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More Maryland animals, plants in danger of extinction

Even as conservationists and government officials celebrated Friday the rebound of the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, they acknowledged that more animals and plants are slipping toward extinction in Maryland and nationwide.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge south of Cambridge to announce that the large, heavy-bodied squirrel has regained enough of its historic range on the three-state peninsula to be considered safe from extinction.

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One of the first animals to be included on the federal endangered species list nearly 50 years ago, the squirrel — if finally removed from the list — would join the bald eagle and peregrine falcon in having recovered enough from peril to no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act.

There are more than a dozen other animals and plants in Maryland, however, in serious enough decline that they are either already proposed or under consideration to be listed as endangered. Under federal law, that listing prohibits harming the species or disrupting the habitat in which it lives.

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"We're listing more species than we're de-listing," Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said after the squirrel announcement. As the nation grows, he said, "the casualty of a growing economy is less space, less ecological space for other things."

Twenty-one animals and five plants in Maryland are listed as endangered under federal law. Another six animals and four plants are deemed threatened, a lesser degree of danger. Most are holding their own, but besides the fox squirrel, no others are bouncing back. One — the Maryland darter, a small freshwater fish once found only in Harford County — hasn't been seen in years, despite several searches for it.

Meanwhile, federal wildlife officials have proposed listing the northern long-eared bat as endangered, chiefly because of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease ravaging bats throughout the eastern United States. Other troubled species in Maryland being studied for federal protection include the American eel, the seaside alder and the Eastern hellbender, a puppy-sized salamander found in only a couple of cold mountain rivers in Western Maryland.

"Recovery is a long-term proposition," Ashe said, noting that it had taken decades to get the Delmarva fox squirrel re-established in places on the Eastern Shore.

But, the federal wildlife director contended that "we're starting to turn the tide." Eleven species have been removed from the endangered list under the Obama administration, he said, more than under any previous administration.

The Endangered Species Act remains controversial, however, among many farmers, ranchers and forestland owners, who chafe at federal restrictions on their land's use to shield a rare plant or animal.

A House committee held hearings recently on a series of bills aimed at blocking the listing of some species. Ashe credited Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and chairman of a water and wildlife subcommittee, with defending against attacks on the program.

Some environmentalists worry that the political tug of war is prompting federal officials to declare species recovered prematurely — which is what the Center for Biological Diversity, a California group, said Friday about the proposed de-listing of the Delmarva fox squirrel.

Ashe countered that scientists are sure the animal is no longer in danger of extinction. Glenn Therres of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said the squirrel would still enjoy some safeguards under the state's less-rigorous endangered species law.

Despite the debate, Jewell contended that many landowners are coming to recognize the value of "sharing the landscape with the critters." She noted that more than 80 percent of the forests in which Delmarva fox squirrels now live are privately owned, with conservation-minded owners agreeing to let animals be transplanted to their property. That's a lesson being applied in the case of other species in trouble, she said.

"I'm actually optimistic," she concluded. "I think we're at a tipping point that's going to go in a much more positive direction because of people's awareness."

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Endangered and threatened species in Maryland

Federally listed as endangered (at risk of vanishing nationwide):

Plants: 5

Animals: 21

State-endangered (in jeopardy of disappearing from Maryland, though may still be in another state):

Plants: 271

Animals: 91

Extirpated (once in Maryland but no longer found):

Plants: 100

Animals: 28

Source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources

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