April 23, 2024

Hogs, Chipmunks, and Bears, Oh My!

On today’s episode of The Green Tunnel, we are exploring a central reason why hikers head to the Appalachian Trail in the first place, to see wildlife. We’ll also talk about how the animals along the trail are changing the way hikers experience...

On today’s episode of The Green Tunnel, we are exploring a central reason why hikers head to the Appalachian Trail in the first place, to see wildlife. We’ll also talk about how the animals along the trail are changing the way hikers experience the AT and the ecology of the mountains the AT passes through.


Note: This transcript was generated by Otter.ai with light human correction

Bill McShea  00:01

The trail is dynamic. The forest is dynamic. Everything's been changing for hundreds of years now. And what you see today is not what was there yesterday, not was there 100 years ago and the whole idea of the balance of nature's kind of out the window.


Mills Kelly  00:26

Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I'm your host. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time reading through old logbooks and registers from trail shelters up and down the Appalachian Trail. And it's been quite an education for me as a historian of the at. One of the things that I especially prized about those old logbooks is that they give us a glimpse into the reasons why hikers head to the trail, whether it's for just a few hours, a few nights, or even a thru hike. They expressed their excitement about being out in nature, their anxiety about their interactions with the natural world, how they enjoy meeting other hikers, and their appreciation for the work that volunteers do to keep the trail open and well maintained. Some hikers used to log books to complain about things along the trail, of course, but those complaints are not all that common. What you do find when you read through decade after decade of shelter logs is the unrestrained joy hikers express at seeing wildlife along the trail. "I saw a bobcat" or "We came around a bend in the trail. And there was a mother bear with her two babies. They were so cute." Or "We kept hearing turkeys up on the ridge. And right at dusk, they walked right past the shelter." Those are just three of hundreds and hundreds of examples I've read over the past several months. To me, they speak to a central reason why hikers would go to the Appalachian Trail in the first place. They want to touch the wild and seeing wildlife is one way they can do that. For today's episode, we spoke with two wildlife biologists to better understand the lives of those animals. How the animals along the trail are changing the way hikers experienced the 80 and the ecology of the mountains, the 80 passes through.


Bill McShea  02:37

I'm Bill McShea. I'm a wildlife ecologist. I work for the Smithsonian Institution. I'm based at our research center in Front Royal, Virginia, which is part of the Conservation Biology Institute and it's part of the National Zoo. And the Appalachian Trail actually comes right through our center. We're at the northern tip of the Shenandoah Park.


Mills Kelly  03:03

We asked Bill what kind of mammal species he sees along the trail near his center.


Bill McShea  03:07

We've done a lot of camera trapping along the trail, both on and off the trail and definitely white tailed deer come in is number one and gray squirrels are right up there with whitetail deer and then black bears. I am focused in on the trail as it comes through Virginia. There's about 15 species of mammals we've been able to photograph along the trail, red fox, gray fox, bobcats, skunks, possums, flying squirrels, woodchucks, mice, chipmunks, fox squirrels, it's quite a good list.


Mills Kelly  03:48

Further north, hikers are increasingly likely to see moose going south. Once you get close to the Virginia North Carolina border, the odds of seeing wild hogs go way up. We'll have a lot more to say about those feral hogs later in the show. When we think about the population of animals along the AT, we often think that they've always been there in their current level of profusion. But as Bill told us, that's not the case. Take for example, one of the most common mammals found from one end of the Appalachian trail to the other, the white tailed deer.


Bill McShea  04:28

They were essentially extirpated from this area back in the early 1900s, late 1890s There were no deer and the deer we have now were brought here from Missouri and Arkansas and such and released in the area. And it's a conservation success story that is now at the point where a bunch of people would say that whitetail deer over abundant even though that's not really an ecological term, it's kind of a human term from our point of view. They're over abundant, but they are here make significant impacts on the system and are those impacts natural or not natural. The last time deer were here, there were predators managing those deer to a certain extent. And now we're relying on the hunting community to manage those deer. And it's not quite the same.


