Thursday, March 31, 2016

Deer in the headlights

            The most successful deer hunters in Rhode Island are named Ford, Toyota and Chevy.  And they are driving changes to hunting rules in the state.
Although it’s unintentional, cars and trucks kill more than 1,000 deer per year in the Ocean State, and those numbers are growing. Since last March, there have been more than 1,100 vehicle collisions with deer – a 9 percent increase over the previous year – with the most dangerous areas being the busy roadways in the coastal communities from Cranston to South Kingstown. Major highways throughout the state are also frequent deer collision zones, especially Route 295.
Ruthanne Applegate’s experience is typical.
“I was driving on Route 1 in Charlestown at night, and I didn’t even see the deer until his little face was right in the corner of my windshield,” she said. “It was probably a young one, and it tumbled down the side of the car and broke the mirror off. There’s no way it survived.”
The incident caused $6,000 damage to Applegate’s Subaru Impreza and left her frightened and sad.
White tailed deer photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider
            According to Brian Tefft, the wildlife biologist responsible for tracking deer statistics for the RhodeIsland Department of Environmental Management, October to December is prime time for auto strikes with deer. “That’s breeding season, and the males are roaming around widely and chasing females,” he said. “There’s also a lesser peak that occurs in June and July right after the birthing season when mothers are moving around with their fawns.”
            Tefft said the state’s management strategy for reducing the number of deer in the region is largely motivated by a desire to reduce the number of vehicle collisions. Hunting rules have been liberalized in the coastal communities where the human and vehicle populations are greatest and where deer strikes are most abundant. But those densely populated areas are also where hunters have the most difficulty finding a legal place to hunt, which makes it harder to manage the deer population than in the more rural regions of Rhode Island.
Based on Tefft’s statistical index of what is considered an acceptable number of deer collisions, the northern and western parts of Rhode Island have relatively few collisions – fewer than the statewide target of 1.5 per unit of habitat. But most coastal communities in the West Bay have twice that many, and Warwick and Cranston have four times as many as the index suggests is acceptable.
            The problem is that Rhode Island is home to more than 16,000 deer or about 15 deer per square mile. It’s a healthy, well-fed herd, but there are simply far too many of them for the habitat – and the state’s drivers – to safely sustain. Last winter’s brutal cold and continuous snow cover for much of the season caused a significant number of young deer to starve, but the overall population remains robust. And hunters can’t seem to shoot enough deer to keep the herd from growing.
            Jim Gordon of Exeter has been an active deer hunter for more than 30 years, hunting three or four days every week of the hunting season, which runs from September through January. He typically harvests six or seven deer in a good year, but the recently completed hunting season wasn’t good.
            “I hardly saw any deer,” said Gordon, who primarily hunts in the Arcadia Wildlife Management Area in Exeter and on private property in North Kingstown and Hopkinton. “They just weren’t coming out of the woods. I knew where they were, but they just weren’t making themselves visible.”
            Gordon said he put in his usual amount of hunting time but only killed half as many deer. And his hunting buddies struck out entirely.
            Gordon’s experience was typical of hunters throughout the state, according to Tefft. It was a good year for acorn production and other natural foods that deer eat deep in the woods, so the deer didn’t find it necessary to wander to the edges of the state’s forests – where most hunters were waiting for them – in search of food.
            As a result, Rhode Island’s deer harvest, which runs from September to January in most of the state, declined by 20 percent in the 2015-2016 season to about 1,800 animals. That follows a year when the number of deer harvested was down by 13 percent (although the previous year was a near record-high). Nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut have experienced similar declines in deer harvest numbers in recent years.
            Tefft said that deer hunting hasn’t declined much in popularity in recent years, as it has in some parts of the country. The state continues to sell about 20,000 deer hunting permits each year, and about 9,000 hunters participate. Interest in archery hunting has even increased. Yet deer remain abundant.
            Vehicle collisions aren’t the only reason for reducing the deer herd in Rhode Island, however.  As every gardener knows, deer love to munch on a wide variety of cultivated plants and shrubs in residential landscapes, and as a result, Tefft said that damage complaints are very high in some areas. The state also seeks to reduce the deer herd to reduce the ecological impact deer have on other wildlife species from their consumption of native plants and shrubs.
            Part of the challenge of using hunting as the primary means of managing the state’s deer herd is that most hunters want to shoot a trophy buck rather than one of the 8,000 does in the state that are likely to give birth to twins in the spring. If more hunters harvested does, the state’s deer herd would be smaller and much easier to manage, and there would be fewer automobile collisions.
            “We’ve liberalized the rules in some areas to encourage people to harvest female deer, but 94 percent of hunters take only one or two deer, and they mostly take males, which means they aren’t helping us manage the herd,” Tefft said.
            Jim Gordon is doing his part, though. “I’ll take whatever walks out of the woods,” he said. “If it’s a doe, that’s fine with me. I can’t eat an antler.”

