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Bringing back the hard-to-spot fox squirrel

February 1, 2017 GMT

The squirrel that scurried past George Chastain’s window on a recent afternoon looked like it had been crossed with a raccoon and panda bear — startlingly large, lithe and graceful.

The fox squirrel isn’t unusual around Hobcaw Barony, where Chastain is executive director. But the native species in the Lowcountry can be hard to find elsewhere. It thrives in woods with an open understory, such as the barony’s longleaf pine forests near Georgetown.

But for generations the squirrel population has shrunk as forests were cut down and the habitats became fragmented. Fox squirrels are loners who like to cover large swaths of land and den in the winter. Along with losing the ground to do that, they are hunted legally and preyed on by everything from raptors to cats and dogs.

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Now researchers at Clemson University and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources are trying to bring back the fox squirrel — across the state and the greater Southeastern region.

“It’s one of those species that everybody sees and goes, ‘What in the world was that?’ ” said Michael Hook, DNR wildlife biologist. “It’s nice to know you can help them return.”

The squirrels are still found across the East from Canada to Mexico, but the numbers have shrunk so that the latest DNR statewide survey, in 2014, reported only 718 seen in the state. Partly, that’s because the survey relies on volunteer reports. Partly, its because the wily squirrels can just be tough to spot.

But there’s little doubt they’re in trouble: The surveys were started in 1989 because of the concern. Hook and Clemson researcher Cory Heaton are using a technique called local genetics. They breed the squirrels from others in a particular area, then let them go in a wider range in that area.

“We want the genetics in the local stocks to do so well we can reintroduce them to other places,” Heaton said.

The big picture idea is that the squirrels are holding their own in places like Hobcaw, where they have habitat, but can’t extend their range because those habitats have become more and more “islands” that isolate the various flocks of the animals. The species just can’t move around anymore.

“Fox squirrels are missing that one key ingredient to habitat,” Hook said.

The Lowcountry is home to some fairly rare members of the squirrel family, including the flying and white variety. Even rarer is the black fox squirrel, a variant like hair color in humans. With the huge spreads of conserved and timber forests, the species overall do better here.

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But “the problem does exist in the Lowcountry,” Heaton said. “I don’t know it’s as severe as what we’re seeing in the Midlands.”

Part of the researchers’ effort is encouraging landowners to manage more properties for open understory, to give the birds corridors to move, something that would benefit untold other animal and plant species, too.

Longleaf savanna understories are rife with plants and creatures seen almost nowhere else. The pines make up maybe the most ecologically and economically valuable forest type in the region. But other open field and understory land draws any number of animal and plant species too.

The breeding restoration technique has some precedents. Wild turkeys were all but wiped out when the birds were restored from a few hundred trapped in the swamps near McClellanville in the 1940s. They’re now found in every county in the state, an estimated 100,000 of them out there gobbling. The stock also has been used to reintroduce the species in nearby states.

But a closer comparison might be the bobwhite quail, which has almost disappeared as it’s lost the same type of habitat. Where the habitat has been restored the quail re-establish, Hook said. “They’re a product of managed land.”