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Coyote Research Study Update

Although they are found state-wide, coyotes are a relative new-comer to Virginia.  Coyotes are native to the plains of the Midwest, but they eventually arrived in the western mountains of Virginia during the late 1970’s following a well-documented eastward expansion.  Coyotes prefer hilly terrain with open or brushy habitat, but they are also a highly adaptable species. Their numbers quickly increased and coyotes soon became firmly established in every county of the Commonwealth.

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Coyote wearing a GPS radio collar as part of the research study.

Soon after the coyote’s arrival, many hunters and wildlife enthusiasts began to express apprehension regarding the potential impacts coyotes might have on our native wildlife species.  In particular, deer hunters voiced concerns that increasing coyote numbers might lower deer populations in portions of the state.

In order to better understand the potential effects of coyotes on deer numbers, the Virginia Department  of Game & Inland Fisheries embarked upon a 4-year research project in the western mountain region of the state.  The study was headed up by researchers at Virginia Tech and initiated in 2011.  The project was focused on National Forest lands in Bath and western Rockingham County, where deer numbers appeared to have declined substantially during the past decade.  Primary objectives of the project included an assessment of what coyotes eat throughout the year, their movement behavior, habitat selection, and home range size. The diet of bobcats and bears were also studied in the same area and compared with coyotes.

To study the diet of coyotes, researchers meticulously examined 395 coyote scats (feces samples) collected monthly over a 2-year period.  They found out that coyotes eat deer very frequently.  White-tailed deer had the highest overall occurrence in the scat (74%), followed by voles (27%) and insects (16%).  Seasonally, deer occurrence in the scats was greatest in January, March, June, July, and November.  The June-July period coincides with the fawning season but deer were also an important food item during the early fall and late-winter months.

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Bones found in coyote scat for diet analyses.

Although we now know that coyotes eat deer a lot, we don’t know if they eat a lot of deer.   Scat analyses tell us what an animal has eaten, but not how the food item was obtained.  As a result, it’s unknown whether the source of deer in the coyote diet was from deer actually killed by coyotes or whether coyotes were scavenging on carcasses of deer that died from other causes.  Most likely, both sources were important diet components, but additional research (currently underway) will be needed to quantify the contribution of each source.

Coyotes were not the only predators eating deer in the study areas.  Of the 607 bobcat scats analyzed, deer were found in 35% and squirrels were found in 53%.  Seasonally, deer was highest in the scats during June (when most fawns are born) and in late winter (December and January).   Bears also had a high occurrence of deer in their scat (35%), but acorns and berries were found in 61% and insects were found in 45%.

In addition to studying what coyotes were eating, researchers also monitored the movements and survival of 19 coyotes wearing high-tech GPS radio collars.  They found that coyotes in the western mountains formed a mosaic of stable and shifting home ranges that were significantly impacted by high mortality, primarily from shooting and trapping.  Some coyotes lived in loose family groups and occupied well-defined territories.

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Application of a GPS radio-collar on a coyote.

Others were lone individuals classified as “transients” with large home ranges situated between defended territories, referred to as “biding areas.”   These nomadic coyotes were basically lying in wait to fill vacant territories.  Since mortality of coyotes was high (63% of radio-collared coyotes were killed during the monitoring period), it usually didn’t take long for a territory to become vacant.

This complex social structure illustrates why coyote numbers are difficult to manage at the landscape level.  In areas where available territories are limited, coyote numbers appear to be regulated more effectively by competition with one another rather than by mortality from hunting and trapping.  If coyotes truly are having an impact on deer populations, the most effective response may be to improve deer habitat, rather than kill more coyotes.  Coyotes make convenient scapegoats, but they are just one species in a multi-predator system that also includes bobcats and bears.   As is usually the case in wildlife management, ecological relationships are almost always more complex than they appear on the surface.  Certainly, the predator-prey dynamics of coyotes and deer are no exception.

 

All photos courtesy of Virginia Tech.

  • June 2nd, 2016

Spotted Skunk Study Underway

Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

Eastern spotted skunk. Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Did you know there are two different species of skunks in Virginia? Almost everyone is familiar with the sight (and smell) of the common striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), which is widely distributed throughout the state. You may have had one denning under your shed, seen one on the side of the road, or been unlucky enough to have one spray your dog. Few people realize, however, that Virginia is also home to a smaller and more secretive skunk species, the eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Generally found only in the western portion of our state, this once common species has been declining in numbers since at least the 1940’s for reasons that are poorly understood and is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan.

