The Eastern Shore’s Delmarva Fox Squirrel showed up on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s first-ever endangered species list back in 1967, along with the bald eagle and the Florida manatee. The eagle came off that list in 2007, the service has been talking about removing the manatee for two years, and Friday the service officially removed the squirrel from its federally protected designation.
The move came after years of moving squirrels all across the Delmarva Peninsula into private lands and federal refuges.
Eighty-five-year-old Guy Willey, now retired from Fish and Wildlife Service, spent nearly 40 years relocating and fostering the comeback of the squirrel. But he needed partners, like landowners in Dorchester County, "which had probably 80 percent of all the squirrels in the Delmarva population," he recalled.
But the landowners were reluctant to deal with the federal agency, so the government sent Willey, a Dorchester County native, to negotiate. He spent 10 years convincing land owners to cooperate, trapping squirrels and distributing them throughout the peninsula.
"To catch a Delmarva squirrel you have to bait them and a lot of squirrels are trap leery," Willey said. "We had to get the right number of males versus females, young versus old for this to be successful. And that's what we did."
Cherry Keller, Fish and Wildlife recovery team leader for the squirrel, says there are roughly 20,000 squirrels living mainly on the Maryland part of the peninsula. Some recently crossed into Delaware.
"We had some new squirrels discovered in the Nanticoke Wildlife Management Area, which is just across the Maryland line," she said. "Those were the first squirrels to arrive in Delaware that didn't arrive there by truck."
The best places to spot the fox squirrels, kind of the country cousins of the gray squirrel only bigger with a wider head, short stubby ears and a much longer fluffier tail, are in National Wildlife Refuges like Delaware's Prime Hook, Virginia's Chincoteague, and Maryland's Blackwater.
But Keller says you may never see one, even if you go looking for them between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., the hours they tend to come out of hiding.
"They're hard to find," she explained. "They're not terribly vocal, they’re not terribly noisy; they just don't appear in obvious areas."
Even if there’s a large population in a certain area, you can walk through there "and still not see a single one," she added.
"They tend to be quiet and cryptic and they'll see you before you see them."
Even though the federal government has removed its endangered designation, Virginia and Delaware will continue to list the species as endangered while Maryland will list it as a species of conservation concern. So, the biggest threat to them comes from vehicles traveling the roads within the refuges.