Mills Kelly  05:19

I knew that the population of whitetail deer on the East Coast is substantially greater now than it was 100 or 200 years ago. But it was news to me that the deer I see everywhere on the AT were brought here from Missouri and Arkansas.


Mills Kelly  05:39

If you spend much time hiking on the AT, someone you know, will invariably ask you some version of this question. Aren't you worried about bears? My answer is a consistent No. If you listen to our "Danger" episode in Season One, you'll know the bears are almost never a physical threat to hikers on the Appalachian Trail. They don't want you they want your food. And they can be very persistent in demanding that food. Well, it's true that I should probably be a little more wary of them than I am. Bears just don't worry me. According to Bill 50, or 75 years ago, at hikers had even less to worry about from bears, because there just weren't that many. And that squares with my own experiences on the trail. When I first started hiking on the AT, in the 1970s, we just didn't worry about bears. And in the archives of the trail, it's unusual to see a report of a bear encounter until at least the 1980s. Those encounters did happen. But they were pretty rare. Things have changed a lot in the past few decades.


Bill McShea  06:57

We have a resurgence of black bears, we have a resurgence of turkeys. Both those species, you know, you probably couldn't find one in the 1960s 1970s bears are a species similar to raccoons and white tailed deer. They figured out they can live with people, that people have a number of advantages to them, and they can exploit those advantages to their benefit. For example, in the Shenandoah Park. Those bears first they're generalists. They'll eat anything that tastes good. They do like those acorn crops, those seed crops. But they are more than willing when that seed crop fails to leave the park and go down in the lower Rappahannock Madison, Shenandoah counties, and eat the corn down there. Those corn crops can really be devastated in years when the acorn crop fails up in the park. So the normal feedback loop of food resources are low higher mortality, no food resources are never low, you can just move to where the food is. You've got people living down there in the valley, and they've got garbage cans, and apple orchards and corn crops that will feed you to your heart's content. They're taking advantage of that, and they can pretty consistently have good reproduction from one year to the next. The result is you end up with a lot of bears.


Mills Kelly  08:28

I asked Bill about something I've been noticing lately, which is a mother bear with three cubs instead of just one or two. Bill says he's saying the same phenomena with the deer population.


Bill McShea  08:43

Deer under low nutrition conditions, they'll have one fawn one year and then the next year they might have twins. But with good food conditions they can twin every year. And then once in a blue moon, you're getting these triplets. When I started studying deer back in the 80s you would even have deer that would have no fawns one year and then be able to have twins the next year. So storing up those food reserves in fat helped them nurture those fetuses and produce those young the next year.


Mills Kelly  09:18

I think that if you took a survey of long distance at hikers, and ask them which animals they hate the most, there might well be a tie at the top of the list of most hated mammals. They would either be mice, or chipmunks. I'm just going to admit it right here. I hate chipmunks with a white hot passion. Sure, they're cute and all that. And I'm sure I like listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks songs when I was six years old, but now I hate hate them. Chipmunks wreak havoc on your gear and your food and they are crafty. They wait for us to go to sleep. And once you're fully out, they sneak across the floor of the shelter or up to the wall of your tent and they start chewing. Those little chipmunk mouths are like a wrecking machines. In seconds, they've made a hole in your tent for your pack, and a ripping into your stuff looking for food. Even if you've hung all your food in a bear bag, they still rifled through your pack on the off chance you forgot something tasty. In the morning, you wake up to find your pack shredded. Your tent looks like Swiss cheese, and the end is chewed off of the hose of your water bladder. Why? Why won't they just leave well enough alone and go back to eating nuts and things they're supposed to be eating.


Bill McShea  10:56

Most Chipmunks are wary of people at the end of the day along most of the trail. When you encounter them on the woods off the trail, those Chipmunks are out of there. They are not going to be around people. But chipmunks around those shelters. They're just like a hamster. I mean, they're very adapted to people. And part of that is learning. They learn what they can get away with. You can have generations of chipmunks over a short period of time and each generation learns from the last one and you end up with pretty much they know when the lights go down and the people go to sleep. That's the time to go out there and get your food whereas for the most part, Chipmunks are diurnal, but they can adapt. They can get their food as they find it.


