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US officials to consider protections for endangered Arizona squirrel

FILE - In this May 24, 2004 file photo, a Mount Graham red squirrel darts through trees on Mount Graham near Safford, Ariz. State officials say the endangered squirrel species' estimated population has apparently plummeted since a major wildfire burned much of its habitat atop a southeastern Arizona mountain last summer. The state Game and Fish Department says an annual multi-agency survey of the Mount Graham red squirrel produced an estimate of only 35 squirrels, which is only 14 percent of the 252 squirrels estimated in 2016. (Kelly Presnell /Arizona Daily Star via AP, File)

BILLINGS, Mont. – U.S. wildlife officials pledged Thursday to consider protections for a tiny, endangered squirrel in Arizona.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded to a petition by agreeing to consider whether more habitat protections are needed for the Mount Graham red squirrel of western Arizona.

Weighing a mere 8 ounces, the squirrels are found solely in the Pinaleno Mountains of western Arizona.

Fires, roads and developments including a University of Arizona telescope complex have shrunk the squirrel’s range. An estimated 75 remain in the wild.

Wildlife advocates contend the squirrels’ only hope is the removal of the telescopes, some nearby recreational cabins and a bible camp in the area.

“It’s an incredibly precarious situation,” said Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued government officials last year to force a decision on the group’s 2017 petition for more habitat protections. “If you want to try to have these animals survive you have to remove those structures.”

Federal law allows citizens to petition for plants and animals to get protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Officials responded to three petitions Thursday, also agreeing to consider protections for bees that pollinate rare desert flowers in Nevada.

However, they rejected a request to protect Yellowstone National Park’s bison herds.

The positive finding on the petitions for the red squirrel and poppy bee means officials will conduct more intensive reviews before issuing final decisions on the two species.

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