Friday, January 18, 2013

Pack a Picnic for Paradise: No need to bring extra for the Wildlife

By Lisa Miller, Public Lands Programs Intern
Cascade Fox -  Courtesy of Dave Cowell Photography
Now that we humans have fully embraced the winter season, stocked the pantry with food and piled on the layers of warm clothing and firewood; we would like to turn your attention as to how other animals prepare themselves and survive the winter.

Animals such as the rare Cascade Fox, found only at Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, are working hard to gather a cache of food for the winter. The foxes take great care in keeping their supply safe, hidden, and healthy. With relatively small stomachs for their size foxes eat small meals frequently, thus if they are successful in catching large prey they will save most of it to last several meals. Foxes spread their caches across large areas to prevent the loss of all their reserves in the event of spoilage or raid. If one small reserve is lost the fox can usually recover those calories with little stress.

Food scraps and debris from meal preparation are the items least likely to be considered litter; however these are among the most harmful types of litter. Leaving behind small scraps out of pity for the animals trying to make it through long winters does not increase their chance for survival in fact it does the opposite. When an animal happens to find an apple core or cracker crumb and take it back to their cache there is an introduced risk of contaminating the rest of their “pantry.” For example, imagine the carton of raspberries in your refrigerator, when one starts to grow a little fuzz action must be taken quickly to save the rest. Now if you have several fridges to monitor you may not notice that the supply has started to go bad and by the time you return everything is wasted, including all the energy it took to collect the raspberries in the first place.

Winter is one of the hardest times of the year for most animals due to the lack of available vegetation, frozen water sources, shorter daylight hours and increased stresses on the body. Local wildlife come to rely on the food that is left behind by frequent visitors during the warmer months when outdoor recreation is high and can slowly lose the ability to forage and hunt for themselves and their offspring. Higher rates of starvation in the winter occur if they have not been gathering food supplies. Many others do not survive due to habituation to people and the roadways, several foxes have been hit by cars attempting to find another Snicker's bar.
Cascade Fox at Mount Rainier - Courtesy of Kyle Wicomb

It can be tempting and exciting to feed small wild animals such as Townsend's chipmunks, Steller's jay, and the Cascade fox, however bringing these animals into areas of heavy traffic and visitors also brings their larger predators such as black bears and mountain lions into those same areas. Over time, both large and small animals become comfortable in the presence of humans and their natural behaviors change, including aggressiveness.

Thus, a seemingly harmless act of throwing out an apple core can be detrimental to the wildlife during harsh winter months, but there is not any time of the year it would be acceptable. Properly storing food as well as any other scented items is the easiest way to keep animals a safe distance away. There are several simple ways you can minimize your impacts and likelihood of further habituating wildlife, it all starts at home when planning your trip. Using a storage bag to mask the sight and smells of your food is a great practice; try an OPSAK or Grub Pack. If you are only going for a picnic preparation is still very important, repackage snacks together to avoid excess garbage, such as twist ties and corners of packaging. For those times you are going deeper into the backcountry take a Bear Vault or bag and most importantly know how to hang it out of an animal’s reach.

As of January 2013 Cascade foxes have been sighted in areas of winter camping at Paradise, and tracks were seen around a tent at Longmire. Currently Mount Rainier National Park and U.S. Geological Survey are conducting research to assess visitor activities and impacts. Educating the public about these behaviors and enforcement of no-feeding laws will continue to be a major part of the project. Luckily, Wildlife Ecologist Mason Reid has reported the foxes seem to be less persistent along the roadways and wilder than in past years. As visitors become more informed in how they can keep wildlife wild this trend is expected to continue.