Mills Kelly  11:42

Does it make me feel any better that chipmunks are very adapted to people that they are learning generation by generation how to be more efficient destroyers of my gear? No, it does not. Mice are no better than chipmunks, but perhaps less destructive just because they're smaller. Some readers of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. We're probably appalled at his description of his and his hiking partner Katz's slaughter of mice one night, but I think most long distance at hikers can relate


Rick Davis from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods  12:19

From the moment, the moment we put our heads down that night, there with a scurries and scamper rings of rodents. They were absolutely fearless and ran freely over our bags and even across our heads, cursing furiously, cats banged around with him with his water bottle and whatever else came to hand. Once I turned on my headlamp to find a pack mouse on top of my sleeping bag high up on my chest, not six inches from my chin, sitting up on its haunches and regarding me with a gimlet I reflexively I hit the bag from inside, flipping him into a startled oblivion. Got one! cried Katz. Me too, I said, rather proudly...I slept surprisingly well, all things considered. I expected Katz awake in a foul temper, but in fact, he was chipper. There's nothing like a good night's sleep and that was nothing like a good night's sleep. He announced when he stirred and gave an appreciative guffaw. His happiness it turned out was because he had killed seven mice and was feeling very proud not to say pumped up and gladiatorial some fur and a nubbin of something pink and pulpy still adhered to the bottom of his water bottle, I noticed when he raised it to his lips. Occasionally, it troubled me. I presume it must trouble all hikers from time to time, just how far one strays from normal measures of civility on trail. This was such a moment.


Mills Kelly  13:50

Small mammals can do that to a hiker.


Mills Kelly  13:59

To be fair, there wouldn't be so many rodents at at shelters if there weren't so many hikers stopping there and sleeping there. Humans are changing the ecosystem along the Appalachian Trail by their presence, and it turns out by their desire for sport. In all my archival research I haven't seen mentioned of hikers encountering wild hogs on the 80 until relatively recently. Like today's white tailed deer, feral pigs are immigrants to the Appalachian Mountains.


Mills Kelly  14:31

Appalachian farmers ran pigs in the forests long before the AT arrived. But those pigs were valuable livestock, and the farmers made sure to get them into pens before winter, so that they could be sold or provide food for the family during the winter. The feral pigs hikers encountered these days in the southern reaches of the trail, or more recent arrivals.


Marquette Crockett  14:53

My name is Marquette Crockett and I grew up in East Tennessee near Cumberland Gap. And worked as a wildlife biologist for the Department of Interior for a really long time, spent almost 10 years up in Canaan Valley in West Virginia and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, the place I work now is a land trust. And we protect land in East Tennessee and in western North Carolina. For conservation, we've protected about 80,000 acres so far, and specifically that protection started as protected land along the Appalachian Trail and in the view shed of the Appalachian Trail. The person who, who had my job previously retired after 40 years and on took a big leap, have left the government and came to do nonprofit work because this is the place I grew up. This is the place that's really special to me, and I really wanted to put my time and energy into conservation here in southern Appalachia.


Mills Kelly  16:01

In these days Marquette puts a lot of time and energy into the problems caused by feral hogs. Hogs that are there because people put them there.


Marquette Crockett  16:10

If you look at North Carolina, genetically, there are sort of three types of pigs, coastal, a population seem to be specific. And then you have sort of the Piedmont, like the middle state where mostly they're farm pigs that have escaped, but in the mountains, they can trace a lot of the pigs we have back to one introduction on Hooper Bald and these folks wanted to start as people do, they wanted to have their sort of game preserve when they came over from Europe. So they brought over boar and they pretty immediately escaped and became feral. So a lot of the pigs that we have in the Smokies and in the round actually have genes from those Russian boar from Hooper Bald, they sort of spread from there. They've been in low numbers in the mountains. As they gain popularity as a huntable species, we're finding that people more and more are moving around and actively introducing them as a game animal, which is just the most terrible idea on 10 different levels. It was I think, really in the 70s is when they started seeing damage from hogs in the Smokies.



