CAMBRIDGE — — When Guy W. Willey Sr. was growing up, he hunted and ate Delmarva fox squirrels in the low-lying forests of the Eastern Shore, long before it was clear the giant cousins of the common gray squirrel were in danger of disappearing. He was "dirt poor," he recalled, and lots of folks did it back then.
Now, at 83, he's been invited to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, when federal officials are expected to announce the squirrel has bounced back from the brink of extinction and is no longer in need of legal protection.
It's a rare success story in the federal government's nearly 50-year effort to protect endangered species, and much of the credit goes to Willey, who's spent more than four decades laboring to protect and restore the creatures to a portion of their historic range on the Eastern Shore.
"He's Mr. Delmarva fox squirrel," said Glenn D. Therres, associate director of the wildlife and heritage service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "He was a really good ambassador for the squirrel locally, and he was our man on the ground. …
"The locals called him 'the squirrel man.'"
"Guy has been a major contributor to the squirrel's recovery," agreed Cherry Keller, a federal wildlife biologist in Annapolis who for the last 15 years has overseen the federal-state effort. "He grew up on this land and knows its history, the people who live here, and he knows squirrels."
Willey spent more than 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and then worked for another couple decades as a contractor to the state, helping to restore the fox squirrel population.
He is quick to credit the contributions of Therres, Keller and others. But he estimates he was personally involved in trapping at least 80 percent of the animals that were moved to reoccupy parts of the Delmarva Peninsula where they'd once lived.
"I'm no star at all," he said. "I was the guy who got all the chiggers and ticks and poison ivy."
The silver-gray Delmarva fox squirrel, the largest of all the tree squirrels, can grow to 30 inches — half of that, tail — and weigh up to 3 pounds.
Quieter and slower than other squirrels, it prefers to live in mature forests among maple, oak and pine trees. It spends considerable time foraging for nuts and seeds on the ground, though it's also known to roam into nearby farm fields for corn and soybeans.
Once found on the peninsula from Delaware to Virginia, by the early 20th century its range had shrunk to the Maryland shore. Biologists believe it began a steep decline after World War II as a result of intensive logging wiping out its forest habitat — and hunting.
"It wasn't the best eating squirrel — it was tough," Willey said. But in the 1930s and '40s, his family didn't have much, so "we ate whatever the hell we could get."
Willey went to work for the federal wildlife service in 1945, after he graduated from high school.
By the time the squirrel was declared endangered in 1967, it could be found in only 10 percent of its former range. The Blackwater refuge harbored most of the survivors.
Starting in the 1970s, Willey and other federal and state wildlife personnel began trapping and moving some of the Dorchester squirrels. Many of the "translocations," as officials called them, were from — and to — privately owned land, which required getting the owners' consent.
"He pretty much knew damned near every landowner in the county,'' Therres recalled. "They knew him, they trusted him. He's just a good old boy."
Even so, some landowners weren't eager to hear Willey tell them they had endangered squirrels on their property, and others were "nervous," as he put it, about hosting relocated animals.
"I got a lot of cussing," he said.
The Endangered Species Act has drawn opposition from farmers, ranchers and other property owners, who complain about the inability to develop or alter their land after the discovery of a protected creature.
Therres said it was Willey's down-home diplomacy and a flexible attitude that smoothed the way for the squirrel relocation effort. Landowners were still allowed to cut down trees, the state official said, as long as they left 15 percent to 25 percent of them undisturbed for the squirrels.
Eddie Taylor, manager of Andelot Farm near Worton in Kent County, said he volunteered after watching a Maryland Public Television show about the squirrel recovery effort. Roughly half of the nearly 3,000-acre farm is forested.
"They've done exceptionally well. I've got them all over the farm now," said Taylor. He said the only precaution he's had to take is driving slowly, because unlike other squirrels, the animals — some as big as a housecat — aren't especially quick to get out of the way of vehicles.
Recovery has taken decades — partly, Therres said, because the squirrels have been slow to expand their numbers and range.
"They do sleep in," Willey said of the squirrels. "They don't come out until about 10 a.m."
There have been occasional clashes.
In the late 1990s, environmentalists sued the federal wildlife service over its approval of a housing development in Queen Anne's County. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but the service did require the developer to leave most of the woods on the 57-acre housing tract unharmed, and to protect another 31-acre block of woods elsewhere.
John E. "Ned" Gerber, director of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, a plaintiff in the suit, credited federal officials with requiring a "habitat conservation plan" of the developer. But he said squirrels have since disappeared from the woods near the homes, and he questioned whether the Delmarva fox squirrels are abundant enough to withstand the gradual erosion of their habitat by development.
The squirrels now occupy about 28 percent of their historic range, according to federal wildlife biologists, who consider that enough to declare the species recovered. But Gerber said legal protection shouldn't be lifted until the animals have returned to half or more of the area on which they once lived.
"If you thought you had a 28 percent chance of passing an exam or of holding onto your job, you [wouldn't] say, 'Hey, this is Easy Street!'" Gerber said. "It's too soon."
Federal officials say the animals' population is large and dispersed enough to survive.
Willey said the squirrels have proven more adaptable than many expected. Driving his pickup near his home on the southern outskirts of Cambridge this week, he pointed out a couple of wooded tracts bordered by homes, a school and a park where he said he knows there are still Delmarva fox squirrels.
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The biggest threat he sees now, he said, is cars.
On Friday, Willey plans to join U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, federal wildlife service director Dan Ashe, Gov. Martin O'Malley and other dignitaries at the wildlife refuge for what officials called "an important milestone in the ongoing recovery efforts for the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel." A formal proposal to de-list the animal is expected to follow.
For Willey, it's a curtain call to a career dedicated to conservation. While with the federal wildlife service, he also worked to restore the iconic bald eagle, which was removed from the endangered species list in 2007.
But that was a nationwide effort that involved legions of people. The Delmarva fox squirrel has been a longer, local, much more personal crusade.
"That's the cap," he said. "After this, there's nothing else."
"Unless," he added, "I work on quail."