Spotted skunks, like their striped cousins, are members of the skunk family and will spray an odorous secretion in self-defense as suggested by their Latin scientific name, which translates to “stinking spotted weasel.” However, at just 1–2½ pounds, spotted skunks are noticeably more slender and smaller than striped skunks and are not much bigger than a large squirrel. Their glossy black fur has 4–6 broken white stripes along the back and sides that resemble “spots,” versus the two solid white bands that extends down the back of striped skunks. The feet of spotted skunks are more specialized for climbing (they are adept tree climbers), compared to the powerful feet of striped skunks that are adapted for digging. Spotted skunks are more carnivorous than striped skunks, primarily feeding on small mammals, insects, eggs, and even carrion. They typically breed in the later winter or early spring, giving birth to a single litter of 1 – 6 young born in May or June.

Photo by Smithsonian Wild_taken onAppalachianTrailinRoanokeVA

Eastern spotted skunk on the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Smithsonian Wild.

Until just a few years ago, very little was known about the distribution and ecology of spotted skunks in the central and southern Appalachian region. To help address this knowledge gap, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) recently funded a 3-year research project conducted by Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. The project seeks to determine the population status of spotted skunks in Virginia, investigate forest and landscape conditions that influence their distribution, and study their movement patterns and habitat selection.

With the study now in its third year, researchers at Virginia Tech are beginning to report some interesting preliminary results. Using trail cameras stationed at 128 sites in 10 counties, the researchers have documented spotted skunks at 23 different locations. Habitat data collected at the surveyed sites suggest that spotted skunks prefer forests with thick understory vegetation, most likely to avoid detection from predators, particularly great horned owls.

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Eastern spotted skunk ready to be fitted with a radio collar for the DGIF-funded Virginia Tech research study. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Efforts are currently underway to radio-collar spotted skunks, monitor their movements and locate den sites. Initial data from 11 radio-collared spotted skunks has tracked them to multiple den sites in underground burrows, hollow logs, and tree cavities. Their night time movements have generally been within close range of their den sites. Radio tracking data will continue being collected throughout the spring and summer months.

 

 

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Eastern spotted skunk being fitted with a radio collar. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Currently, it’s unclear whether spotted skunks are truly rare, or just secretive and very difficult to find. As this research project continues, we hope to better understand where to look for these elusive animals and more accurately assess their population status in Virginia. Knowledge gained from this project will also help identify potential factors that may be limiting spotted skunk populations, which will be useful for making management recommendations and conserving this fascinating species.

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Entryway to a male eastern spotted skunk’s den. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

How You Can Help

Please note that it’s illegal to trap or shoot spotted skunks in Virginia (unless they are causing damage) and their pelts may not be sold.

If you have trail camera photos or other verifiable evidence regarding occurrences of spotted skunks in Virginia, please contact DGIF’s furbearer biologist, Mike Fies, at 540-248-9390 or by e-mail at mike.fies@dgif.virginia.gov.

You can learn more about this study and receive updates at http://easternspottedskunk.blogspot.com/

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Juvenile eastern spotted skunk. Photo by Victoria Kaufman.

  • February 17th, 2016

Squirrel Appreciation Day: Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel

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Delmarva Fox Squirrel. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In honor of Squirrel Appreciation Day, we’d like to introduce you to a unique squirrel you may not be as familiar with and is a Virginia Species of Greatest Conservation Need, the Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus) or as it is more commonly known, the Delmarva Fox Squirrel.

This large squirrel can grow up to 30 inches long, including its fluffy tail that can grow up to 15 inches long. The color of its fur is steely blue to whitish gray and it has a white belly. Its rounded ears are short and thick. Compared to Gray Squirrels, the Delmarva Fox Squirrel is 1 ½ times larger in size, their ears are shorter, and their fur is longer, coarser, and lighter in color. They also live a more terrestrial life style than Gray Squirrels and are quieter, slower and less agile.

Delmarva Penninsual Fox Squirrel Range Map

Virginia range of the Delmarva Fox Squirrel.

The range of Delmarva Fox Squirrels in Virginia only includes the Eastern Shore, which constitutes the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula. Their habitat includes wooded areas, particularly mature loblolly pine and hardwood forests with an open understory or swamps deep within deciduous forests. These squirrels can also be found in woodlots, fences, and hedgerows near farm fields and groves of trees near water. Tree cavities and snags (standing dead trees) are other desirable habitat features.