I don't have any personal experience in the US with the kind of destruction hogs can cause to an ecosystem. But I have seen their impact in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, and they can really devastate the landscape.


Mills Kelly  17:53

Here's how Marquette described it.


Marquette Crockett  17:56

Have you ever used a rototiller to till your garden? That is exactly what it looks like. You walk up on this damage in the woods and literally your brain thinks that someone tried to dig it up. Because they don't just eat the plants or eat the salamanders or eat really whatever will fit in their mouth. They dig into the soil flip it over. And so then what that does is it like kills the plants that are there but it also exposes that bare soil for invasive species or whatever kind of seeds want to blow in. It's really hard to recover that before I moved back to the mountains, I worked for a really short time looking at feral hog damage in Florida. And it's the same they have these cool little vernal pools with endangered salamanders you know, and one not in the entire thing is gone. The physical damage to like rare plants, seeds, strains, ground nesting birds, so if you're a turkey hunter, grouse hunter, if you're a deer hunter, they will eat fawns. They're really omnivorous in will just completely destroy whatever's in their path. But in addition, they're also a competitor for food for bears for deer for other species like that.


Mills Kelly  19:31

In other words, feral hogs are really doing a number on the ecosystem along the Appalachian Trail. But they are also a danger to hikers in the southern reaches of the AT. Seeing hogs has become more and more common since the 1980s. Marquette told us that if you see them on the trail, just wait for them to leave.


Marquette Crockett  19:56

While feral hogs go out of their way to avoid humans The danger is not so much being attacked, but what they do to our water sources. One of probably the most important thing for folks on the trail to know is they also carry several diseases that are transmissible to humans. It does not have to be direct contact, if they use a water source if the pigs use a water source and defecate near in that water source, and then you drink it, you can you can catch diseases from those pigs. They also carry a disease called pseudo rabies, which is transmissible to pets and deadly to pets.


Mills Kelly  20:43

And the list of what you can catch from feral hogs is not short. Here you go.


Marquette Crockett  20:51

Here's the fun list of diseases. So e coli, toxoplasmosis, trichomoniasis, swine brucellosis, and pseudo rabies are the big ones. Those first three are definitely transmissible in water sources. So that's just so related to safety for folks on the trail. You know whether or not you're treating your water, how carefully you treated your water, and really what to know to look for when you walk up to a water source. And if it looks like it's been really trampled and damaged, and you see little footprints that look sort of like deer footprints in a way, you may want to avoid that water source completely and just hit the next spring. Not not encouraging anyone not to get water, but just knowing what to look for is important.


Mills Kelly  21:51

According to Marquette, wildlife managers are starting to have some success in managing the feral hog populations on and around the balls of western North Carolina and East Tennessee.


Mills Kelly  22:03

But it's a challenge because those hogs are very smart animals. And because humans keep moving them around so that they can continue to hunt them. That last problem speaks to something Bill brought up several times during our conversation. The lives of animals along the Appalachian Trail are being changed substantially by human intervention, human contact, and human infrastructure. Ever since the Appalachian Trail became a national park, the trail corridor has provided a relatively safe place for animals like deer, bear, turkeys, and sadly chipmunks to prosper. But that increasing presence of humans in the lives of these animals can come with a cost.


Mills Kelly  22:52

As more and more people go to the AT in search of fresh air, exercise time away from their devices, and yes, chances to see wildlife. Some of those folks do something that makes a conservation biologist like Bill kind of nuts.


Bill McShea  23:07

It's not common as far as percentages go, but people who feed wildlife people who bring along food to put out for wildlife or leave food out at the campsite or leave food behind. There's no place for that that's just really messing with things out there. I do worry about increased people resulting in increase human waste or human food along the trails. I'm always amazed at the litter that you find near the parking areas and whatnot.


Mills Kelly  23:39

You might be tempted to think the bill would just prefer for people to stay home and leave the mountains to the wildlife. But you'd be wrong.


