, rabbits, and even goshawks.[18] That designation, while still on the books, has proven inadequate in preserving the full spectrum of native species and their habitat, especially large carnivores, and the Plateau’s old-growth forests and grasslands. In 1908, Roosevelt, making good use of the recently passed Antiquities Act, proclaimed a Grand Canyon National Monument–better protecting the Canyon proper but leaving out most of the forested Kaibab Plateau.[19] Efforts to protect the lands surrounding Grand Canyon continued with recommendations for an enlarged, five million-acre national monument including not only the North Kaibab and Tusayan Ranger[20] Districts adjacent to Grand Canyon, but portions of Utah’s Dixie National Forest.[21] Two decades after Roosevelt’s gesture, “Ding” Darling, the head of the U.S. Biological Survey, proposed creating a vast wildlife area on the Arizona Strip. At least one rancher, Preston Nutter, expressed enthusiasm for the idea.[22] As usual, the principal opponents, ranchers (with the exception, Mr. Nutter) and loggers, blocked these conservation efforts.[23]

Nowadays, the Plateau, north of and adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park, is managed by the US Forest Service’s North Kaibab Ranger District[24] and presents a rare example of a diminished but fundamentally intact mature forest outside of protected areas. Old-growth forests, by definition, have old trees but the presence of old trees is just the beginning of a description of the composition of an old-growth forest.[25] Restoring natural evolutionary processes, including wildfire, together with the restoration of all native species – including top carnivores – in natural patterns of abundance and distribution, provides the opportunity for a great range of plants, animals, and microbes to coexist in the same landscape.[26] Scientists[27] and conservationists[28] have determined that old-growth southwestern ponderosa pine forest, as found in Grand Canyon National Park and North Kaibab Ranger District, constitutes one of America’s most endangered ecosystems. They report that old-growth ponderosa pine has suffered an estimated 85-98% area loss due to logging and conversion to other uses.

Swamp Point, North Rim, overlooking Muav Canyon (Powell Plateau on the right)

Swamp Point, North Rim, overlooking Muav Canyon (Powell Plateau on the right) © Elsbeth Atencio

The Forest as Refuge

By definition, refugia are habitats that components of biodiversity retreat to, and can potentially expand from under changing environment conditions.[29] Congressional or administrative designation of a Kaibab Plateau forest refuge would direct the agency to initiate a precautionary approach to protect remaining imperiled old growth, particularly by minimizing road density, and restore characteristic biotic and abiotic processes, including natural fire, to assure naturally evolving patch dynamics.[30] These actions would lead to the restoration of wild forest structure, function, composition, and native species diversity, and would maximize carbon storage.

Growing intact existing forests to their ecological potential—termed proforestation—is an effective, immediate, and low-cost approach that could be mobilized across suitable forests of all types.[31] Proforestation serves the “greatest public good,” the so-called Forest Service moral compass,[32] by maximizing co-benefits such as nature-based biological carbon sequestration and ecosystem services such as biodiversity enhancement, water and air quality, flood and erosion control, public health, low impact recreation, and scenic beauty.[33]Large trees and intact, older forests are not only effective and cost-effective natural reservoirs of carbon storage, they also provide essential habitat that is often missing from younger, managed forests.[34]

Kaibab Tassel-Eared Squirrel

Kaibab Tassel-Eared Squirrel (NPS Photo by Allyson Mathis)

The Kaibab Tassel-Eared Squirrel

The Kaibab Squirrel, an endemic and rare subspecies of tassel-eared squirrel found only on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau, has been characterized as “a classical example of the process of evolution through geographic isolation.”[35]  Kaibab squirrels need the structure of a whole patch of old-growth trees to facilitate their movements and provide food.[36] Recognizing this relationship, and the Kaibab Plateau’s forest as “one of the largest and best examples of a climax [old growth] community,” the Secretary of Interior in 1965 designated the plateau’s ponderosa pine forests within Grand Canyon National Park and the Kaibab National Forest as the 304,594-acre Kaibab Squirrel National Natural Landmark.[37]

Grand Canyon National Park shares a boundary with the NKRD and comprises approximately ten percent of the Kaibab squirrel’s range.[38] Unfortunately, current protection of the National Natural Landmark’s values outside the Park is voluntary and has not assured the species’ continued survival. Congressional designation of refugia mandating protection of this imperiled creature and its endangered habitat could.

