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Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel: Journey to Recovery
by Cherry Keller and Kathy Reshetiloff
Photo Credit: USFWS
Catching a glimpse of Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrels (Sciurus niger cinereus) was once rare within the forests of the peninsula connecting Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. By the time it was protected as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1967, this large, silver-gray tree squirrel could only be found in a handful of counties on peninsular Maryland—just 10 percent of its historic range.
Now, after 48 years of coordinated efforts to boost populations and conserve habitat, the future looks bright for this fox squirrel. Today the squirrel's range has increased to 10 counties, with a current population of up to 20,000. No longer at risk of extinction, the Delmarva fox squirrel was removed from the from the list of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on December 16, 2015.
The Delmarva fox squirrel, as it is more commonly known, can be found in mature woodlands of mixed pines and hardwoods with a closed canopy and relatively open understory. It thrives in the rural landscapes of the Delmarva Peninsula and is more likely to be found in the woods near farm fields than in suburbs.
The squirrel's decline in the mid-1900s was fueled by the combination of factors. As forests were cleared for farmland and development, the squirrel's habitat decreased. In addition, timber harvests on short cycles decreased the amount of mature woodlands needed by the Delmarva fox squirrel. Over-hunting of fox squirrels may have also played a role in its decline.
Following its listing as an endangered species, federal and state biologists, with help from private citizens, began efforts to restore the species to a greater part of its historic range. Officials closed the hunting season, and biologists re-introduced animals to several large farms in Maryland, where populations continue to thrive today.
"We worked with several landowners who were more than willing to have squirrels on their property," said Glenn Therres, the associate director of Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service. "We monitored the squirrels for many years and found they have really done well."
Eleven of these successful translocation sites exist across the squirrel's range, and its distribution has grown to now cover nearly a third of the Delmarva Peninsula. While some of the forest occupied by the Delmarva fox squirrel is on federally or state-owned land, more than 80 percent of its home is on private land.
Photo Credit: USFWS
"The habitat provided by private landowners is supporting the majority of this species' distribution," said Therres. "And its ability to persist and thrive on the working landscapes of the Delmarva is now well documented."
Several re-introductions occurred on national wildlife refuges including Chincoteague and Prime Hook, and the source of the animals for many of these translocations was the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Blackwater Refuge is in the heart of the Delmarva fox squirrel range, where these squirrels are very abundant and closely monitored and studied.
In addition to the translocations, the Delmarva fox squirrel population has also expanded into new areas on its own.
Delmarva fox squirrel sightings have been reported by state and federal biologists, as well as knowledgeable citizens who live, work, and hunt in the rural landscapes where the species occurs. These animals are not always easy to see but can be visible at times of the year along field edges, roadsides, or in the woods by hunters sitting quietly. These sightings, along with records from trapping and camera surveys – all mapped by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) Chesapeake Bay Field Office – document a larger range and healthier distribution for this species.
In 2012, the Service's most recent scientific evaluation of the Delmarva fox squirrel population, called a five-year status review concluded that the squirrel was no longer at risk of extinction. The Delmarva fox squirrel distribution is now much larger then when it was first given federal protection, with very good persistence within the range.
More than 90 percent of the forest area that was occupied by Delmarva fox squirrels as of 1990 continues to be occupied 26 years later. The analyses in the status review indicate that the Delmarva fox squirrel distribution is now sufficiently large and well distributed to withstand current and future threats. This is great news for the squirrel.
Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia now resume leadership for the conservation of this species. The state of Delaware considers the Delmarva fox squirrel as state endangered and has developed a Delmarva Fox Squirrel Conservation Plan to provide a coordinated framework for conservation actions to increase squirrel populations in Delaware. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources expects to reclassify the Delmarva fox squirrel as a "Species in Need of Conservation." In Virginia, the anticipated state listing status for Delmarva fox squirrel will remain state endangered. In addition, a Post-delisting Monitoring Plan outlines how the Service and partners will continue to monitor Delmarva fox squirrels to ensure the population does not decline again and require relisting under the Endangered Species Act.
Cherry Keller, an endangered species biologist in the Service's Chesapeake Bay Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-573-4532. Kathy Reshetiloff, a writer/editor in the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, can be reached at Kathy_reshetiloff@fws.gov or 410-573-4582.
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