Introducing our 2013 Recovery Champs!

Where farmland meets the forest on the Delmarva Peninsula, the fox squirrel that calls this habitat home might be heading for delisting. In Delaware, Virginia and Maryland, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel’s status as endangered is up for review.

The species has made an unprecedented recovery in recent years, with no small thanks to the Delmarva fox squirrel recovery team. That’s why our agency has chosen them as one of our Recovery Champions of 2013! This award recognizes the important work of the Service’s staff and its partners that are advancing the conservation efforts of endangered or threatened fish, wildlife and plants.

4752172550_2a229ebb64_b (1)Dr. Cherry Keller and her 12-person recovery team have worked on the Delmarva fox squirrel’s recovery since the ’90s.

“The neat thing about the team is that it’s a diverse group with many different talents and perspectives,” says Cherry. “There are people with management skills, people with research skills, people in tune with the public — diversity was the key to our success.”

Now, after years of monitoring and eleven successful translocations of fox squirrels, the efforts of the team have resulted in 20,000 fox squirrels covering 28 percent of its historic range — up from 10 percent when it was first listed in 1964. The collaborative effort improved monitoring techniques, developed habitat suitability models and assessed population connectivity.

A translocation involves moving individuals from a part of their range where the species occurs abundantly to restart a population in a part of their historic range that’s now unoccupied. How many individual squirrels does it take? “24,” says Keller, “this species does well with translocations. Eleven out of the 16 were successful, which is a great rate.”

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Fun fact: “Delmarva” is a portmanteau of the states that make up the peninsula — Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia (abbreviated as VA).

Translocations wouldn’t work if the newly reoccupied areas couldn’t provide decent habitat. Associate professor at California University of Pennsylvania and researcher on the recovery team, Carol Bocetti, Ph. D., began investigating the timber industry’s effect on Delmarva Peninsula in 1998, researching whether alterative practices — such as leaving islands of forest behind after a clear-cut harvest — could benefit the fox squirrel.

“There had been some work done by a masters student that shows, intuitively, that when you remove the forest, the squirrels go away,” Carol says. A study was conducted for several years on the timber industry’s effect on the habitat, but Carol had concerns that it wasn’t a long enough time to properly survey the fox squirrel’s habitat. Her research showed that a decade after the harvest, the growth of a dense understory heavily favors the common gray squirrel.

And that’s exactly what happened. “About ten years post-harvest, the Delmarva fox squirrel’s population dropped precipitously,” says Carol.

Carol put her students to work, assisting her in collecting data and telemetry in following up after the study — much of which was used later by the recovery team.

“[The recovery effort] continues to be a collaboration — probably one reason I am so excited to win the award is because it’s for a group that’s been committed to the recovery and sustainability of the species for so many years,” says Carol. “There’s a tremendous fulfillment on being a part of that effort. It’s not only the science, but the people that kept me coming back.”

In 2012, a review led by Cherry found that the species is now sufficiently abundant and able to withstand future threats – aka, it no longer faces extinction and is ready to be removed from the endangered species list. Looking forward, the team is supporting the Service to develop a proposal to remove the species from the list, and is also working with the agency on a post-delisting monitoring plan.

So let’s hear it for some of our 2013 recovery champs, the Delmarva fox squirrel recovery team: Cherry Keller, Carol Bocetti, Ruth Boettcher, Dan Rider, Ray Dueser, Bill Giese, Kevin Holcomb, Glenn Therres, Holly Niederriter, Matt Whitbeck, Michael A. Steele and Karen Terwilliger. Thanks for all your important work!

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Biologists Susi von Oettingen and Anne Hecht presented the Recovery Champion award to Dr. Scott Melvin on May 30. Credit: USFWS

Biologists Susi von Oettingen and Anne Hecht presented the Recovery Champion award to Dr. Scott Melvin on May 30. Credit: USFWS

We’re also honoring another recovery champion from the Northeast—Dr. Scott Melvin, a founding member of the threatened piping plover recovery team. Scott has led research and management that has increased the number of the birds nesting in Massachusetts from 160 pairs to 660 pairs—more than a four-fold growth in 23 years!

Check out this rundown of some of the incredible work he’s accomplished in honor of the plover: conducted population viability and modeling studies, monitored the status of the species, coordinated with landowners and stakeholders to protect the plover from predators and the adverse effects of recreation on nesting beaches, and the overseen graduate studies investigating the life history and population biology of the plover.

In response to the award, Scott stated, “Throughout much of its range, progress towards recovery of Atlantic coast piping plovers has occurred when research findings and field observations made over the past 30 years are effectively applied to state and federal regulatory tools. In Massachusetts, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has benefitted from strong administrative support from our fish and wildlife board, our director, and our Nongame Advisory Committee. Repeatedly, they have supported staff biologists and their recommendations.

State and federal agencies have benefitted from strong communication and coordination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Finally, progress to date could not have occurred without the efforts of literally hundreds of biologists and beach managers following well established protocols and policies, and applying these to management in the field.”

Congrats and thank you, Scott!

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