Bill McShea  23:48

I think the increased people using the trail overall, it's a good thing, because we need more people spending more time in nature. I'm one of these people thanks for becoming too disconnected from nature and everything we can do to get people out in the woods and appreciating the Appalachian Trail. I'm all for. I'm all for if we can just manage the stuff that comes along with them. I think in the long run, it's a good thing to do.


Mills Kelly  24:31

We asked Bill, what would be the best strategy for seeing wildlife along the AT. After all, the trail can be a pretty crowded place and a lot of its sections.


Bill McShea  24:41

Be the first one down the trail in the morning. That helps a lot. You know you're not going to see much at noon after 20 people have already been down that trail. Think about the fall in the spring as opposed to the middle of the summer. The heat is usually not good for a lot of these animals. So when it's cooler, you're more likely to see something and when it's hotter. It's not really the densest, darkest forest where you see the most wildlife, it's often on the edge of things or where you're transitioning from old forest to young forests. So don't think you got to go into the middle of the wilderness to see something, you can see something relatively close to your home if you're there at the right time in the right place.


Mills Kelly  25:26

Each of us has his or her favorite animal, the one we really hope to see when we're out on the AT. For me, it's rabbits. I just enjoy seeing them sitting in a grassy patch along the trail, nibbling away while they watch me closely to try to determine if I'm a threat or not.


Mills Kelly  25:45

When it comes to seeing wildlife on the trail, Bill has an advantage over the rest of us. Because he gets to put up cameras along the AT to see what animals might be passing by. We asked him what his favorites were.


Bill McShea  25:59

I like gray foxes. I like flying squirrel pictures. I like bears being inquisitive about the cameras. There's not a bear out there who doesn't wonder Who put that camera in my woods and can I destroy it. Those always lead to some interesting pictures.


Mills Kelly  26:16

While speaking with Bill, I did have a chance to clear up a persistent rumor that I've been hearing more and more often as a shelter maintainer. Over the past six or seven years, I keep hearing from hikers that they either saw a mountain lion, or heard one screeching nearby at night. And I don't just hear this from hikers. I live half time near the at the neighbors of mine up on the mountain say the same thing. All these folks are convinced that mountain lions are back in the southern Appalachians. Since a head one of North America's experts on such things on the line and ask Bill.


Bill McShea  26:57

I once did an article on mountain lions. You know, are there mountain lions along the trail? Are there mountain lions in West Virginia, I looked at tens of thousands of photographs that we have. And we have no mountain lion photographs. We actually have an armadillo photograph from way down along the North Carolina Virginia border. And so you tell people, you're more likely to encounter an armadillo than you are a mountain lion on the Appalachian Trail.


Mills Kelly  27:31

But what if someone really does see a mountain lion?


Bill McShea  27:34

The next time you see one hit it with your car, we need a body. I write scientific publications for a living. Nothing has generated as much feedback from the public as my articles saying there's no mountain lions in Virginia. People remember their mountain lions sighting like they remember their wedding day or the day their child was born. You know, they always talk about the time and the place and the weather and how they turned in there it was and it's like, ah, if you'd only gotten a picture.


Mills Kelly  28:09

So what are those folks seeing if they aren't seeing mountain lions?


Bill McShea  28:13

Well, it is bobcats. I've been sent pictures of Labrador dogs and told that's a mountain lion. I've been sent pictures of tabby cats standing next to a log. And you'd say look at the scale of that animal compared to the log. Unless that's a virgin redwood. That's a cat standing next that log mountain mountain life. I don't fault their enthusiasm, and I don't fault the fact that they want there to be mountain lions out there. I want there to be mountain lions out there.