As early as 1924, there was concern that the Kaibab squirrel might be in peril of extinction.[39] Although its population is officially considered stable, scientists expert in Kaibab squirrel consider that assumption problematic and point out the inadequacy of information regarding the squirrel’s long-term survival, particularly given the uncertainty about southwestern forests due to climate disruption. There remains the imperative of conducting population surveys and continuing monitoring of the Kaibab squirrel, including loss of habitat due to high intensity fires, timber harvest, and tree thinning.  To the dismay of many, hunting also must be monitored, if Kaibab squirrels are to persist.[40] Indeed, some scientists and many conservation groups insist hunting of this unique and charismatic species should cease, especially in the absence of accurate population numbers.[41]

The Forest Service has the authority to establish refugia (no-hunting zones) for ecologically valuable and endemic species such as the Kaibab squirrel, even over state wildlife agency objections.[42]  As landowners, U.S. Federal land management agencies have sovereign powers over their lands and resources[43] as well as an obligation, not just the discretion, to conserve wildlife on federal lands,[44] including establishing refugia.

California Condors

Condors, the largest land birds in North America, can reach altitudes of 15,000 feet and speeds of 55 mph and can soar 200 miles in a single day.[45] They have flown throughout the West and in skies over Mexico for thousands of years, and are symbolically important to numerous Native American tribes.

In 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began releasing condors in Arizona’s Grand Canyon ecoregion.[46] During the next 20 years, the agency released a total of 189 condors, which produced 29 wild-hatched chicks. As of the April 2019 population count, only 312 condors traversed North American skies: 88 in the Grand Canyon ecoregion, 188 in California, and 36 in Mexico’s Baja California.[47] By the end of 2016, 125 of the birds released by the agency had died, including 20 of the wild-hatched chicks. Lead poisoning through eating carrion contaminated by lead bullets, including the remains of gutted game animals, constitutes the major threat to condor survival.

While particularly deadly to condors, lead poisoning also threatens other native creatures, including eagles and other birds of prey, coyotes, and mountain lions, throughout the year since these and other wildlife species can ingest any animal shot with lead-based ammunition and left in the field. Eating game meat contaminated by lead also poses a threat to human health.[48]

In other words, lead poisoning still remains the major obstacle to restoring the condor to its rightful place in the Grand Canyon ecoregion, despite efforts to reduce the use of lead ammunition. The obvious solution to this ecological crisis is removing the source of contamination, namely lead ammunition, and requiring non-lead substitutes which are readily available. The principal barrier to condor recovery is ideological. Unfortunately, the State of Arizona opposes requiring use of non-lead ammunition, as do some sportsmen groups — National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, and the National Sports Shooting Foundation. Federal land managing agencies should use their authority to forbid use of lead ammunition on the proposed Kaibab Ancient Forest Preserve.[49]

Swamp Point, North Rim

Swamp Point, North Rim © Elsbeth Atencio

The Grand Staircase Wildlife Corridor

The Grand Staircase (Paunsagunt-Kaibab) Wildlife Corridor comprises essential habitat for ecologically significant and endangered species. Its grasslands and woodlands also provide critical linkages for wildlife populations of the Grand Canyon ecoregion north to Yellowstone through Utah’s High Plateaus.[50]

Ecologists have long recognized that the loss of core habitat and habitat connectivity poses the greatest threat to species persistence and overall biodiversity.[51] If not connected, even the largest protected and ecologically intact areas are spatially inadequate to maintain full ranges of native species in natural patterns of abundance and distribution.[52] A review of 25 years of peer-reviewed articles reveals that the most frequently cited recommendation for protecting biodiversity is improved connectivity conservation to ensure species can move and adapt in response to climate-induced changes.[53] Climate change refugia, such as the proposed Kaibab Ancient Forest Preserve, can be managed from a network approach, considering temporary refugia for incumbents as well as resource transitions and even future refugia for species and other resources previously located elsewhere.[54]

The corridor function of the Grand Staircase Wildlife Corridor is well established by Arizona and Utah state wildlife agencies.[55] Arizona winter range is essential to a significant number of Utah’s mule deer herd (and their primary predator, mountain lions) which share winter range with the Arizona herd. As winter approaches, Utah’s mule deer migrate off the high Paunsagunt Plateau (Bryce Canyon National Park region) south to lower elevation winter range. In the spring, the deer return to the higher, cooler summer range of the Paunsagunt Plateau. While the restored Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument protects much of this important winter habitat, a significant portion lies within the proposed Kaibab Ancient Forest Preserve.

