A changing wildlife population

Published 5:51 pm Tuesday, October 9, 2018

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Isle of Wight’s population has increased dramatically during the past half century, but not all of the “come here’s” during that time have been human. A number of new neighbors have been four-legged or feathered, and their introduction has changed our environment, sometimes for the better and sometimes questionably.

Some of the newcomers were clearly invasive species. That first, and one of the most durable, has been the nutria. It’s a very large fur bearing rodent native to Central and South America. Some enterprising American brought nutria to Louisiana in the mid 20th century, hoping to make his fortune in fur. The animals were accidentally released into the wild and proved that they are not only fur bearing, but also reproduce like crazy, thrive in North America’s temperate zone, and have few natural enemies. As a result, their population exploded.

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We first saw nutria along Jones Creek during the 1950s. They’re still here and are still damaging the environment wherever they live, but they are a far bigger nuisance in other parts of the Chesapeake Bay. Thanks for introducing them, folks.

Next came the blue catfish. This newcomer didn’t get here by accident. It was one of government’s better ideas. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, looking to sell more fishing licenses and encourage more freshwater fish fishing, released a bunch of foreign blue cats in the state’s tidal waters, most successfully the James River near Richmond where, within a few years, the catfish population had exploded.

Fresh watermen did indeed bring high speed bass boats from all over the eastern U.S. to fish for trophy fish.

The fish, in turn, did what they do naturally. They ate everything in site — crabs, baby rockfish, baby shad and herring. If it swims in the James, its probably part of this invader’s daily diet, for this foreigner is now at the very top of the river’s food chain all the way from Richmond to Burwell’s Bay. And some scientists (from agencies other than the Game Department) believe the cats are seriously complicating efforts to restore the valuable native species that have declined sharply in the Chesapeake.

Other newcomers aren’t foreign. They have either been here before or simply wandered from their native lands into new territory.

Turkeys were once plentiful in Isle of Wight and Surry, but loss of habitat and farmers/hunters who loved the taste of turkey decimated the flocks. We never saw a turkey when we were kids.

The Game Department, in a more rational move than with the catfish, reintroduced the turkey. It worked. The turkeys have thrived, and since they are a native species, they haven’t run roughshod over the environment. They do some crop damage, but are mostly welcome neighbors.

Naturalists tell me that Southeast Virginia has always been habitat for skunks. Maybe so, but we never smelled one when we were growing up unless we traveled westward as far as Prince George County or beyond. Their presence has become commonplace during the past several decades and it’s no longer unusual to get a whiff of skunk on the night air.

Then, there are the coyotes. When they first arrived, there was concern that they would kill young livestock — hogs, cows, sheep primarily. They can — and do — but there aren’t too many livestock herds wandering the fields in Isle of Wight today, and coyotes haven’t been a huge problem.

In the wild, coyotes are a mixed blessing. They provide a badly needed predator for our region, since we know longer have the wolves that once roamed these parts. Coyotes help control the skunk population and they find cats to be tasty. With all the feral cats that inhabit Isle of Wight, that’s helpful. Of course, that also means rabbits and quail are potential dinner for the small packs of coyotes found here. I understand they will even occasionally kill fawns if given the opportunity, and that’s truly good news for those who want to see some balance restored to the wildlife population.