Mills Kelly  28:49

But they're not. So no mountain lions in the southern Appalachians. At least not right now. Speaking as someone who prefers to hike solo, I'm okay with that. I've been on the trail in places where there really are mountain lions. And there are some real disadvantages. like not being able to leave your tent alone in the middle of the night to pee or to wander off into the woods at dusk trying to find the bird you've been listening to for the past half hour. Speaking from personal experience, it's a little unnerving to wake up and find that a very large cat has circumnavigated your campsite at night. I don't know about you, but I'm happy with the lack of mountain lions on the Appalachian Trail. Before we go to the credits for today's show, I want to let you know that right after the credits, we have a little bonus for you. So be sure and stick around to listen. You won't be sorry. Trust me


Mills Kelly  30:00

The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today's episode was produced by me. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. We want to offer a special thanks to Bill McShea and Marquette Crockett for sharing with us their deep knowledge of the critters you might meet while hiking on the Appalachian Trail. And we want to offer a big thank you to Professor Rick Davis here at George Mason University for his dramatic reading from Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. We also want to thank the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz,  Germany for making it possible for us to use their recording space for this episode. Original Music for our show is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. We're able to bring you this show to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and many individual donors like you. If you enjoy The Green Tunnel podcast, we have some more great shows for you at R2 Studios. Take a minute and check them out at R2studios.org.


Mills Kelly  31:15

Now, we have a final treat for you today. A bonus bit for my interview with Bill McShea where we discuss one of my personal pet peeves about hikers, enjoy. The thing that I can't forgive is the dog poop bag. Their dog craps on the side of the trail. They get out a little bag, they bag it up and then they leave it there thinking that there's a poop bag fairy that will come along and magically remove it for them. Since you're a biologist, I want to ask, is it better to just take a stick and flick your dog poop off into the woods?


Bill McShea  31:56

Yes, especially taking a bag and hiding it along the trail. I don't think your dog needs to go into the wilderness because your dog is not going to relate well to that wildlife that you've gone there to see. But if you've got to bring your pet along with you, the plastic bag has no role unless you're going to actually carry that thing out of there. And I seriously doubt many people do.


Mills Kelly  32:22

Is there an environmental problem caused by dog poop? Do they bring disease to the mountains?


Bill McShea  32:29

It is possible that your dog has parasites but there's far less possibility your dog has parasites and the wildlife has parasites. No I don't see any down issue of flicking it into the woods.


Mills Kelly  32:45

In the parking area there it route 55, there's often 6, 7, 8 bags. So just how about just flicking off into the woods? You know?


Bill McShea  32:55

Does anyone pick them up and bring them out?


Mills Kelly  32:59

I just can't leave them I can't walk past them and just leave them there. It makes me insane. I am the poop bag fairy of Linden, Virginia. Now you know.

Bill McShea

Bill McShea is an ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). The Appalachian Trail runs through the research center which is located at the northern tip of Shenandoah National Park in Front Royal, Virginia.

McShea's first focus at SCBI was the role of white-tailed deer in shaping plant and wildlife populations that share eastern deciduous forests. This work expanded to look at the interaction between deer and invasive plant species and disease transmission. The focus on deer led McShea to become the co-chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Deer Specialist Group, which is responsible for setting Red List status for all deer species. In addition to deer, McShea works with Chinese colleagues to conserve large mammals such as giant pandas, takin, and Asiatic black bears in bamboo forests of China.

His current focus is on informing management of wildlife in forest and grassland ecosystems. A good part of his time and effort is in Asia, both supporting conservation efforts on forest mammals and mentoring young professionals to use science to reduce human-wildlife conflicts.

He received his BS from Bucknell University, an MS in Zoology from the University of New Hampshire in 1981, and his PhD from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1985. He has been a research ecologist at SCBI since 1986.

Marquette Crockett

Marquette Crockett is the Roan Stewardship Director at Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC). She grew up on a family farm near Cumberland Gap, Tennesse, where she learned to love nature by following her grandmother through the fields and forests. Marquette earned her BS in Biology from Lincoln Memorial University and her MS in Biological Science from East Tennessee State University. Before joining SAHC, she worked for more than 10 years as a Wildlife Biologist, including managing high elevation spruce-fir, open areas, and wetlands in Canaan Valley NWR in West Virginia. Marquette facilitates SAHC’s Roan Stewardship Program and serves as the primary land steward on SAHC-owned preserves in the Roan.