Winter 2020 Black Bear Den Work/Cub Fostering: DGIF initiated a black bear GPS collaring project in 2016 with the intent to utilize GPS location data to locate female bear dens and potentially use these for fostering orphan cubs. Additionally the GPS data could be used to gain a better understanding of habitat use, home range parameters, and denning behavior of bears in the Central Piedmont region of Virginia. Since 2016, eight cubs have been successfully fostered on collared bears within the project area, with 2 of those fosters occurring during the 2020 denning season. During 2020, one event was a foster only where the cub was placed with the female at the den (with the female very much awake!), while the second event was a full workup of the female to replace an aging collar and ended with the addition of one cub to her litter. The “foster only” event occurred on a female who has actually served as a successful surrogate mother previously in 2018. The work up/collar replacement events are a true team effort in the Wildlife Resources Division, using staffs from the statewide wildlife health and bear programs, regional Lands and Access unit, and regional wildlife biologists. As illustrated in the photos below, the workup this year occurred on a very LARGE and healthy female who had 3 natural cubs and was in excellent condition to receive 1 additional cub as a foster. This den was monitored after the work up using trail cameras (both video and camera) and, based on the video footage, a bear mom must have a lot of patience and could probably use a good set of ear plugs!
Increasing Public Access to Private Lands: In March, the Wildlife Resources Division was notified that DGIF was selected to receive grant funding through the 2020 Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program (VPA-HIP). The program is funded through the Farm Bill and is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The $2,998,250 award will be used to lease private lands for the purposes of hunting, fishing, trapping, boating and viewing wildlife throughout southwest Virginia, with an emphasis on the Coalfields region. A portion of the grant can also be used to enhance wildlife habitats on these leased lands. With this grant funding, DGIF plans to expand significantly on the existing Public Access Lands for Sportsmen program.
Elk Collaring: Between December and February, Region 3 staffs from Fisheries and Law Enforcement Divisions aided the Wildlife Resources Division in capturing and collaring 14 elk in Buchanan County. These animals are part of about 20 elk cows that will help provide data to the Agency for about 4 years each regarding movements, habitat use, calving locations and survival. These data, and marked animals will also be an essential part of a current research project with Virginia Tech to estimate Virginia’s elk population size and distribution. Many of the elk have remained close to the restoration zone where habitat is being managed for the elk.
Seabird Conservation Initiative: In February, Governor Northam directed DGIF to create replacement habitat for Virginia’s largest seabird colony, which had been displaced from the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel’s South Island. One of the most significant construction projects that the Commonwealth has ever undertaken is going on there now, with the addition of new tunnels and bridges to move traffic into and out of the Tidewater region more effectively. The seabird colony, at its peak, is comprised of nearly 25,000 adult and young birds. The species in the colony include two (Sandwich Tern, Royal Tern) that generally nest nowhere else in Virginia. Other species of conservation concern in the colony include the Common Tern, Black Skimmer, Laughing Gull, and state-threatened Gull-billed Tern. Over the past 3 months, the Wildlife Resources Division and its partners have converted habitat on Fort Wool (an island next to South Island) to be suitable for seabirds. A small fleet of barges, loaded with sand/gravel nesting substrate, has been placed in the embayment between South Island and Fort Wool to provide additional nesting area. Decoys of some of the species have been placed in the sand to attract real birds; audio of bird calls and “colony chatter” are being broadcast 24/7. The DGIF’s Honor Guard decommissioned the large American flag that had been a fixture on the island for many years. In total, the DGIF has provided nearly 3 acres of temporary nesting habitat to replace approximately 10 acres lost from South Island.
Prescribed Burns for Habitat: During the winter and early spring of 2020, the Wildlife Resources Division and its partners successfully completed nearly 800 acres of prescribed burns to enhance wildlife habitat on DGIF Wildlife Management Areas. These burns are an important tool to effectively maintain early successional and old field habitats that benefit a variety of wildlife species.
Abandoned Mined Lands Pilot Grant Meeting: The Elk Project Leader and Region 3 Lands and Access Manager met with representatives from The Nature Conservancy and the Southwest Virginia Sportsmen Association to discuss timeline and strategies for implementing a project that will be funded by a Virginia Department of Mines Minerals and Energy (DMME) pilot grant. More than $2 million were awarded to reclaim abandoned mined land features, develop infrastructure and enhance wildlife habitats for the purposes of viewing wildlife and hunting. The DMME grants are awarded with the goal of restoring lands that were mined prior to surface mine reclamation legislation for purposes that will benefit the area’s economy. The restored elk herd in Buchanan County is an excellent way to connect people to wildlife. As the elk population grows, so does the popularity of viewing these magnificent animals. This project includes habitat improvements and the necessary infrastructure (roads and viewing platforms) to support wildlife viewing that will provide economic benefits to the local economy.