Block Island Sidebar: 
            The deer situation on Block Island has reached alarming levels. Brian Tefft said that the population of 80 deer per square mile – compared to 15 on the mainland – is “not a healthy number for people, habitat or anything else.” 
            Officials on the island are aggressively trying to manage the population, and they have even taken the controversial step of paying hunters for killing deer. Despite opposition, the $150 bounty the town paid for each tail resulted in 387 deer killed last year. Coupled with those that didn’t survive last year’s harsh winter, and the island population was reduced by nearly half. Yet the community still has a long way to go.
            The hunting season on Block Island lasts one month longer than in the rest of Rhode Island – through the end of February – due in part to concerns among residents over the high incidence of Lyme disease, which is transmitted by ticks that typically reproduce after first feeding on deer. Deer also cause considerable ecological damage on the island, which is home to numerous rare plants and animals. 

This article first appeared in The Mercury on March 29, 2016.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Skunks are amorous and odoriferous

Driving home from work the other day, I saw my first road-killed skunk of the year. And if this year is anything like the last few, it won’t be the last one I see this season. While April showers do indeed bring May flowers, it’s also true that warm weather in March and early April is a certain sign that skunks will turn up dead in the road in great numbers.
I’ve been paying close attention to roadkill lately, and while most of the abundant species like raccoons and squirrels seem to be struck and killed by vehicles regularly throughout the year, with maybe an uptick in fall when the young of the year disperse and food sources get concentrated, that doesn’t seem to be the case with skunks to the same degree. These attractive-but-unpopular animals seem to meet their end on roadways most often in early spring.

March is the breeding season for the region’s only native skunk, the striped skunk, whose black-and-white fur and pungent aroma make it unmistakable. The species lives in a variety of habitats, including mixed woods and brush, and it often forages in fields, lawns, and other clearings. An omnivore, it feeds on a wide variety of insects, grubs, berries, and carrion.
Although skunks will sometimes den up together in winter, for the most part they live solitary lives. During the breeding season, they may travel great distances to seek each other out. This often requires road crossings. Because skunks are largely nocturnal and most wildlife is struck by vehicles at night, they are a common casualty. Young skunks seeking to breed for the first time may be especially vulnerable.
Despite their stink, skunks have a closer relationship with humans than most people realize.
In earlier times, skunk pelts were a valuable commodity in the fur trade. During the Depression, when they were made into hats, gloves, and coats, one skunk pelt could sell for $4 or $5. Their value hasn’t changed much since then, making the animals hardly worthwhile for trappers to bother with. There is a niche market today for their scent glands, which are used in commercial animal lures. One state biologist equated skunk essence to “a long distance call with universal appeal” among many animals, especially fishers.
The decline of skunk trapping may mean there are more skunks today than existed a century ago, but few states conduct skunk population surveys so it’s hard to verify this. One thing is certain, however – skunks undoubtedly benefited from human development of the landscape. Based on roadkill surveys and nuisance complaints, there are believed to be many more skunks per square mile of urban and suburban area than in more natural settings. But their proximity also means the animals are more apt to being struck by vehicles.
Which brings us to one more reason why skunks become roadkill so often in spring – their brazen nature. Skunks just aren’t as cautious as many other wildlife species, especially when love is in the air. Because of their ability to spray a noxious liquid from their scent glands, there are few predators that will attack them. Coyotes may occasionally prey upon them, and great horned owls are expert skunk killers, but the risk of a burning nose and eyes, even temporary blindness, keeps most other predators at bay.
And who would blame them for staying away? The scent was described by author and wildlife artist Ernest Thompson Seton as a combination of perfume musk, essence of garlic, burning sulfur, and sewer gas "magnified a thousand times."
Because striped skunks have little fear of predators, they apparently have little fear of almost anything that moves, including humans. They’re comfortable living around homes and businesses, often building dens beneath abandoned buildings, under residential porches and decks, and beneath woodpiles and stone walls. I like to wander my property at night, listening for owls and staring at the stars, and it’s not uncommon for a skunk to waddle past me during the breeding season. One nearly even stepped on my foot and kept going as if I wasn’t there.
In a similar way, when a car approaches a skunk, the animal brazenly stands its ground. Sadly, it’s a confrontation that the skunk almost never wins.

