A Harford County-based wildlife preservation group is partnering with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to manage a 20-acre parcel in Darlington to not only protect local species but also provide space for public education.
The nonprofit Susquehannock Wildlife Society will manage the state-owned property.
The site has been named the Hopkins Branch Wildlife Management Area, but it is closed to the public while wildlife society members and volunteers remodel the existing buildings and prepare for visitors.
The society's board president, Scott McDaniel, has declined to release the exact location of the site to deter people from visiting what he called a "sensitive habitat" before it is ready.
The DNR purchased the land from Richard L. Greider Jr. in February, according to Jonathan McKnight, the agency's associate director of wildlife, who said in a recent email that the state paid $363,000 for the property.
"We identified the property as one worth protecting, and the state saw value in that," said McDaniel, who is also a co-founder of the wildlife society.
McDaniel wrote in a later email that the terrain is made up of creeks, forests, meadows and wetlands.
"It is diverse, which is what makes it great wildlife habitat," he said.
The society has a memorandum of understanding with DNR, stating that the society will take care of the property and enhance it, according to McDaniel.
"These arrangements occur in cases where the property is small and isolated or where the non-profit partner can offer services to the state that forward its mission at significant benefit and savings to the state," McKnight said.
McKnight said the agency has worked in the past with the Susquehannock Wildlife Society, which was formed about four years ago. He said society members have cooperated with the state on projects to conduct research on species such as hellbender salamander and the diamondback terrapin, as well as providing "videography services" to produce a training video.
McKnight said DNR had been working with the wildlife society to manage and conduct research on the Hopkins Branch site, as well as other sites in the area, before the state acquired the land.
McDaniel said the wildlife society will manage the site at no cost to the DNR.
"It's really a win-win for us, and the state and the community, because everyone benefits from this," he said.
McDaniel stressed that the wildlife management area is not ready for visitors yet, though. He said it will be opened in a "phased-in approach" with periodic public events.
He said the site will not be run like a park that is open to the general public on a daily basis, but rather it will eventually be open for public events and to visitors who have obtained prior permission.
"We're not publishing [the location], because we don't want people stopping out," McDaniel said. "We're not open to the public yet."
He said the habitat will be used to re-establish a local population of Maryland's state insect, the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly.
"Being our state insect, it's also a rare and declining species," McDaniel said.
He noted the butterfly has been reintroduced at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center near Bel Air, which is operated by Harford County Public Schools. McDaniel said Susquehannock Wildlife Society members have been working with Harford Glen staff on their butterfly project.
"We're hoping to encourage a native population at this site," he said of the Hopkins Branch WMA. "It's also a rare species, and it's really worth saving."
McDaniel said the wildlife society must raise money to cover the cost of remodeling existing structures on the site. Those buildings would be used for a public education center, research facilities and a rescue and rehabilitation center for injured or orphaned animals.
"We're going to be glad to have many public events in the future that we'll announce, where people can come out to enjoy the site and learn about local wildlife," he said.
McDaniel said money also must be raised for regular operations, utilities, insurance, Internet service and, eventually, paid staff members.
The society is seeking help from volunteers to clean and remodel the buildings. It is also seeking donations of materials and equipment.
McDaniel said he does not know exactly how much money the society must raise, but he expects it will be "in the tens of thousands, for sure."
He said the society must also build "museum-grade displays" and animal rehabilitation cages, plus purchase equipment to maintain the property such as tractors and mowers.
McDaniel said a budget is being fleshed out, and the size depends on the amount of time and materials donated.
McDaniel said the society was founded about four years ago by a group of "concerned citizens" in Harford County. He is a master naturalist and a filmmaker, and the board is made up of educators, researchers and a veterinary technician.
He said the group works with other conservation and naturalist organizations in Harford, such as the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center in Abingdon, the Eden Mill Nature Center in Pylesville and the Harford Bird Club.
"We're a group that wants to interact with other nonprofits and groups in the area to strengthen our ability to protect native wildlife," McDaniel said.