The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has launched a major long-term commitment to environmental monitoring along the Appalachian Trail. Called the Mega-Transect, this new project will direct scientific research, citizen science and public outreach towards an understanding of the long-term health of our Appalachians. PATC is now initiating our first effort under the Mega-Transect. A cooperative effort between Appalachian Trail Conservancy, National Park Service, US Forest Service, and Smithsonian Institution, will develop a protocol for monitoring mammal species along the AT. The survey will be conducted from April through November 2007 along the AT in Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. The survey will use infra-red trip-cameras to photograph wildlife species at specific points along the trail.
We will need volunteers to set up and move cameras from point to point on a monthly basis. The cooperative will supply the cameras, supplies, and training. The cameras are digital so the pictures will be shared between the volunteers, the organizations, and the scientists. Volunteers will set up 50 cameras each month at designated sites, checking each camera two weeks into the month, providing 350 months worth of data in 7 months.
I’m certainly looking forward to developing the digital photos from my sites. I understand we’ll be using a scent-lure to entice predator species to visit our photo sites. I’m going to guess that deer will be the most commonly photographed species (going out on a limb, there), followed by raccoon, opossum, gray fox, black bear, red fox, skunk and coyote. I will be looking forward to ‘catching’ a gray fox or bobcat. Noting the extreme variability in the amount of white in the pelage of skunks, we should be able to note repeat visitors. Coyotes might prove interesting. Short of a mountain lion, the biggest treat for me will be a long-tailed weasel.
Of course, black bear are always a thrill. I understand a minority of bear in our region sport white chevrons on their chest. I’d like to get a picture of that.
This is certainly a great area for seeing bear. The Shenandoah National Park has the highest density of bears of any National Park. With an estimated population of 700-800, this puts the density around 2.5 bear per square mile.
But the ursids don’t limit themselves to the National Park. There are nearly 40,000 bear estimated in our five state region. Pennsylvania has the most with 15,000, North Carolina follows with 11,500, then West Virginia with 10,000, Virginia with 4,500, and Maryland with 325 now under the gun in Garrett and Alleghany Counties.
Everyone can recall his or her encounters with black bear. Such a beautiful and intelligent animal. I recall coming twenty feet from a sow and her cub while working along the Nicholson Hollow trail. The mother was calmly foraging with her nose to the ground, while her cub hid behind her massive body, occasionally peering out at me. Continuing to sniff the ground, the sow softly murmured a very reassuring sound that told the cub that I was nothing to be concerned about. And it reassured me, as well!
Gary Alt, well-known Pennsylvania biologist, relates finding a bear who, in order to elude its trackers, would stop in its tracks, rise on its two hind feet and twist around, jumping perfectly in its previous steps and retrace its steps for a number of feet before leaping off in a perpendicular direction. Alt tracked the same bear doing this twenty six times in two days, repeating the same evasive technique every time, retracing its footsteps from fifty feet to two hundred yards before leaping sideways off the trail!
Then, there’s the story from Linzey’s ‘Mammals of Virginia’:
Probably the most famous wandering bear in Virginia was a young female who was eventually named Rambling Rose. Rose had become a habitual and unwanted guest at picnics in the Shenandoah National Park, and it was decided that for her own good, she should be relocated. Rose was moved from her home territory in Augusta County to Sounding Knob in Highland County, a straight-line distance of approximately 58 miles. Six days later she was back in the park. She was trapped again and taken to Mountain Lake in Giles County, approximately 125 miles from her home territory. Rose returned again to the park and was caught 11 days later. She had crossed several interstate highways and other major highways and much open farmland on her journey. Finally, Rose was taken to the Dismal Swamp. She left immediately, went to North Carolina, and headed up the Roanoke River drainage on the way back to the mountains. Unfortunately, she was struck by a car and killed. It is estimated that Rambling Rose traveled at least 773 miles during her summer journeys.
Finally, mammal photographer and writer Leonard Lee Rue tells the story of two bear that had feasted too long on fermented apples. The bear were so intoxicated they could not walk. In fact, the Massachusetts State Game Commission temporarily closed the bear season for five days that year to give the bears a chance to sober up. Three game wardens were detailed to baby-sit with the bears around the clock while they slept through their stupor. Once the bear staggered off, the bear season resumed.
Not knowing the effect of the scent lure on species appearance, I would expect our most photographed mammal will be the white-tailed deer. We now have an estimated population of 4,760,000 deer permeating the same five state area. I wonder how many photos of pie-bald deer we’ll get. Some can have small areas of white while others can be almost all white. Albinos are very uncommon, although several have been reported at Fort Pickett, VA. Melanism is extremely rare, but has been observed.
OK. Let’s face it. Wouldn’t we all like to be the first to photograph a mountain lion in our mid-Atlantic region? What are your chances? Do mountain lions really exist in our Appalachians? Most wildlife biologists and other state game officials recognize that a substantial number of authoritative persons have, indeed, seen mountain lions in our region. A former Superintendent of the Shenandoah National Park has seen one. In fact, my wife, Jane, Chris Lamond and myself were dumbfounded to see one along FS 13 on Canaan Mountain, WV, near Blackwater State Park.
Between 1979 and 1994, a total of 279 reports of cougars in Virginia have been received. Of those, 124 were deemed reliable. Most reports center around the New River Valley of Montgomery-Giles-Craig counties and the Peaks of Otter area of Bedford and Botetourt counties. One report comes from a veteran US Forest Service technician who spent 25 minutes watching a female cougar with two cubs sunning themselves near Peaks of Otter in 1990.
The question doesn’t seem to be one of are there mountain lions in our mountains, but rather, who are these mountain lions in our mountains. It is known that people have historically released mountain lions into our forests. In fact, it is still legal in some states to sell mountain lion cubs. Why would people release mountain lions? Beyond the obvious; that adult mountain lions are not very cuddly, some people have released them to re-establish populations in the east – either for the beauty of the animal, or to force enaction of protective endangered species measures. I’ve even been told that this practice has been so flagrant in the northeast, that NPS and US Forest Service officials are prosecuting individuals who have been caught releasing such animals.
While I won’t promise you’ll be the first to score a photo of a mountain lion, I can promise a season of surprises and a role in a great data gathering effort that will be the largest of it’s kind! To participate in this survey, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about mammals, go to my Appalachian Mammals website at www.bobpickett.org.