Without additional protection of this critical wildlife linkage, the future of the diverse wildlife of Grand Canyon National Park, the Kaibab and Paunsagunt Plateaus, and Grand Staircase-Escalante and Vermilion Cliffs National Monuments remains in doubt. Ecologically inspired designation would protect a wide variety of wildlife including the endangered California condor, rare pincushion cactus, mule deer, mountain lion, pronghorn, an endemic kangaroo rat, and raptors such as golden eagles, rough-legged hawk, ferruginous hawk, and northern harrier. Protection and restoration of ecological resiliency and natural processes, especially wildlife connectivity, is an especially critical wildlands conservation strategy as our nation confronts the challenges of climate disruption. With its full range of elevational zones and diverse habitats, the Grand Staircase Wildlife Corridor provides a nationally unique natural laboratory for modeling and studying the effects of climate change on landscapes.

Near Point Imperial (highest point on the North Rim)

Near Point Imperial (highest point on the North Rim) © Elsbeth Atencio


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Heller, N. E. and E. S. Zavaleta. 2009. Biodiversity Management in the Face of Climate Change: A Review of 22 Years of Recommendations. Biological Conservation 142: 14-32.

Hilty, J.A., Keeley, A.T.H., Lidicker Jr., W.Z, and Merenlender, A.M. 2019. Corridor Ecology: Linking Landscapes for Biodiversity Conservation and Climate Adaptation. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Hodgson, Jenny A., Chris D. Thomas, Brendan A. Wintle and Atte Moilanen. 2009. Climate Change, Connectivity and Conservation Decision Making: Back to Basics. Journal of Applied Ecology 46, 964–969. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01695.x

IPCC. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC. 2014.

IUCN [International Union of Conservation of Nature]. 2021. Forest and Climate Changehttps://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/forests-and-climate-change#:~:text=Forests%20are%20a%20stabilising%20force,that%20can%20drive%20sustainable%20growth.&text=Increasing%20and%20maintaining%20forests%20is%20therefore%20an%20essential%20solution%20to%20climate%20change

Keppel, Gunnar, Kimberly P. Van Niel, Grant W. Wardell-Johnson, Colin J. Yates, Margaret Byrne, Ladislav Mucina, Antonius G.T. Schut, Stephen D. Hopper, and Steven E. Franklin. 2001. Refugia: Idntifying and Understanding Safe Havens for Biodiversity Under Climate Change. Global Ecology and Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2011.00686.x

Mawdsley, J. R., R. O’Malley, and D.S. Ojima. 2009. A Review of Climate Change Adaptation Strategies for Wildlife Management and Biodiversity Conservation. Conservation Biology 23(5):1080-1089. Available at: http://nctc.fws.gov/courses/climatechange/climateacademy/documents/Mawdsl_et_al_2009%20(2).pdf

Miller, R. 1996. The History and Intent and Management of the Grand Canyon Game Preserve. Unpublished report prepared for Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Morehouse, B.J. 1996. A Place Called Grand Canyon: Contested Geographies. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press. 202 pages.

Morelli TL, C. Daly, S.Z. Dobrowski, D.M. Dulen, J.L. Ebersole, S.T. Jackson , et al. 2016. Managing Climate Change Refugia for Climate Adaptation. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0159909. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0159909 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0159909#sec008

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[1] Moomaw et al., 2019.

[2] Hodgson et al. 2009: 968.

[3] IUCN, 2021.

[4] IUCN, 2021.

[5] IUCN, 2021.

[6] Watson et al., 2018.

[7] Oswalt et al., 2014.

[8] Moonmaw et al., 2019.

[9] Moomaw et al., 2019.

[10] Moomaw et al., 2019.

[11] Ken Wilber, an American philosopher and writer, explains “…any holon has ‘whole value.’ It has value in itself, and not merely for something else. It is an end in and for itself, and not merely a means for something other. It has autonomous value, and not merely instrumental value. This is usually referred to as ‘intrinsic value,’ which I accept…all holons have intrinsic value.” (Wilber, 2000: 544, emphasis in original). Wilber, referencing Arthur Koester, coined the term holon to refer to that which, being a whole in one context, is simultaneously a part in another.” (Wilbur, 2000:26). This broad definition include the earth’s diversity of life. See “The Web of Life,” in Wilber (2000: 11-39); in addition, Birch and Cobb (1990:152) state “…we should respect every entity for its intrinsic value as well as for its instrumental value to other, including ourselves.”

[12] Wilber, 2000:545, emphasis in original.

[13] Safina, 2019.

[14]Martineau, 1992:154, 190.

[15] Dutton, 1977:133.

[16] Morehouse 1996:39.

