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Volume 15, Issue 23 ~ June 7 - June 13, 2007

That’s Why They Call It Wildlife

It’s not only swans and snakeheads; recovering American natives are irrepressible

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

Who hasn’t heard, read or spoken the above seven words, usually involving flea markets, lawn sales and dusty old shops that trade under the guise of collectibles. ’Tis absolutely true, but it’s not necessarily confined to buying, selling and bartering.

It can apply to wildlife, for example.

That thought came to me recently reading of the stepped-up effort to reduce the pesky nutria population on the Eastern Shore. A few days later, an update came on the mute swan problem also on the Shore. Add to that more snakeheads found in the lower Potomac River complex, also more mitten crabs are turning up in the Chesapeake — and the native coyote population is irrepressible.

To top it off came long distance phone calls, first from my sister Ruth. Her cat was among the missing, and she blamed it on one man’s treasure. If that wasn’t enough, a second call came from my daughter Turee, who lives less than 15 miles from sister Ruth. She’d just witnessed a wildlife marauder wiping out a songbird nest within a few feet of her house.

Treasure to Trash

A treasure to trappers when the pelt price is right is the nutria, a South American import. But the price hasn’t been right for many a blue moon. Meanwhile these furbearers are eating up marshes, competing with muskrats and other wildlife for food and habitat and changing the face of tidal wetlands. Not only on our Shore. Hitler’s henchmen introduced nutria to Germany as sporting wildlife. Then along came World War II with no time and means for hunting them, and they have taken over in Germany and are terrifying the continent. Nutria are junk to environmentalists.

Mute swans add ambiance to a waterfront homestead. But since five pet mutes escaped from a Talbot County farm more than 40 years ago, so many mute swans have multiplied with voracious appetites that they’re wiping out underwater grasses, crowding out native fowl and hissing away humans. They’re junk to wetlands managers.

In China, northern snakeheads are a delicacy. Over here, snakeheads made their way into home aquaria. But presumably they grew too big or gobbled up everything else in the tank, and some were dumped in ponds and rivers. They are voracious and aggressive creatures feared to be capable of undoing the natural balance of fish life. Which makes them junk to fisheries managers.

The hairy-clawed mitten crab, to the Chinese, is a delicacy, but it’s arrival here — presumably from ship ballast discharges — is not welcome. The jury is still out on its potential impact on our native blue crabs, but it is known to burrow into riverbanks inviting erosion and certainly is of concern. More junk.

Coyotes have ranged into every county in Maryland. Its fine pelt is valued among trappers, coyotes help control some pesky wildlife, but they also feast on songbirds and small game, and when they move into urban areas, more than a few cats disappear. They’re believed to push out red fox, so they’re junk to those who ride with the hounds.

All that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The New Nuisance on the Block

Now comes the fisher, and I’m not referring to fisher as the politically correct alternative to fisherman. Nor is it a species of fish or bird. The fisher, you might say, is an oversized marten or weasel, as well as the object of calls from sister Ruth and daughter Turee, both of Rhode Island, where this furbearer is enjoying a population surge.

Seventy-five years ago, fishers were virtually wiped out in most areas; in the 1920s, a furrier would pay $345 for a fine female pelt, thus there was great trapping pressure. The cutting of forests, especially in high country, also reduced their habitat.

Their stomping grounds are primarily northern states, though some thrive as far south as Tennessee.

They’re back. We now have them in the mid-Atlantic courtesy of West Virginia, which in 1969 figured it fitting to bring back then-rare wildlife species, the fisher among them.

Twenty-three arrived. Fifteen were released on Canaan Mountain, eight in the Cranberry Glades of Pocahontas County. Since then they have been inching our way, but the snowball is gathering momentum. There are enough in Maryland now to allow trapping; in the 1988-’89 season five were caught, by 1999-2000 it was 16, in ’05-’06, 26 and for ’06-’07, 45.

Ruth and Turee tell me their presence is quite visible in Rhode Island, where a growing number of citizens are complaining. As was Ruth, who saw one on her lawn several weeks ago and knew it posed a danger to Gazelda, her stray, close-to-20-pound, female feral cat just beginning to become accustomed to the perks of setting up shop with an animal-loving widow.

Gazelda has to go outdoors for short romps or there would be no sleep in the house. Ruth would let her out in the evening, soon thereafter calling her back in. But as she feared, one night Gazelda failed to reappear. The fisher is still around.

Turee lives on a big pond, and fishers frequent ponds, streams and rivers, though they are not fish catchers; how they got their name remains a mystery. Her neighbors complain of missing cats and small dogs and raids on ducks and songbirds.

What Is This Creature?

It’s a large, lithe, muscular member of the weasel family. A male can be over a yard long, stand up to 12 inches high at the shoulder and weigh up to 20 pounds; 28-pounders have been recorded. Females grow to half the male size at best. Both have long thick tails.

It’s a tenacious critter, for one of its favorite meals is a porcupine. A fisher can’t pass up a porcupine. To avoid quills, it attacks from the face after circling repeatedly until it tires. Many a fisher has been found with a few imbedded quills.

It also likes beavers and muskrats, even raccoons, which are bigger but don’t have the stamina of a hungry fisher in a scrap. They are also known to consume starving or sick deer.

Currently, we have fishers in Garrett and Allegany counties from the West Virginia stocking, though their eastward spread has been slowed by the populous and much deforested Hagerstown Valley. But individuals stake claims to a large tract of land (10 to 20 square miles), so they’ll likely resume heading east as well as north and south.

Fishers will probably reach central and more easterly points in Maryland sooner than black bears, neither of which will receive a warm welcome. But it’s inherent in wildlife to reclaim parts of their traditional grounds as populations increase.

Who are we to complain? We’re the aggressors. They’re just learning to co-exist. Enough said.

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