Annual Hemorrhagic Disease (HD) survey: DGIF’s deer management staff has completed the annual Hemorrhagic Disease (HD) survey for the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS), based out of the University of Georgia. HD is an important infectious disease of white-tailed deer in the Southeast United States and in Virginia, and outbreaks occur almost every year. The Department’s HD monitoring program involves three distinct projects. First, late last summer and early fall, 120 calls from 44 counties involving 259 deer were received by the Department describing deer mortality consistent with HD. These calls indicated significant HD activity in at least two separate areas–the Bedford, Franklin, Henry county area and in NOVA in Fairfax and Prince William counties. Second, field staff collected seven samples for HD virus selection. Four came back positive for EHDV2. Lastly, over 14,500 deer were checked for splitting or sloughing hooves (indicative of HD) by the Department’s Deer Management Assistance Cooperators (DMAP). One hundred and seventy nine (1.2%) were identified as potential HD deer. Overall, 2019 was a quiet HD year for Virginia.
Forty years ago, SCWDS initiated this annual HD survey to document and better understand the distribution and annual patterns of HD in the Southeast. Two years later, the survey was expanded to include the entire United States.
A Guide to the Salamanders of Virginia: In April, DGIF released its latest field guide, A Guide to the Salamanders of Virginia. Written by DGIF biologists and colleagues, this is the fourth and final field guide to the herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) of Virginia. With more than 200 photos and maps, this 76-page field guide covers the life history, ecology, and conservation of Virginia’s 53 salamander species. Costs for the guide, and previous herpetological guides, were kept to a minimum as all photos were donated from various photographers. Funding for layout and printing costs was made possible through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s State Wildlife Grants program and the Virginia Non-game Fund. All proceeds go to the Virginia Wildlife Grant Program, which provides a funding source to non-profits, schools, and government agencies with a focus to connect youth to the outdoors. These field guides are hugely popular with the public and continue to be top-selling items on ShopDGIF.
Snake Fungal Disease Survey: Working in coordination Virginia Tech, DGIF’s herpetologist (J.D. Kleopfer) has initiated sampling this spring for snake fungal disease (SFD), with particular focus on rainbow snakes (Farancia erytrogramma). Over the past several years, several dead rainbow snakes have been observed around the Back Bay region of Virginia Beach, and SFD is the prime suspect. However, it’s a puzzle as to why it seems to be hitting this species particularly hard at this location. As shown in the photos, SFD often results in lesions and sores.
COVID-19 and Impacts to Wildlife: While minimizing the potential devastating effects of COVID-19 on human populations remains the Department’s top priority, the possible effects of COVID-19 on the wildlife species of Virginia is also a concern. The susceptibility of various wildlife species to the virus and the potential for the establishment of a wildlife COVID-19 reservoir are both concerning to the Department. COVID-19 is closely related to a virus originating from horseshoe bats in Wuhan, China; therefore, the risk of reverse transmission from humans to bats is strongly suspected. Reports of captive tigers and mink becoming clinically sick from COVID-19 as a result of indirect or direct contact with infected humans have recently been reported. As a result of these concerns, DGIF has been working with conservation professionals and wildlife disease experts from various federal and state agencies and academic institutions to assess the potential risk of reverse transmission as well as develop preventive guidance for anyone who works directly with bats, mustelids, felids, and other wildlife species. To minimize the risk of reverse transmission, DGIF biologists have suspended their activities involving close contact with bats (i.e. cave surveys and field research) until further notice. In addition, the Department has temporarily suspended the rehabilitation of bats, has modified Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators guidance as it pertains to bat handling, and has closed cave access on DGIF-owned lands until further notice. Guidance for staff and permittees handling mustelids and felids is currently under review and is awaiting federal recommendations prior to release. Since masks are now readily available to staff, anyone directly handling any mammal for any purpose other than humane dispatch is encouraged to wear a mask and gloves to minimize the risk of reverse transmission. Guidance to staff and permittees in regards to wildlife handling will be updated as federal guidance is updated.
Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus: A highly infectious virus, known as rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2 (RHDV2), was detected in wild rabbits for the first time in the southwestern United States in April 2020. RHDV2 is reported to be highly lethal to both wild and domestic rabbits but it is not known to be a human health concern. While it has not yet been reported in the Southeast, spread throughout the US is likely, and the Department is closely monitoring the geographic distribution of this disease. A localized RHDV2 outbreak typically involves multiple dead cottontails in the same general vicinity over a fairly short period of time. Most affected animals are in good body condition at the time of death, and no external wounds should be apparent. Some infected rabbits may exhibit bright red blood around the nose. If you find multiple dead rabbits, please report the mortalities to your local district wildlife biologist. DGIF is providing the following guidance to rabbit hunters: 1.) Avoid harvesting rabbits that appear sick, 2.) Wear rubber or disposable gloves when handling game, 3.) After cleaning or handling, do not contact live rabbits before showering and changing clothes, and 4.) Double-bag the leftover carcass parts and discard them at a landfill to prevent access by rabbits or scavengers.