Pilot Project for Mammal Survey Along Appalachian Trail
Investigating influence of landscape structure on mammal occupancy
Habitat loss and fragmentation cause a variety of ecological impacts that trigger different responses in different mammal species. Many large mammals have experienced dramatic range contractions, while others have expanded following natural reforestation. Recent studies have shown that mammalian carnivore species richness, persistence, and abundance are best predicted by forest fragment size and isolation. Although fragmentation is frequently detrimental to large carnivore populations, ungulates and some mesopredators thrive on conditions that accompany habitat disturbance.
Broad scale studies are often limited by financial and human resources, but these limitations can be overcome using new cost-effective and non-invasive techniques such as remote camera trapping and volunteer-based citizen science. With a dense human population serving as both a driver of landscape fragmentation and as a volunteer base, the forests of the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern United States are an ideal testing ground for these techniques.
Data from this program will be used to develop models for predicting the occurrence of mammal species. We have several goals for this proposed research:
1. Determine if landscape fragmentation and human land use, rather than habitat and terrain variables, are the best predictors for mammal occupancy along the AT corridor
2. Understand the changes in animals populations on lands associated with the trail
3 . Create an effective volunteer system to collect reliable mammal survey data over a large scale using remote camera technologies
During 2009, we propose to install 50 cameras to survey 120 sites in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and an additional 180 sites in Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland over a 6-month period (May - October). These sites will be surveyed either by volunteers from the established AT volunteer network, or by a wildlife technician. All surveyors will be directed to follow the protocol from the 2007-2008 years.
Large-scale studies looking at eastern mammal communities are uncommon, but are important in understanding the ecology of this region and the interplay between mammals with large home ranges and human development. Although secondary forests have reclaimed parts of the Appalachian region, many of these forests have been fragmented by roads and development. Being able to model this fragmentation and its effects on mammal distributions is a critical need for federal and state agencies. Developing a predictive GIS model that effectively incorporates human impacts in its designation of suitable habitat could be an effective tool for wildlife managers. This study also contributes to the knowledge of remote camera technology and its effectiveness in conducting accurate wildlife surveys. Camera-traps can provide information on otherwise elusive and data-deficient species.