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Saving an endangered squirrel

On a good day, it takes about an hour or two to hop in a car, head east from Baltimore across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and experience one of America's treasured places — the Delmarva Peninsula. Today, thanks to the protections of the Endangered Species Act and the hard work of many partners, one of the animals that make this place so special, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel, is once again flourishing on the landscape.

After nearly vanishing by the mid-1960s, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel has rebounded to the point that it no longer faces extinction or requires the protection of the Endangered Species Act. That's great news for the peninsula's wildlife and for the people who live and vacation there.

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Once largely cut off from the mainland by the Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Delmarva Peninsula functioned for most of its history like an island.

Visiting the peninsula formerly required an arduous journey by land or an uncertain one by boat. But construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and modern roads in the 1950s brought growing numbers of people to the peninsula to settle, work and vacation. The population boom led to increased hunting of the squirrel and changed the character of the forested lands that sustained them.

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With its range reduced by 90 percent, the squirrel was one of 78 species first given federal protection under the forerunner of today's Endangered Species Act, a list that included the California condor, whooping crane and manatee.

That listing focused the attention of biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state wildlife agencies of Delaware and Virginia, where the squirrel had been extirpated, and in Maryland, where it survived in only four counties. Together, these partners worked to increase the species' range by translocating animals to establish new populations in areas within the historic range.

National wildlife refuges played an important role. Blackwater NWR (Maryland) provided the source for many translocations, and Chincoteague (Virginia) and Prime Hook (Delaware) refuges continue to host successful populations that started from translocations. These national wildlife refuges provide quality habitat for the squirrel, as well as prime places to see it in the wild. With over 80 percent of the squirrel's habitat on private land, recovery wasn't possible without the contributions and support of countless Delmarva landowners. They have hosted translocated populations and observed and continue to provide the needed habitat for this species. With their support, the squirrel has thrived on the rural, working landscapes of the peninsula where mature forests mix with agricultural fields.

It is the combined efforts of state and federal biologists and the cooperation of private landowners that have led to recovery. The Endangered Species Act always works best when Federal and State folks are working together as a team, and that has definitely been the case for the recovery of the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel. That partnership will continue after delisting when state agencies will continue to provide conservation for this species and federal partners will contribute to monitoring.

Since listing, the squirrel's range has increased from 4 to 10 counties, with a current population of up to 20,000 squirrels covering 28 percent of the peninsula.

This includes some low-lying coastal areas of the peninsula that are now threatened by rising sea levels caused by human-induced climate change. But by increasing the squirrel's distribution and resilience, we've ensured that populations will continue to be secure on the peninsula.

The recovery of the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel is the latest in a string of victories by conservation partners working through the ESA's provisions. In the past year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been able to delist the Oregon chub — the first native fish species recovered under the act — and to determine that the New England cottontail and greater sage-grouse no longer face the threat of extinction. All because of partnership-driven conservation efforts catalyzed by the ESA that have addressed threats to these species and improved the health of the landscape to benefit them, hundreds of other native species and millions of people who share the landscape.

In fact, the ESA has been uniquely 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, 31 once endangered or threatened species have been delisted due to recovery, including the bald eagle, American alligator and peregrine falcon. Others, such as the manatee, whooping crane and the California condor, have been pulled back from the edge of extinction.

The recovery of the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel shows what's possible when partners come together and work toward common goals. It's a model for how the ESA can and should work — and because of this shared success, the Delmarva Peninsula is just a bit more complete.

Michael Bean is principal deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks within the U.S. Department of the Interior; Twitter: @DOIBeanScene.

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