*** Please remember that hunting and trapping are not permitted in the park.***
Mammals found in the park are fairly typical for this region and include skunk, groundhog, squirrel, several varieties of vole and mole, eastern cottontail rabbit, opossum, raccoon, white-tailed deer, and red fox. Recent sightings of bobcat, beaver, mink, and black bear indicate that populations of these mammals have returned to the area.
In 2001, a small mammal survey was done for the park. This survey by the Smithsonian Institute, confirmed the presence of 12 small mammals within the park. This survey also revealed a new species to the park, a coyote! The coyote was photographed using a motion sensitive camera set up by the researchers. Coyotes had never before been documented at Catoctin Mountain Park. Since then, several other coyote observations have been made indicating this species has in fact become established in this section of Maryland.
Historical records indicate that mammals such as bison, elk, gray wolf, eastern cougar, porcupine, and fisher could at one time be found in the area. However, these animals have all since been extirpated from the park as well as much of the surrounding area.
The most abundant large animal in the park is the white-tailed deer. Deer also pose a difficult resource management dilemma. With no natural predators left and hunting being prohibited on the park, deer populations have escalated to an estimated 187 individuals per square mile in 2002. The population appears to have grown beyond available food resources, eating nearly everything on the forest floor to a browse line of four foot high. This is creating a marked change on vegetation patterns within the park. Some rare plants, such as the purple fringed orchid, have suffered from the high deer population and numerous elm trees have died as a result of bark stripping. Bark stripping is an unusual feeding behavior deer will revert to in winter when no other food sources are available.
In the mid 1980's deer exclosures were set up as part of a long term monitoring program to determine the effects of deer browse on vegetation. The plots are monitored to compare the deer browsed land to the area in the unbrowsed exclosures. Small exclosures are also placed around rare plants and trees seedlings to protect them from being consumed.
The ecological impact of a high deer population goes beyond vegetation as deer compete with other species for food. The fall mast crop of acorns and beechnuts are of great importance to raccoon, squirrels , turkey , bear, and other mammals. With "extra" deer to feed these other species will suffer.
Another indicator that a deer has exceeded the carrying capacity is the herd's poor health. The Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study Unit, has performed herd health assessments on deer from Catoctin in 1988 and 2002. The assessments involve a complete necropsy, noting age-specific body weights, ovulation rates, kidney fat, bone marrow, and parasite counts. Results from both assessments indicate the deer herd has degraded health most likely due to the herd being near its nutritional carrying capacity.
In the 1990’s, black bear returned to Catoctin after a twenty year absence. The black bear is the largest animal in Maryland. Adults typically weigh between 125 and 400 pounds. Their color varies from brown to black. They have good eyesight and hearing, but rely heavily on their excellent sense of smell to locate food. Bears will eat almost anything. Common foods include berries, acorns, hickory nuts, grasses, insects, fish, and carrion. They are also attracted to garbage, agricultural crops, and bird food placed in back yard feeders. This sometimes brings bears in conflict with humans.
Bears tend to be wary of humans, and will often flee when they hear you approach.. Remember they are wild and should never be fed or harassed. If you encounter a bear, stay calm, do not approach it or run away. Avoid direct eye contact and do not panic if the bear stands on its hind legs. Remain upright, back away slowly and leave the area. Seeing a bear in the wild is an exciting experience. If you use common sense and good judgment, you can safely enjoy the natural beauty of this forest animal at a safe distance.
Did You Know?
Portions of the television series, “The West Wing” were filmed in Catoctin Mountain Park and aired in October, 2004.