Delmarva squirrel makes comeback

MILTON — The U.S. Department of the Interior announced Friday the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel, one of the animals included on the first list of endangered species nearly a half century ago, is no longer at risk of extinction.

The turnaround is attributed to concerted conservation efforts by states, landowners and others working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to a news release from the service. The squirrel will be removed from the list of threatened and endangered wildlife under the Endangered Species Act in December.

The recovery was announced by Interior’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Michael Bean Friday at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Milton. Also present were Fish and Wildlife’s Northeast regional director Wendi Weber and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

Twice the size of the common gray squirrel, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel may grow to 30 inches — with half of that as the tail — and weigh up to 3 pounds. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

Twice the size of the common gray squirrel, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel may grow to 30 inches — with half of that as the tail — and weigh up to 3 pounds. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

“The fox squirrel’s return to this area, rich with farmland and forest, marks not only a major win for conservationists and landowners, but also represents the latest in a string of success stories that demonstrate the Endangered Species Act’s effectiveness,” Mr. Bean said. “The act provides flexibility and incentives to build partnerships with states and private landowners to help recover species while supporting local economic activity. I applaud the states of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, and the many partners who came together over the years to make this day possible.”

The Endangered Species Act has been successful in conserving imperiled wildlife, preventing the extinction of more than 99 percent of the species listed as threatened or endangered since 1973. In addition, more than 30 species have been taken off the list due to recovery, including the bald eagle, American alligator, peregrine falcon and now Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel. Others, such as the whooping crane and the California condor, have been pulled back from the edge of extinction.

“We are truly blessed in Delaware to have a beautiful bayshore with farmland, marshes and landscapes like Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge,” said Sen. Carper. “These lands are crucial habitats for a number of species, including the Delmarva fox squirrel. The Endangered Species Act brought this squirrel back from the brink, and I’m excited we can celebrate this victory here in one of its habitats today.”

Delaware’s junior senator, Sen. Chris Coons, said, he is “so proud of the peninsula’s landowners, conservation organizations, and state officials for their work to bring the Delmarva fox squirrel back from the brink of extinction.”

Larger than other squirrel species and generally not found in suburban or urban areas, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel ranged throughout the Delmarva Peninsula of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia before experiencing a sharp decline in the mid-20th century due to forest clearing for agriculture and development, short-rotation timber harvest and over-hunting. With its range reduced more than 90 percent, the squirrel was one of 78 species listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1967, the predecessor of the Endangered Species Act passed six years later.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton praised private property owners of Maryland and Delaware for providing habitat for the squirrel.

“The federal delisting of the Delmarva fox squirrel as an endangered species is an exciting milestone in the progress of wildlife conservation in Delaware and throughout the region,” said Deputy Secretary Kara Coats of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

“Although this unique species is secure on the federal level, it is still rare in Delaware. Through our Delmarva Fox Squirrel Conservation Plan, we have a path forward to further enhancing and restoring Delaware’s population of Delmarva fox squirrels as part of our state’s ecological diversity and landscape.”

There are only two known populations in the state, the Nanticoke Wildlife Area near Seaford and Prime Hook National Wildlife Area near Milton, according to wildlife biologist Holly Niederriter, of the Division of Fish & Wildlife.

“Because of this, the species will remain on Delaware’s state endangered species list,” she said.

The conservation plan’s overall goal is to increase species distribution and ensure population stability through moving squirrels to carefully selected, species-appropriate locations and through continued protection of the species and non-regulatory management of occupied habitats, connecting forests and supporting landscapes.

With more than 80 percent of the squirrel’s home on private land, the squirrel has thrived on the rural, working landscapes of the peninsula where mature forests mix with agricultural fields.

Since listing, the squirrel’s range has increased from four to 10 counties, and a population of up to 20,000 squirrels now covers 28 percent of the Delmarva Peninsula, primarily in Maryland.

Efforts contributing to recovery include relocation of animals to establish new populations, closing of the targeted hunting season, growth and dispersal of the population and protection of large forested areas for habitat.

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