Beginning in spring, visitors to the Refuge are often treated to delightful views of Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrels (Sciurus niger cinereus) as they root around on the ground for tempting truffle treats (underground fungi that grows on tree roots). Please drive with caution while you enjoy the Refuge as the squirrel often seeks out food along the roadsides, especially along Beach Road from the fee booths and the Bateman Center. We encourage you to slow down not only for the reward of spotting one of these playful animals, but also to help us protect the squirrel from vehicle collisions.Larger than other squirrel species and generally not found in suburban or urban areas, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel (DFS) ranged throughout the Delmarva Peninsula of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia before experiencing a sharp decline in the mid-20th century due to forest clearing for agriculture and development, short-rotation timber harvest and over-hunting. With its range reduced more than 90 percent, the squirrel was one of 78 species listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1967, the predecessor of the Endangered Species Act legislated six years later.From 1969 to 1971, biologists relocated 30 DFS to various sites including Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and released them in habitat surrounding the historic Assateague Lighthouse. These translocation areas provided protected areas for conservation agencies and biologists to experiment with recovery strategies and adjust their approach as more was learned about the squirrel and its habitat needs. The population of squirrels at the Refuge is now between 300- 350 individuals, with new populations dispersing on their own throughout the southern portion of Assateague Island.Throughout the Delmarva Peninsula, one of the principal criteria of the squirrel’s recovery is the stability or expansion of DFS populations. Their distribution is determined by the locations where they have been observed, trapped, found in next boxes, or photographed. Decades of monitoring the DFS have revealed that just as biologists saw at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the DFS range is expanding throughout the region. Since listing, the squirrel’s overall range has increased from 4 to 10 counties, and a population of up to 20,000 squirrels now covers 28 percent of the Delmarva Peninsula, primarily in Maryland.As science advances new monitoring and management strategies are adopted. Presently, motion-triggered cameras offer a new monitoring technique that enables biologists to capture evidence of the DFS’s presence without the time and effort of trapping. Another technique under development is “hair-catching” at stations that can be baited and placed in the forest. Samples collected can be analyzed for their DNA. Research has determined that scientists can distinguish DFS hair from that of the gray squirrel.After decades of conservation work by refuge biologists, state agencies and recovery partners the status of the Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel has been reversed. As of December of 2015 the species was officially removed from the Endangered Species list! As with the American Bald Eagle, Federal & State conservation agencies will implement a post-delisting monitoring plan to ensure the squirrel remains secure from extinction.The Endangered Species Act has been 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 to the Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel, more than 30 species have been delisted due to recovery, including the bald eagle, American alligator and peregrine falcon. Others, such as the whooping crane and the California condor, have been pulled back from the edge of extinction.
USFWS Chesapeake Bay Field Office Delmarva Fox Squirrel WebsiteDelmarva Fox Squirrel FAQs (pdf)Delisting Press Release
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Over the past 200-300 years, these modern-day descendants of domestic horses have adapted to the hardships of living near the ocean. Prior to the refuge's establishment in 1943, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchased the ponies and continues ownership to this day. The Firemen are allowed to graze up to 150 ponies on refuge land through a Special Use Permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.