This article first appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 25, 2016.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Beware: Frogs crossing!

            The old adage that April showers bring May flowers remains true, even as the planet warms and the timing of many events in the natural world shifts one way or the other. But what is equally true is that March showers bring frogs and salamanders. So we should pay close attention as we drive dark roadways during evening rains this month, because those amphibians will be on their way to and from their breeding ponds, which often means crossing roads. It would be a shame if our vehicles bring their annual migrations to a violent end just before the creatures complete their mission.
            Several species of frogs and salamanders that are crossing roads this month have the remarkable ability to hibernate among the leaf litter and in shallow burrows during the winter, at which time most of the water in their body turns to ice. And yet as temperatures warm, they unfreeze and go about their regular activities. They can do this thanks to their ability to produce a concentrated sugar solution that acts like anti-freeze to prevent damage to sensitive organs. This anti-freeze is triggered when their body temperature falls and their metabolism drops. Sometimes their hearts even stop beating.
            Wood frogs and spring peepers – both small, tan colored animals – are perfect examples. They are best known as the loud-mouthed frogs that congregate in vernal pools and small ponds in March and April as they seek mates and lay eggs. They are often joined by spotted salamanders, which are attractively dressed in shiny black with bright yellow spots. But getting to their breeding ponds is often a dangerous trek, and many don’t make it.
            Compared to birds, many of which may travel thousands of miles to the Tropics and back each year, the migration of local frogs and salamanders is nothing to brag about. A 2005 study by researchers at the University of Rhode Island found that most spotted salamanders only travel about 150 meters from their wintering site to their breeding pond. Yet because of the fragmentation of their habitat by roads and houses, it’s often a trip fraught with danger.
            Their migration typically occurs during nighttime rain storms as the weather warms in mid- to late March, though it got an early start this year due to our unseasonably warm February. (Cold winters like last year – when many breeding ponds were still frozen until April – can delay the trip for several weeks.) If you drive dark roads near wetlands at this time, your headlights will likely illuminate frogs hopping across the road. Please be careful.
            Last April during a warm evening rain shower, I walked a one-mile stretch of road adjacent to a series of ponds near my house, and with flashlight in hand, I found more than 50 wood frogs and spring peepers attempting to cross the road. I escorted each one to safety in the direction they were facing. It’s a good deed that youth groups and other interested parties engage in frequently during this season. And you can, too.
            If you want to get even more involved in studying and protecting our local frogs, become a Frog Watch volunteer and monitor amphibian calls at nearby ponds. The national citizen science project is managed locally by Roger Williams Park Zoo.
            Most important, however, please drive slowly and carefully during evening showers for the next few weeks to avoid migrating amphibians. Thousands of frogs and salamanders will thank you for it.

          This article first appeared in The Independent on March 17, 2016.