Some flying squirrels have been cut off from their furry cousins by road construction in the Western North Carolina mountains.
It's a classic man-versus-nature plotline that biologists say could threaten the endangered northern flying squirrel in the corner of the state near the Tennessee border.
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But state wildlife officials and Duke Energy think they have a solution.
In June, the Charlotte-based utility donated several utility poles and a crew to install 40-foot tall intermediate landing areas for the squirrels to use as they make their way across a wide highway that cuts through key habitat.
Preferring air travel, the unlikely aviators need the help because they don't have the range to cross the Cherohala Skyway in Graham County in one flight.
The 12-year-old highway connects Robbinsville, N.C., with Tellico Plains, Tenn. It's infamous in motorcycle and sports car racing circles because it's part of a highway loop that includes a stretch known as the Tail of the Dragon, which has 318 curves over 11 miles, according to www.tailofthedragon.com.
Whether the squirrels are using the new leafless landing areas still needs to be studied, said Chris Kelly, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. But a similar project in Australia to aid a species of flying marsupial was a success, she said.
Colonies cut off because of downed trees and construction are threatened because they're unable to mate with other colonies or forage farther away for food, Kelly said.
And walking longer distances isn't much of an option. Scientists suspect the squirrel wings – membranes under their arms that stretch out for gliding – could be too awkward for running or get stuck in ground-level brush.
“Bobcats and weasels are the predators, and if a squirrel needs to get away they usually run up a tree and glide,” she said.
In another part of the state, a similar flying squirrel problem has taken shape along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway.
To keep views along the parkway open to tourists, crews periodically cut back trees that get in the way. But like with construction of the Cherohala Skyway about 100 miles south and west of Asheville, the Blue Ridge tree clearing has chopped squirrel territory there into smaller chunks, leaving less space for gliding, foraging or establishing new territories.
A controversial proposal would preserve some trees for squirrels and block some tourist views. Opponents say selective cutting would cost too much and could threaten tourism.