New York trying to figure why wood rats died out

December 08, 1991|By York Times News Service

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. -- With a radio strapped to his chest, an antenna in one hand and a stopwatch in the other, Edwin McGowan listened intently to a steady beeping.

"That's 10 beeps in 12.19 seconds," he said.

The signals came from a wood rat, one of 29 imported from West Virginia and released here in the Shawangunk Mountains in an effort to learn why the native species has disappeared in New York. Each was equipped with a small radio transmitter around its neck, a 6-inch wire antenna for transmission and tags on its ears.

"It's alive, probably sitting or resting," Mr. McGowan said, interpreting the beeps, which reflect the animal's temperature, as a sign of health.

Mr. McGowan and Chris Naderefski, both wildlife technicians employed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, have just begun a two-year assignment studying the life, health and death of the imported wood rats.

Despite the fiscal crisis in Albany, the wood rat project is going forward, at an estimated cost of $55,000, outside the state budget process.

About half the money came from the "Return a Gift to Wildlife" program in which New Yorkers volunteer contributions on their state income-tax forms. The remaining money came from the federal government, through a wildlife restoration fund derived from taxes paid by hunters on purchases of firearms.

"We don't believe that environmental concerns should grind to a halt because of current economic conditions," said Peter Nye, director of the state's endangered species unit. "It's part of our mandate to maintain the diversity of life forms in the state. The public has made it clear that it wants to protect endangered species."

The wood rat is no relation to Norway rats and others that have plagued cities and farms for centuries. It is a native American species, related to the deer mouse and somewhat similar to the Western pack rat, which often steals and hides brightly colored objects.

When fully grown, the wood rat is slightly smaller than a squirrel and weighs less than a pound, grayish brown on top and white underneath. It has long whiskers, big ears and eyes, and, unlike other rats, it has hair on its tail.

The native animals were last seen in New York in 1987, when they were put on the official list of 34 endangered species. The wood rat is also listed as endangered or threatened in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

The cause of its decline is unknown, but among the theories are a colder climate, a declining supply of acorns because of gypsy moth damage to oak trees, and the spreading of the raccoon roundworm, which is fatal to wood rats.

The current experiment is aimed at determining the cause of the decline, not at restoring the species to the state, although that is possible in the future, said Thomas C. Jorling, the state commissioner of environmental conservation.

In the experiment, the state released the 29 wood rats in September on Bonticou Crag, a large rock outcrop in the Mohonk Preserve, a 5,600-acre private nature preserve west of New Paltz, which is cooperating in the experiment. Twenty-one of the wood rats are still alive, Mr. McGowan said. Three have been lost in the crevices of the rock formations where they like to live. One was killed by a car; one by a predator; one by bites, possibly by another wood rat; and two by the raccoon roundworm, he said.

"It's premature to tell, but circumstantial evidence so far indicates that the roundworm appears to play a role in the disappearance of the wood rat," he said.

Mr. McGowan, a 25-year-old graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine, said he was pleased with his new assignment.

"The wood rats are a great species to work with," he said, especially when compared with the moose that were his last assignment. "They're easy to trap with apples and peanut butter, they're easy to handle, and you can work with a whole population in a small area, in contrast to the vast range of the moose in the Adirondacks."

Mr. McGowan and his associates say the wood rat is really a likable creature that has been maligned because of its name. "Some of our people think we should call them boulder bunnies," he said, referring to their preference for living in the rock formations. "That would certainly help their public image."

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