Chapter Eight –Beavers and Otters and Bears, Oh My!
Imagine how delighted I was to arrive at Class 7 of our 10-month Maryland Master Naturalist training program and be greeted by this fellow:
Of course, it would help you to know that I have a skull collection (doesn’t everyone?) and have been looking forward to our class on mammals since the training program began. And I was not disappointed—Peter Jayne, who is officially the Associate Director for Game Management at the Wildlife and Heritage Service of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, was our guide for the morning session—everything you ever wanted to know about mammals in 3 hours!
As you can imagine, we moved quickly, but by focusing on mammals of the Coastal Plains of Maryland, we were able to survive the onslaught of information. Peter first introduced us to definitions of mammals and emphasized the diversity in this class, Mammalia. They are diverse in terms of mobility, where they live, the various types of hibernation they employ, diurnal versus nocturnal behaviors, herbivore to carnivore to omnivore, and their place at every level in the food web.
We moved on to specific species, starting with white-tailed deer (Cervidae), their natural habits, the impact of deer on crops, the connection between deer population density and Lyme disease, and management options, which include educating homeowners associations, using contraception or sterilization, and lethal control (hunting and sharpshooting).
As part of the hands-on portion of the class, we learned how to age a deer from the mandible (lower jaw) of its skeleton. Peter reminded us that this is much more accurate than trying to determine the age of a deer from the number of points on its antlers.
The discussion turned to bats, including the 11 species found on the Coastal Plain of Maryland; problems with White Nose Syndrome, which is causing high mortality in bat colonies; to a broader discussion of rabies and its prevalence, particularly in raccoons. Peter reminded us to contact the DNR for cases of wild animals showing up sick or injured, but noted that sometimes local animal control services will handle these situations. He also said that as soon as folks know that we are Master Naturalists, they will show up on our doorsteps with cardboard boxes brimming with baby animals—there is a list on the Maryland DNR site that has a search function to help find a local wildlife rehabilitator—always the best folks to help with young or injured wildlife.
From there, we moved on to the eastern coyote (Canidae), with an interesting discussion of how these animals dispersed from the Midwest in all directions, landing in Maryland and Delaware in the 1980s. Coyote distribution in Maryland follows the major rivers in clusters, with the highest population density in the western counties of the state. Using coyotes as an example, Peter guided us to a better understanding of the importance of animal dispersal, not only to ensure genetic mixing but also as an evolutional role in adapting to new habitats. For example, eastern coyotes are now considered to be different than western coyotes, in part because of their mixing with eastern wolves. Coyote management can include trapping, shooting, and the use of guard animals such as dogs and llamas, but coyotes are not really an issue on the Eastern Shore, since we don’t have sheep farms and since coyotes are not particularly problematic.
We next turned our attention to red fox (Vulpes), grey fox (Urocyon), and the Delmarva fox squirrel (Sciuridae), the latter of which was recently de-listed as endangered. Peter took us down a side trail of explaining how species can be listed as endangered, both at the state and national levels, and how the Delmarva fox squirrel is now considered to be “secure,” even though it still has a tiny present range and will be monitored. Peter explained that the recovery plan for this creature was collaborative and included preserving and managing habitat, translocating to a suitable habitat, and strategies to engender public support—a fine set of guidelines for all kinds of wildlife promotion goals.
Our next mammal of interest was the beaver (Castoridae), and Peter used a twig (“beaver stick”) as a pointer to focus our attention on his slides. We briefly reviewed the history of beavers in the U.S., including the fact that the use of beaver pelts and castor (from the scent glands) helped drive the demand to settle new lands in the early 1800s and that they now occur statewide in Maryland as a “recovered population.” Beavers are a classic “keystone” species that helps to maintain the ecology of a habitat or niche.
River otters (Mustelidae) are very common in tidewater Maryland, but you will often only see the small piles of regurgitated fish scales or their droppings, rather than come in contact with the animals themselves. They are extremely quick and agile and were featured in a successful relocation program (undertaken collaboratively with Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) to reintroduce river otters to western Maryland.
On to the largest mammal of the day, black bears (Ursidae), which are not found on the coastal plain but are denizens of western Maryland. Peter shared with us the dispersal of black bears over time, with this map that graphically illustrates the range of black bears in the 1960s and 1970s compared to 2010 in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
The last section of the morning’s presentation included information about trail cameras, which are remotely triggered by motion and which have become very affordable, even for amateur naturalists (yup, gotta get me one), and the dispelling of rumors about mountain lions in Maryland. Peter then spent some time with us at a table with numerous pelts, skulls, and scat models to reinforce our morning lessons.
While that may seem like enough material to fill the entire day’s session, we came back after lunch to hear from Coreen Weilminster from the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is part of the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI—and, yes, the acronym does sound like “gnocchi”). The NNOCCI is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Climate Change Education Partnership program and is dedicated to “establishing a national network of professionals who are skilled in communicating climate science to the American public in ways that are engaging and stimulate dialog that is interesting, welcoming and solutions-oriented.”
Coreen described the work of the local group, which has a presence at three locations: Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary on the Patuxent River; Anita C. Leight Estuary Center on Otter Point Creek; and the Deal Island Peninsula Project. Their focus is research on estuaries and how to build resiliency in coastal communities, which, by their very nature, are changeable.
Coreen introduced the class to a type of interpretation communication technique called “Strategic Framing.” In this approach, how you frame a statement or problem is the key to success. This framework has three components or guidelines: the message should be reasonable, be accurate under basic science mechanisms, and include hopefulness.
Using the example of global climate change, Coreen demonstrated the types of presentations that would fit under the strategic framing approach. We reviewed the basics of the mechanisms of climate change and the use of the “protective blanket” metaphor that can make the idea of the atmosphere and greenhouse gases more clear to the listener. Other topics included the importance of “sticky messages,” the causes and impact of sea level rise (SLR), the role of naturalists as a bridge between scientists and the public, how to avoid a crisis tone, the role of cultural sensitivity, and how to focus on community level solutions.
Another great session, another mountain of ideas and information to digest. And sometimes it just comes down to what Jacques Cousteau said: “People protect what they love.”
Thanks for reading, and I’ll be here again after we fly to our next training session on ornithology.
by Beth Lawton
Maryland Master Naturalist-in-Training