Endangered squirrel up a tree

Queen Anne's: Delmarva fox squirrel's fate tied to housing development, conservation plan.

May 21, 1999

THE SLOW-footed, sleepy, portly Delmarva fox squirrel is the subject of a controversial program of the Endangered Species Act that a Queen Anne's County developer hopes to use to build homes along the banks of Winchester Creek.

A sighting of the rare squirrel at the planned Homeport development near Grasonville prompted the federal government to consider the project's impact on the protected species. An environmental lawsuit then prodded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose a "Habitat Conservation Plan" for the rodent on the 57-acre farm. It would be the first such plan in Maryland; 250 exist nationwide.

Habitat conservation plans are negotiated agreements in which a landowner adopts conservation measures for the target species to get government approval of the development and to be held harmless for the accidental killing of an individual animal. The aim is to avoid a legal showdown and harm to the endangered species, given limited enforcement capabilities.

The 50- to 100-year "no surprises" agreements assure landowners they won't have to do anything more, even if the species begins to disappear. That's what fires opposition from many environmentalists, who want the endangered species law enforced without cutting deals with landowners.

The fish and wildlife service is preparing to approve the habitat plan for Homeport. But objections remain. No one knows how many fox squirrels are there, so there's no monitoring of population. Danger to the squirrels from auto traffic and pet dogs in the development can't be eliminated. But forests would be preserved and adjacent woodlands acquired for the animal's welfare.

Because fox squirrels wander far from home and feed in farm fields, it's not just forests that are necessary. A larger, regional plan may be needed. The solution is as elusive as the animal itself.

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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