Delmarva fox squirrels translocated to Sussex County

A nearly white Delmarva fox squirrel peers out of a bag as it was translocated from Maryland to Assawoman Wildlife Area near Frankford this week. (Submitted photo/Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control)

FRANKFORD — The moving trucks — well, cages — arrived at the Assawoman Wildlife Area near Frankford on Wednesday and Thursday, delivering a total of 15 Delmarva fox squirrels that were captured in Dorchester County, Maryland, to help give a boost to Delaware’s population of the rare species.

Holly Niederriter, an expert wildlife biologist for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, took the lead along with three others from the department working in the field to welcome the Delmarva fox squirrels to their new home, which provides more than 3,000 acres of wilderness.

“I actually saw some people (Friday) morning who live near Assawoman Wildlife Area and they saw me with my antenna out looking for my squirrels,” Ms. Niederriter said. “They asked me what I was doing and I told them and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we saw a squirrel in our backyard (Friday) and we weren’t even sure it was a squirrel’ — because it looks so different. So they actually saw one of our squirrels.”

Delmarva fox squirrels are now abundant on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but the large, silver-gray squirrels remain rare in Delaware, with only three known populations in the state.

“We released all these squirrels in Assawoman Wildlife Area,” said Ms. Niederriter. “There’s also a natural-occurring population at the Nanticoke Wildlife Area (Seaford) and there’s a translocated population from the 1980s that’s still in existence at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge (near Milton).”

Although the charismatic Delmarva fox squirrel was once a federally listed endangered species, translocations, habitat management and land protection have helped regional populations to recover, resulting in the species being removed from the federal endangered species list in 2015.

Translocations have proven to be an important and effective tool for increasing the distribution of this species and are the cornerstone of the Delmarva Fox Squirrel Conservation Plan, put into place by DNREC and several stakeholders.

Ms. Niederriter believes the Delmarva fox squirrel, a little bigger and not as nimble as some its squirrel relatives, has had difficulty making a go of it in Delaware for more than a century. The species is very slow to expand its range and colonize new territories.

This Delmarva fox squirrel’s electronic tracking apparatus is carried on its back as it prepares to be translocated to Assawoman Wildlife area. The squirrel will have the transmitter collar for the next one-and-a-half years or more.

“The subspecies of the fox squirrel has sort of had a lot of difficulties since probably around the turn of the century — 1800s to 1900s — when this area was colonized,” she said, of southeastern Sussex County.

“Most of the forests were clear-cut and this species relies on older growth woodlands. So that was a problem for them. Some of the woodlands remained because they were too difficult to cut, maybe too wet or something like that. So that caused a problem. Also, most likely, they were overhunted at that time, as well.

“They’re bigger than a gray squirrel, so there’s more meat to the bones there, and they’re slower and they tend to walk on the ground more than the gray squirrels, which jump tree to tree. They were probably a little easier to hunt.”

To help speed the return of the Delmarva fox squirrel to more locations in Delaware, the DNREC Division of Fish and Wildlife decided to translocate squirrels from robust populations in Maryland to unoccupied suitable habitats in southern Delaware.

It’s a move that takes the squirrels a little while to grow accustomed to as they get situated in their new home.

“It certainly does disrupt their activities since they were taken from a place where they were really familiar and they have to be put in a new place where everything is brand new,” Ms. Niederriter said. “How long does that take? We’re really not sure. I know that in previous translocations they’ve sort of hopped around and moved around for a couple of months before they sort of settle in at a particular location.

“We have transmitters on these squirrels so we can really see what they do over the long term and we’ll have a better idea of that for this group in a few months. I plan to monitor them for at least a year or a year and a half, maybe longer for these, I’m not sure yet.”

The (transmitters) are not cumbersome. They are less than 5% of the squirrel’s body weight.

Landowners should not be concerned if they start seeing Delmarva fox squirrels on their property.

Hunting of Delmarva fox squirrels is prohibited, so it is important that hunters note the differences between them and the more commonly seen eastern gray squirrels, for which Delaware has a hunting season.

Ms. Niederriter noted differences between the fox squirrels and the gray squirrels.

A full-bodied Delmarva fox squirrel’s bushier tail can be scene as it relaxes in a tree, though it often prefers to travel by land.

“The Delmarva fox squirrel is about one-and-a-half times larger than a gray squirrel,” she said. “Most of them tend to have a silvery-gray coloration and some are a little melanistic (darker in color). One of the squirrels that came over is more of a darker gray and it’s really beautiful and we have one that’s almost white. There’s some variations in color, but they’re larger than the gray squirrels, and they have huge fluffy tails.”

Ms. Niederriter added that DNREC has a reporting form for people who spot the fox squirrels in Delaware at https://dnrec.alpha.delaware.gov/fish-wildlife/conservation/fox-squirrel/. It helps the Division of Fish and Wildlife get a better handle on population increase and where the squirrels go once they are translocated to the state.

“They are no longer federally listed as endangered, but they are still very rare in Delaware, which is why we are doing this,” she said.