Sunday, November 14, 2010

Virginia Elk Reintroduction

Politics Play a Key Role in Virginia Elk Reintroduction Plan

Clark DeHart

Johnny Wills from the VDGIF is head of the management program for Virginia’s elk herd, spoke on behalf of the Virginia Elk Reintroduction project. He explained that although Virginia is now void of the large ungulates, during the 1900’s elk still ranged throughout the entirety of the Eastern United States, only to be hunted to extirpation. A one sided discussion with a lengthy background noted several attempts for past elk reintroduction in Virginia. Wills explained the “Peaks of Otter region once saw a small congregation of elk in the 1960’s, but were soon culled to extirpation when farmers took matters into their own hands.” Several of Virginia’s neighboring states have seen successful transplants of western elk herds into their former region of the Appalachians. The Cades Cove elk herd of Kentucky and Tennessee has flourished since their introduction in 2001 to a healthy population of around 15,000 individuals.

The plan for Virginia’s new elk herd is already in conception, but it seems to lack logic in the management of the species. After a study on the feasibility of elk in Virginia’s environment, Julie A. McClafferty and James A. Parkhurst discovered that the prime habitat to support the large grazers would be Virginia’s Allegheny and Piedmont regions. “Biologically, the facts are sound, but politically the areas are off limits.” Johnny Wills has narrowed the search for elk habitat to the far western part of Virginia, in what he deems the coal counties; Buchanan, Wise, Lee and Dickenson. These counties in particular have a low population density, and large remaining tracts of forest. The counties are eager to have the elk herd in their district, but there are possible problems to face if reintroduction occurs.

While elk herds on forest land and designated elk reservations is fine in the public eye, the problem lies in the migratory behavior of the species. If the elk turn up in a suburban town stead, the imposing animals can create danger for people and browsing landscaped yards, becoming an immediate nuisance. In the western states during the mating season for elk, males are known to walk through towns, oblivious to cars and people alike. Farmers, however have a different reason to protest the introduction of elk. In the coal counties, elk could outcompete livestock, consuming the grass that the cattle have to eat. Being free ranging animals, elk could wander into a farmer’s hay field, and consume the season’s feed supply for the farmer’s livestock.

A more serious implication with wild species introduction is the possibility of contagious disease transfer to livestock. Two diseases are known in ungulates like elk and white tail deer, and could have dangerous implications for wild and domestic animals alike. Chronic wasting disease is a degenerative disease which afflicts white tail deer in Virginia, and could be transmitted to elk. Bovine Tuberculosis is a more severe threat to the cattle farmers around the commonwealth. If an elk with bovine TB infects domestic cattle, our state could lose its TB free standing.

Elk impact on humans will be more direct than through competition with cattle. Deer already cost citizens $ 5 million a year due to deer related accidents, introduction of elk would only increase these statistics. When the elk migrate out of the forest and happen across a suburban backyard the conflict with humans increase. The overabundance of white tail deer already costs the Virginia homeowner a sum of $290 a year just because of deer. It’s already a consensus that there needs to be a stronger management policy to deal with the deer population, so why introduce a larger deer species?

Most biologists would be more concerned with a second ungulate species’ impact on the health of our local environment. With overabundant white tail deer wrecking havoc on sapling growth, one could only imagine how a larger deer would affect the habitat. The coal counties of Wise, Buchannan, and Dickenson have poor quality of food resources for deer, and thus have a very small population of white tail deer. When a habitat can barely support deer, why should elk be thrown into the equation?

Johnny Wills explained that the driving force behind the elk reintroduction project was politics. The idea that elk could increase tourism and stimulate the economy is the main goal for the project, more than the animals themselves. Groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that are supporting the project have sided that there is benefit to recreating the former state of the fauna in the region. Hunters have already jumped at the idea of big game hunting in Virginia. What is a main oversight is that these elk will not be candidates for hunting for quite some time. When asked when the herd could be hunted Mr. Wills answered that “in a decade there will be a lottery for limited elk licenses, but even in 30 years the population probably would still be under limited hunting restraints,” unlike the white tail deer in Virginia.

“It’s really politics behind the project which is moving it forwards” but at the same time politics are keeping the elk project from utilizing more suitable habitat areas. Despite the objections on each side, the project is planned to be implemented in late December 2011. With the increasing animosity with white tail deer, Virginia seems torn over the reintroduction project, and hoping for the best. “It’s not a question of where or when, we know that. Now it’s a question of how many elk we are going to get.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

Back from the Mon

Four cameras went up, four returned. But only about 50 photos were retrieved. Yeah, I don't know what happened. Like last time, we placed scent attractant on the trees near the camera and were sure (because of the pungency of the smells) that any animal in a 10 mile radius could smell the stuff. Maybe that is the point, they smelled the cougar pee and left. I don't know.

what was most disappointing was our BEST camera didn't work. Something went seriously wrong, and I'm not sure what that is yet. So a total of ZERO photos from that camera. It makes life frustrating. Camera 2 and 3 took about 20 each, and most of them were of nothing. Which is also a head scratcher. Yes, I did get some photos of deer, but not as much as last year. Any ideas?

Finally the interesting part. Camera number 4 (35mm film) wasn't there when we went to get it. I was completely confused, asking myself, was this where it was? I mean, I KNEW it was here, but it wasn't on the tree. Five minutes of confusion, and I found it on the ground. Hmmmmm, interesting.

Here is the culprit.

Bears have twice taken a swipe at this camera. Bears do have a terrible curiosity, and that makes them bad for camera trappers. Dr. Kelly's studies at Virginia Tech has had similar problems, with photos of bears actually playing with the cameras (hugging, rolling, sleeping with). Sadly after the incident, the rest of the photos were of the sky. Fun.

