Environmental groups fear for prospects of endangered squirrel

Proposed legislation, continued development could reduce habitat

September 10, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Proposed federal conservation legislation to add land to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore could also cripple efforts to save the Delmarva fox squirrel, a coalition of environmental groups said yesterday.

The coalition -- including Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG) and Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage -- yesterday urged Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, and the rest of Maryland's Congressional delegation to oppose certain language in the legislation that it fears would hamper conservation efforts.

"Congress and the administration have an amazing opportunity in front of them," Dan Pontious, MaryPIRG executive director, said during a news conference outside Gilchrest's Annapolis office. But only if certain "poison pills" are removed from the bill, he added.

"Success will mean a legacy of protected wildlands, coastal areas and open space Failure will mean a legacy of coast lines choked with oil spills, undrinkable water and imperiled or extinct wildlife," he said.

Gilchrest said he does not believe that the measure, which would provide $18 million a year to Maryland for conservation purchases, would be as damaging as the environmental groups say. Part of the money would buy 1,300 acres of wetland for the Blackwater refuge. The privately owned land falls within the refuge boundary and provides habitat for the Delmarva fox squirrel, which has been on the federal endangered species list since 1967. Environmentalists support the land purchase but oppose other provisions in the federal bill which they fear would be detrimental to the squirrel and to other conservation efforts.

The squirrel, which once ranged from southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey through the Delmarva Peninsula, now is found almost exclusively in four Eastern Shore counties, including the Blackwater refuge in Dorchester County.

The Defenders of Wildlife have brought attention to the fox squirrel in the last week by suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after it issued a permit for Homeport, a new subdivision near Winchester Creek, a tributary of the Wye River near Queenstown.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, charges that the subdivision of 15 homes on 56 acres would destroy fox squirrel habitat and that the developer's plans for a new habitat in nearby woods are inadequate.

Bob Pennington, a field supervisor in the fish and wildlife service's Annapolis office, disagreed. "We looked at [the habitat], we believe it's suitable," he said.

In Queen Anne's County, the fish and wildlife service is delaying construction of a training center for volunteer firefighters because of a dispute over a third fox squirrel habitat.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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