After a four-hour early morning drive from SCI Foundation’s Washington, DC office on Capitol Hill, we found ourselves on the top of a steep ridge miles into the thick and thorny woods on our hands and knees. We had traced the coordinates of a GPS-collared young male black bear to this exact location and were now surveying the spot for evidence of his activity or fawn predation.
We were on the border of Virginia and West Virginia, in the densely forested mountains of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in the heart of Appalachian America. Deep in these boondocks, researchers are investigating the predator-prey dynamics between coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed deer, and now with the help of SCI Foundation, black bears.
This region was one of the last places in the eastern United States for coyotes to become established, and one of the only areas in the state of Virginia with the management goal of increasing the deer population.
The sportsmen here in the Alleghany Mountains of Virginia have a strong heritage, with long traditions of hunting deer and running hounds. But as coyotes became established, these Appalachian outdoorsmen were concerned about their local deer herds.
Research was initiated to respond to that public input and understand the role of coyote predation on the declining deer population. From 2011 to 2015, a Virginia Tech team led by carnivore expert Dr. Marcella Kelly collected data that showed a percentage of white-tails in all three predator species’ diets, not just the accused coyotes.
Today, the region’s black bear population is known to be robust and growing, and may also have an impact on deer along with coyotes and bobcats. SCI Foundation is partnering with Virginia Tech to collar bears in the spring of 2018 before the peak fawning period to potentially capture a predation spike. This project will continue to monitor the bear population in the area and will present be a unique opportunity to study the entire carnivore guild. Researchers will also be using novel methods to determine whether predator diet samples represent actual predation or scavenging behavior.
The project will correspond with an upcoming Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries study on does and fawns, completing the predator-prey picture. Ultimately, data will used be used by wildlife managers in the department to update white-tailed deer and predator management plans and set hunting regulations.
Passing small towns on the way back to Washington, DC, we reflect on how this research will benefit every home that hangs a buck over the fireplace, yards with hunting hounds barking outside, and dusty trucks with Virginia Deer Hunters Association bumper stickers.
SCI Foundation’s involvement with the Virginia Predator-Prey Project was boosted by recent support from local SCI Chapters in the greater Washington, DC area. Thank you to the Mid-Atlantic Bow hunters, Washington Metro, and National Capital Chapters for fulfilling conservation matching grants to this new project!
Another field visit in the spring of 2018 during black bear captures will be organized for the members of these SCI Chapters. Members will be able to engage with this research personally, and get hands-on experience collecting data on captured bears.
SCI Foundation is expanding its extensive predator-prey program in North America to help us get a better understanding of the dynamics between black bears and white-tailed deer. For more information on some these programs, read about black bear management in the modern world and the Michigan Predator-Prey Story, or watch videos on black bear recovery in Missouri.