I don't know what I'm going to do next year, but right now with two times of horrible disappointment of very few photos and few animals, I may not place the cameras next year. Is it time to move on? I don't know. I really want to take a photo of a cougar, I just think I need more time and more cameras. Maybe next year I will place cameras closer to home, where there has been a recent sighting. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

New Name, New Goal

I know I haven’t posted much about the existence of cougars in Virginia. There has been a lull of news in the scheme of things, as the entire Eastern Cougar Foundation has changed direction and focus.

This fact alone has really dampened my spirits, as I really wanted to help prove their existence, but in some ways it has prompted me to try harder to find one. I feel as if the time window is closing and it is important to find a cougar before it doesn’t matter as much. The fact is that there have been more developments in DNA evidence to prove the origin of cougars in North America.

From an arctile in the new Cougar Rewiliding Foundation, (formerly known as the eastern cougar foundation) “Dr. Melanie Culver’s genetic research determined that all of the wild cougars north of Central America are the same subspecies, the idea of an eastern cougar had been rendered moot scientifically. And ECF may prove to be a hurdle in recruiting new members in regions not associated with the East.” CRF Newsletter July, 2010.

To put a damper on the subject, this finding in the DNA suggests that cougars in North America may be but one genetic family, so trying to distinguish an eastern subspecies would be moot.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Chap 1: Chestnut Blight

Early morning on a summer's day, an oven bird calls out as it takes flight. Searching for the reason for so much comotion, we find a small nest tucked under some roots on the forest path. The nest holds three, white and brown speckled eggs. We keep moving to let the mother return to her nest.

Snails and slugs are easily found along the path. Searching the forests rotting tree stumps, some covered in moss and red soldier fungi. Sometimes their hallow crevices are stuffed with acrons by the busy chipmunks that dart across the path. A snail slides it's way around the side of an old chestnut stump that is mostly rotted. Once the chestnut was prominent in these woods, out of every four trees would be a chestnut. But today, the ancient forest of mighty American Chestnuts are a ghostly memory. The chestnut blight fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica decimated the population of American Chestnuts across the entire North American continent. Here on the mountain, there use to be a small community existing on farming and gathering of the chestnut acorns to make flour. After the blight wiped out the trees, there wasn't enough subsistence to keep the town prosperous. Its hard to believe that such a disappearance of one species can change the ability of humans to capitalize on a landscape. But this is not just any land, as the winters are harsh, summers wet, and soil rocky; any small change can create a reaction that ripples through the food chains in the habitat. We may never see the forest quite like they use to be, with towering chestnut trees, but we need to keep in mind that any and all species matters in the entire picture of the environment.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Chap1: Plants of Plenty

The first thing I always noticed when stepping out of the car was the smell of the area. It wasn't a bad smell, moreover one of clean air and grassy meadows. The scent seemed to be one that is totally unique to that very area, and a strong one that jogs the memory whenever you smell it again. So much is the smell attributed to the area, I can conjure up the scent in my nose whenever I think about the place. The scent that fills the air is the slight fragrance emanating from the many ferns that grow in the area. Likely enough, these are commonly known as, Hay Scented Ferns. They are some of the inviting qualities about the area. Hay-Scented Ferns adorn the edges of the path, and can be found in the forests, with filtered sunlight as well as out in the open fields. Sometimes the fern cover is so thick the entire area will be covered with ferns growing up to your knee.

Ferns aren't the only interesting plant life that can be found in the forest. It was Memorial Day weekend, with and early spring trip to the cabin. Even though all the leaves had been on the trees in Virginia, in West Virginia the leaves were only buds. I had never been to the area this early in the year. Instead of the forest floor being covered with ferns, few, small plants were only beginning to sprout. Along the side of the road, purple and green striped, bell-shaped Jack-in-the-pulpit grow along side of purple, pink and white trillium flowers. These create splashes of color amongst a drab leaf litter background.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Signs of a Predator

I was hiking recently and almost stumbled over an old deer carcass. Sprawled in the middle of the path (which hadn't been frequented since December), the deer was little more than the skeleton with a few tufts of hair. For something which should have repulsed me, I was in fact intrigued. The first thought that went through my mind was to check for signs of what killed it. When I spend so much time and research searching for signs of cougars in the Eastern US, then it is no surprise to what popped into my head. In fact, many sightings could be misinterpreted as that of a cougar if that person does not get the best view of a creature, and then believes it was a cougar because they want to believe. I am not going to judge opinions. But in this case, cougar is what I thought first.

My ideas is that: One, it may have been a hunter that killed it and couldn't retrieve the body. Two, it had obviously been eaten by some animal(s). Three, I was too old to know for sure what animal had eaten here.

A cougar is cache its kill by covering the body with leaves and twigs, then will return later to feed some more. I didn't see any indication of burial by leaves, but it doesn't mean it hadn't been unearthed again. The area is home to many predators which may have fed here. A short walk later and I found some harry scat in the middle of the trail. This was also very old, and probably from whatever had consumed (some of) the carcass since it was packed with the hair of the deer. If I had more reason to believe it was that of a cougar, I would have taken some for DNA testing, but with how old the sample was it would be more difficult.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Footprints in the Mud

Spring is a time when the snow melts and the rains cause lots of marshy, wet soil. When I walk through the forest, I scan the areas of exposed mud for tracks, and I am usually rewarded. Sometimes the prints are barely recognizable, or partially there. But when I find a really good place, the tracks are many.
Coyote prints were in the mud, so I decided to place a trail camera at the place (I'll tell you more later about the camera). Can you name all the animal prints in this photo?