How the fox squirrel got off the endangered species list

Fox squirrels rebound: Federal officials, local authorities, and politicians from three states celebrated the 3-pound, short-eared rodent's recovery.  

Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat/AP
A fox squirrel enjoys a snack high up in a tree in Windber, Pa. October 2014.

Conservationists in Delaware declared a "major victory" for the Endangered Species Act this week, after nearly 50 years of interstate cooperation to pull a species back from near-extinction.

The Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel, a larger, fluffier, and blessedly quieter cousin to the common gray squirrel, was one of the first creatures listed on the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1967, the predecessor of the ESA. At that time, it had lost 90 percent of its wooded habitat on the Delmarva Peninsula, the 170 mile-long stretch of land between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic that is also home to counties in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. 

After a five year review, the US Fish and Wildlife Service says the fox squirrel, now 20,000 strong, is safe from extinction. It will be removed from the Threatened and Endangered Wildlife before 2016.

As a federal endangered species, fox squirrels were protected from hunters for the last few decades, nearly tripling their habitat, far from humans: they've been found in 135,000 of the Peninsula's acres, up from 32,000 in 1990. 

For years, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been relocating squirrels to new areas within their historic habitat, hoping new communities would take hold. Unlike gray squirrels, fox squirrels prefer to stay close to the ground; they're less "agile" than grays, better built for 'ambling' than 'leaping,' according to the FWS. 

"The natural world is amazingly resilient, especially when a broad collection of partners works together to help it," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said on Friday at the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Milton, Delaware, announcing the squirrel's recovery alongside a bevy of officials from the Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, and local officials and politicians. 

"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," he said. 

Friends of the squirrels are relying on continued support from states to make sure fox squirrels can stay off the endangered list: most of their habitat is made of privately-owned forests, not public land. None of the squirrel's three home states plan to remove it from no-hunting lists any time soon; now that the critters have made it off of the federal endangered list, it's up to them to make sure the squirrels can stay off.

The fox squirrels' victory is "the latest in a string of success stories that demonstrate the Endangered Species Act’s effectiveness," Department of the Interior representative Michael Bean said in Milton. 

The squirrels join about two dozen other species such as the peregrine falcon and bald eagle, which were also de-listed as endangered. While another 10 have been delisted because they've gone extinct, some research suggests more than half of the more than 2,100 species on the endangered or threatened lists have remained stable or improved since being placed on the list.

In total, more than 99 percent of the list's original members have been saved from extinction. 

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