CAMBRIDGE — The Delmarva fox squirrel is being taken off the federal endangered species list.
The announcement came Friday, Sept. 19, at Dorchester County’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which has the highest Delmarva fox squirrel population in the region.
“It is rare that we get to delist an endangered species,” Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior Sally Jewell said. “This is a conservation success story. It has been nearly a half-decade in the making.”
The Delmarva fox squirrel was among the first group listed as endangered in 1967 as a precursor to the Endangered Species Act. Other species in the 1967 class include the bald eagle and American alligator.
The Delmarva fox squirrel population was down to about 10 percent of its historic levels, according to the Department of the Interior, and was left in only four counties on the Eastern Shore. Now, the squirrel is spread across 135,000 acres in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.
The squirrel has gotten back to 27 percent of its historic levels, Jewell said, estimated at about 20,000 squirrels. If taken off the list, as long as it gets through a public comment period, it will be the 30th species delisted by the federal government.
“What we’re proving here with the Delmarva fox squirrel is you can have economic development and activity at the same time that you can have great species, recovering great habitat, and that’s what’s being done,” Jewell said.
“The habitat for the fox squirrel is ... helpful for the economic impact of the land,” U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said Friday at Blackwater. “You’ve proved that a safe clean environment is critically important for the economic viability of the community.”
Cardin said what brings people to the Eastern Shore is its unique lifestyle, and that’s the environment. With the fox squirrel, a healthy environment is directly related to the economy on the Shore, he said.
He said if the fox squirrel is doing well, it’s a way to measure how well the environment is doing, and in turn the economy, since so much of the Shore’s economy is dependent on tourism.
Cardin also said the delisting of the squirrel recognizes great progress has been made on the Delmarva Peninsula and the Eastern Shore.
Overall, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Asche said, the federal government is listing more species than it’s delisting.
But he also said this presidential administration is on track to delist more species than any other administration combined since species were first listed as endangered.
“The American economy is growing. The world economy is growing, and so the casualty of a growing economy is less ... ecological space for other things, but we’re also learning how to make that space,” Asche said.
Asche said getting the fox squirrel off the endangered species list has been a collaborative effort between federal and state partners managing the species and local partners helping to get figures for the species’ rebound.
The Department of the Interior estimates 80 percent of fox squirrels live on private lands.
Glenn Therres is Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ associate director for the Wildlife and Heritage Service and the state’s Delmarva fox squirrel biologist for almost 28 years.
Therres said private landowners report where they see a fox squirrel, and those sightings are charted. That’s what led to the squirrel’s population estimation.
Rick Abend is one of those landowners. He owns Madison-based Abend Hoffen Farm, which in German means “evening haven.” His farm, on which he grows both timber and crops, is 106 acres.
Abend said when he cuts timber down, he always leaves mature trees for fox squirrel habitat.
He said the fox squirrels are skittish, and patience is a virtue when it comes to seeing one.
“You’re not going to see them just walking out and making noise. They’re very shy,” Abend said. “Relax; be patient. You need to get in a deer stand early and just be quiet and enjoy a sunrise.”
As far as what the future holds, Jewell said awareness of endangered species like the fox squirrel was will help the species, and others that are endangered, recover more.
Even though the squirrel has been taken off the federal endangered species list, Therres said it will stay on the state’s endangered species list until it further evaluates the population and takes more action.
“In the long run, if we delist it, we’ll probably still provide a level of protection — less than endangered, perhaps,” Therres said.
Gov. Martin O’Malley said the state is at the forefront of a “transformation of healing and restoration.”
“Putting human actions together with ... nature’s power of regeneration, and reaching that tipping point in creative, innovative and collaborative ways that actually restore the life of this place,” said O’Malley, adding that Friday’s announcement was a tangible example of that.