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Delmarva Fox Squirrel foraging. Photo by the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The Delmarva Fox Squirrel eats nuts, seeds, and acorns from gum, oak, loblolly pine, maple, walnut, and hickory trees. Other items they eat include: buds, flowers, fruit, fungi, insects, green tree shoots, and mature green pine cones. They have been known to eat and store away caches of mushrooms. During the spring, they will eat the bark, cambium, leaves, and twigs of deciduous trees. They also will eat agricultural crops such as corn, soybean, wheat barley, oats, apples, and more.

Natural predators of the Delmarva Fox Squirrel include: red foxes, minks, weasels, birds of prey, and unleashed dogs and cats. Young squirrels may also be eaten by raccoons, opossums, and rat snakes.

The mating season for this species is late winter – early spring. They often utilize tree cavities as dens, but also will nest in tree crotches, tangles of vines, on tree trunks, or at the end of large tree branches. During February – April females give birth to litters of 1-6 young. The females care for their young until they are weaned.

Conservation Success Story

After 40 years of conservation efforts by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), state agencies, landowners, and other partners, USFWS determined that the Delmarva Fox Squirrel is no longer in danger of extinction through all or a significant part of is range, so in December of 2015, they officially removed it from the federal list of endangered species!

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Delmarva Fox Squirrel. Photo by the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The squirrel was one of the original 78 endangered species listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1967. Its historical range included the Delmarva Peninsula (Maryland, Delaware and Virginia), southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, but during the mid-20th century, its range and population declined sharply due to the clearing of forests for agriculture and development, short-rotation timber harvests, and over-hunting. By the time of its listing in 1967, the Delmarva fox squirrel’s range had been whittled down to just 4 counties in Maryland.

Over time, conservation efforts in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia increased the squirrel’s range from 4 to 10 counties! Their population now covers 28% of the Delmarva Peninsula (mostly in Maryland) and includes as many as 20,000 individuals. A key contribution in this recovery was the establishment of new populations by biologists who moved Delmarva Fox Squirrels to new parts of the 3 states. This conservation method, known as translocation, reintroduced squirrels into areas within the historic range where populations either experienced significant declines or were no longer present. The most successful of the translocation efforts in Virginia was at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge where the resulting populations are doing well. The refuge reports to have between 300- 350 individuals, with new populations dispersing on their own throughout the southern portion of Assateague Island.

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Foraging Delmarva Fox Squirrel. Photo by the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Delmarva residents also played a major role in the greater recovery effort; over 80% of this squirrel’s range lies on private land. Some private landowners host new translocated populations of squirrels on their farms and many others provide habitat for the squirrels. Another contributor to the recovery was the closing of a hunting season on the squirrel, which reduced mortality and likely allowed populations in some areas to rebuild. Over time, populations increased, and young squirrels dispersed to new areas of occupied forest.

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Delmarva Fox Squirrel. Photo by USFWS.

Despite their overall regional growth in population, conservation work is still needed. Delmarva Fox Squirrels are still considered rare in both Virginia and Delaware. Virginia lists the Delmarva Fox Squirrel as a Tier 2 species on our Wildlife Action Plan. Tier 2 species are considered a Very High Conservation Need. They have a high risk of extinction or extirpation at the state level. Populations of these species are at very low levels, face real threat(s), or occur within a very limited distribution. Immediate management is needed for stabilization and recovery.

The good news in Virginia is that a 2009 study funded by DGIF identified approximately 630 acres in northern Accomack County that are presently suitable for Delmarva Fox Squirrel occupation. With proper land management this area of suitable habitat could more than double in the next 10-20 years! This work provides an important first step towards increasing squirrel populations on the lower Delmarva Peninsula.

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Delmarva Fox Squirrel. Photo by USFWS.

Potential future conservation efforts in Virginia could include the engagement of private landowners and partnering with other state and local agencies to gain support for new squirrel translocations. Another possible conservation measure would be to work towards developing a corridor of connected habitat between the Delmarva Fox Squirrel population on the Eastern Shore and the southernmost population in Maryland, which would create opportunity for genetic exchange between the two populations and increase the chances for a stable, long term population on the lower Delmarva Peninsula.

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  • January 21st, 2016