Endangered Fox Squirrel’s Success Story Is Proof We Can Help, Not Harm, Natural World

Back in 1967, the beefy fox squirrel was endangered, 90 percent of its forested habitat decimated. But now, the critter has bounced back, proving that humans’ impact on nature can sometimes be reversed.

“The natural world is amazingly resilient, especially when a broad collection of partners works together to help it,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), according to the Christian Science Monitor.

And it took quite a lot of cooperation and determined attention to bring the critter back from the endangered species list.

The animal lives on a strip of land between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic, its 170-mile-long stretch of habitat covering counties in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. In 1967, the fox squirrel and 77 other species were put on the original Endangered Species Preservation Act, which eventually became the Endangered Species Act in 1973, Discovery added.

Since then, 10 species on that list went extinct, but a remarkable 99 percent of the original members have been saved. More than half of all the 2,1000 species on the endangered or threatened lists have been stabilized or improved. Among them are the peregrine falcon and bald eagle.

The fox squirrel is just one of many happy endings.

The creature’s long name is the Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel. It’s 15 inches long, minus the tail, larger than other squirrels, quieter, shier, fluffier, and more common in rural forests and farmer’s fields. They don’t like to climb or leap like their gray cousins, preferring the ground, aren’t very agile, and are better made for “ambling.”

Once upon a time, their habitat was copious across the Delmarva Peninsula, but by the mid-20th century, their home was cleared for timber, agriculture, and development. Add in some hunters and you have a recipe for going extinct.

Over the years, conservationists have tried hard to get the animal off the endangered list. Since 1967, it has spread from four counties to 10 and is now 20,000 strong, covering 30 percent of their former home across 135,000 acres. In 1990, they ranged across only 32,000 acres.

So how did conservations and the fox squirrel pull this off?

“The Act provides flexibility and incentives to build partnerships with states and private landowners to help recover species while supporting local economic activity,” said the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Michael Bean.

In simpler terms: Lots of fox squirrel lovers, including citizen conservationists, joined together to help the animal inch back from the brink of extinction over the past 50 years. Those efforts were made across all three states in the peninsula.

As part of the conservation plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relocated the endangered squirrel to new areas inside their ancestral home in the hopes that the animal would build new communities. This required the cooperation of private landowners, who own the land where the fox squirrel previously lived, the Washington Post added. These people had to cooperate to ensure the relocated squirrels and their new homes were successful.

“We could not have reached this point without the many citizen-conservationists who changed the way they managed their forest lands to make this victory possible, and I am deeply appreciative of their efforts,” Bean said.

The fox squirrel’s numbers have been monitored for about five years, and by year’s end, they’ll be off the endangered list. But the animal will still enjoy some protections and attention. For one thing, it still can’t be hunted, and none of the states it calls home plan to take it off their no-hunting list.

Virginia and Delaware will continue to treat it as endangered, and Maryland will likely reclassify it as a “Species in Need of Conservation.” Delaware may even try to boost the population even more.

So how can you see (but not shoot) the Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel? The Washington Post suggests you first leave the city and head to Blackwater or Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Head into the woods in the morning and search the forest floor for a creature with a lumbering gait and gray fur.

“They don’t really move as fast as gray squirrels, and they definitely have a more laid-back approach to life, it seems like,” said ranger Thomas Miller.

[Image via visceralimage/Shutterstock]