[17] S 2732, 59th Congress (S 11-8-06, 40, 787).

[18] Miller, 1996.

[19] Morehouse, 1996:39.

[20] 360,000 acres. https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/kaibab/recarea/?recid=11688.

[21] Morehouse, 1996:40.

[22] Price and Darby, 1964:251.

[23] Morehouse, 1996.

[24] 655,248 acres.

[25] Binkley et al., 2007.

[26] Binkley et al., 2007.

[27] Noss et al., 1995.

[28] Noss and Peters, 1995.

[29] Kepple et al., 2011.

[30] See Talty et al., 2020.

[31] Moomaw et al., 2019.

[32] Pinchot and Utilitarianism, “What is the Greatest Good?” https://www.fs.fed.us/greatestgood/press/mediakit/facts/pinchot.shtml.

[33] Moomaw et al., 2019.

[34] Askins, 2014.

[35] National Natural Landmarks: Kaibab Squirrel Area. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nnlandmarks/site.htm?Site=KASQ-AZ

[36]Allred, 2010; and Binkley et al., 2007.

[37] USDI, National Park Service, 1993.  Kaibab Squirrel Area, Natural Landmark Brief.  Tucson, AZ: National Park Service.

[38] Allred, 2010: 119.

[39] Goldman, E.A. 1925. Memorandum Concerning the Kaibab Squirrel (June 6-18, 1925). Smithsonian Institution Archives, record unit 7176m box 29, folder 19. Cited in Allred, 2010:120.

[40] Allred, 2010:124. See Hunting: Tree Squirrels: “Even the once sacrosanct Kaibab squirrel is now hunted, and the only totally protected squirrel is the federally endangered Graham Mountain spruce squirrel [of southern Arizona] https://www.azgfd.com/hunting/species/smallgame/treesquirrel/#:~:text=Tree%20squirrels%20have%20an%20uneven%20history%20as%20game%20in%20Arizona.&text=Even%20the%20once%20sacrosanct%20Kaibab,endangered%20Graham%20Mountain%20spruce%20squirrel

[41] Allred, 2010:124.

[42] Hunting has declined with an increase in activities such as wildlife viewing. In the 1950s, approximately 25 percent of men were hunters (Dizard, J. 2003. Mortal Stakes: Hunters and Hunting in Contemporary America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press). In 2006, ten percent of men and one percent of women participated in hunting (U.S. Department of the Interior. 2006. 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior). Whether it is from compassion for Bambi or “simply about being out in the woods, in the cold and wet of fall dragging a big animal over steep terrain, hunting is just not cool to many young people” (Kirk Johnson, “For many youths, hunting loses the battle for attentions.” New York Times, Sept. 25, 2010). https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/us/26huntchurch.html. See also Dizard, J. 2003. Mortal Stakes: Hunters and Hunting in Contemporary America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press).

[43] Nie et al., 2017:21.

[44] Nie et al., 2017:95; and Greaves 2009;919,931.

[45] Endangered Species Coalition. 2018. Extinction Plan: Ten Species Imperiled by the Trump Administration http://www.endangered.org/cms/assets/uploads/2018/12/Extinction-Plan.pdf

[46] Southwest Condor Working Group. 2017. California Condor Recovery Program in the Southwest Fourth Review (2012-2016). November 2017. https://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/arizona/Documents/SpeciesDocs/CA_Condor/Fourth%205yr%20review%20final.pdf.

[47] Arizona Game and Fish Department, California Condor Recovery https://www.azgfd.com/wildlife/speciesofgreatestconservneed/raptor-management/california-condor-recovery/ Accessed March 24, 2021.

[48] Hunt, Grainger W., Richard T. Watson, J. Linday Oaks. Christ N. Parish, Kurt K. Burnham, Russell L. Tucker, James R. Belthoff, and Garret Hart. 2009. Lead Bullet Fragments in Venison from Rifle-Killed Deer: Potential for Human Dietary Exposure. PLoS ONE 4(4): e5330. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0005330.

[49] Nie et al., 2017:21,95; and Greaves, 2009;919,931.

[50] Crumbo, 2021:17-19.

[51] Soulé and Terborgh, 1999; and TWS, 2012.

[52] Newmark, 1995; Noss and Cooperrider, 1994; and Soule and Terborgh, 1999.

[53] Hilty et al., 2019; Heller and Zavaleta 2009; Mawdsley et al. 2009; Hagerman and Satterfield, 2014; IPPC 2014; Schmitz et al., 2015.

[54] Morelli et al., 2016.

[55] UDOT, 2020.

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