In Pursuit of the Allegheny Woodrat -  A Journey Within

By Iris Puffenberger
The Allegheny Woodrat
(Neotoma magister)

The Allegheny woodrat is the second largest member of the native North American rats and mice family (Cricetidae). Adults are 16 to 17 inches long, including a 7- to 8-inch tail, and they weigh between 13 ounces and one pound. Their coat is brownish-gray with a white underside, and unlike the common Norway rat, they have a fully furred tail. The woodrat's prominent rounded ears, long whiskers, and large, slightly bulging eyes all attest to its heightened photo of the woodratsenses of hearing, touch and sight. The animal's night vision is particularly keen.

Allegheny woodrats favor Western Maryland's rocky cliffs, caves, ridge crests and overhangs. Primarily nocturnal, they prefer to live in solitary dens. Woodrats breed from late winter to late summer, with a gestation of 35 days. Females may have two to three litters per year, averaging two young in each litter. In the wild, woodrats live to about three years of age.

Allegheny woodrats once ranged from northern Alabama to Connecticut and west into Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee. It has disappeared completely from Connecticut and New York, and is threatened in New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Several factors may have contributed to the woodrat's decline. These include the near eradication of the American chestnut; the defoliation of wide areas of oak trees by gypsy moth caterpillars, causing periodic shortages of acorns; a fatal roundworm parasite woodrats can contract by eating undigested seeds found in raccoon droppings; and encroaching development near woodrat sites.

On a summer day in August of 2003, I was asked if I wanted to venture out into the field to assist with the Allegheny woodrat survey on Dan's Mountain in Allegany County. Being the adventurous sort locked in the body of an Administrative Specialist, and willing to do most anything to get a day out of the office, I didn't hesitate to say yes! I even agreed when I was told we'd have to meet at the wee morning hour of 6 a.m. After all, adventuresome types rarely sleep-in.

The evening before our trek, I inventoried all the necessary "field" items: new hiking boots, a gallon of bug repellant, rain parka, sunscreen, water bottle, snacks and various other staples of survival, all secured and strapped to my daypack. Prepared for anything this side of Everest, I then went in search of the obligatory 'walking stick.' My family suggested I carry Grandma's cane; I opted instead for an old but sturdy broom handle.

In the dark of early morning the alarm sounds and I spring out of bed, knowing I need to be on the road by 5:30 in order to meet at our rendezvous spot by 6 a.m. I load my pack adding Chapstick(c), tissues and a breakfast bar, as well as extra bug repellant and another bottle of water, just in case. Concerned that I didn't allow enough time to get to my destination, I break the speed limit and run a few lights arriving just in time.

I meet up with Jim Mullan, Western Region Wildlife Manager, and Dan Feller, our survey guide and a biologist with the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Program. Dan has set several Hav-a-hart(c) traps hoping to capture the elusive Allegheny woodrat, a state-listed endangered species. Dan explains this two-day effort is part of an annual population estimation and monitoring survey designed to keep tabs on the isolated creature.

Off We Go!
We arrive at Dan's Rock and Dan (no relation) shoulders his pack, leading us on a quick-paced trek. At the rate we're going I'm thinking that I won't keep up for long! Jim is behind me telling me it's okay to take my time. Before I know it we are into the rocks and I step on what seems to be solid footing, only to slip and fall down on my knees.

Lying in a bit of a heap I begin to wonder if this was a big - no, huge! -mistake. I'm much too old for this, I can't keep up with Dan, my knees are throbbing and I think I've sprained my wrist! At what point, I wonder, does the fun begin? As I dust myself off and try to regain my composure, the guys inform me that in terrain like this I should always maintain three good holds to avoid falling. Shouldn't they have mentioned this before I fell? Now with one bum wrist I only have three available contact points as it is!

Dan, however, is in his element, skipping and gliding from rock to rock, stopping occasionally to check on our status and to wait for me. There was a lot of fog and I really couldn't get a feeling for the view - or the heights - so I was thankful. Soon enough the fog clears and I realize we are clinging precariously to the rock face. I hold on for dear life and try to listen as Dan points out various types of vegetation, most of which are invasive exotic species that threaten the native plant life in fragile ecosystems such as this. He also warns us to watch out for another invasive - broken glass, a result of 'The Rock's' popularity as a party spot. Judging by that and the spray-painted graffiti, it's clear that more than one variety of "rat" frequents the area.

Pushing the Limits
Soon we arrive at the study site where traps are nestled in crevices throughout the rock outcroppings. With great anticipation we check each one but none of the little rats has taken the delicious peanut butter bait.

Dan Feller collects data from a trapped woodrat.At this point I'm concentrating on where I put each step, hanging and leaning heavily on the broom handle, hoping it will not break! The next thing I know Dan's scrambling to the top, calling over his shoulder that we'll now have to do a little climbing. Much to everyone's amazement (mine included) I make it to the top with little trouble. Then Dan launches himself off the rocks and onto the lookout platform for a fantastic view of the valley below. I'm left wondering how I'm ever going to get to that point with the huge slabs of foreboding rock formations in front of me. I quickly decide that I really don't need to get to the platform and instead sit down and slide to a safe place for a graceful exit of the rocks.

Looking across the jumbled rock outcropping and the broad valley beyond, I'm surprised at what I've just done. I've just crawled and clambered my way to the top of one of the highest points in the state. I'm filled with a feeling of great accomplishment and decide that maybe it wasn't as bad as it seemed after all. Welling with pride, I cruise down to our vehicle on the smooth, flattened pathway constructed for tentative tourists and others that aren't as quick, nimble or adventuresome as I am.

Wait... There's More?
Just when it seemed like the adventure was over, we strike-off again, this time to property owned by The Nature Conservancy. The challenges begin almost immediately as Dan sets out crossing a creek with ease, hopping from stone to stone to the other side. The rocks look quite slippery and knowing I could easily fall again, I locate firm footing, straighten my hat and charge directly through the water, skipping the stepping-stones all together.

On firm ground again, we make our way to the trapping site. I'm told to look for the orange marking tape that indicates the trap site and soon spy it at the top of a shale pile where a huge spire of rocks juts into the sky. Dan scrambles up the mound, rocks falling and clattering everywhere sounding like so many dishes breaking. That's when I announce that if the traps are up at the tape, I'll be happy to stay on firm ground and watch! Dan assures me that it would be just fine to monitor the site from below.

Success in Hand
Soon Dan slides down off of the shale bank with a trap in hand and our first woodrat! He carefully removes her from the trap and we all take a look. It's a female, a cute little fuzzy thing with huge ears, long whiskers and a hairy tail. In fact, I think she looks way too cute to be a rat. After weighing, marking and measuring her, Dan places the woodrat on his lap. She just sits there looking around and I think that for an endangered species on the brink of extinction, she seems in no hurry to leave. Eventually she scurries down Dan's leg and disappears into the rocks.

Woodrats fill a crevice in their rocky environment with forest debris to create a snug nest.We head out for the last location and I'm getting pretty confident, thinking this shouldn't be too bad. Looking up the hill, I think to myself that it looks pretty steep but luckily there are no rocks to climb over. We haven't gone far however before I'm wishing there were some rocks to hold on to since the unstable ground is crumbling beneath our feet! We're about three-quarters of the way up and there are no handholds anywhere. Suddenly, I feel the earth falling away and I grab for the only thing in sight, a slightly rotten tree stump. Next thing I know, I'm sliding out of control and my handhold, the stump, is out of the ground, tumbling erratically toward Jim.

As quickly as it started the small-scale landslide ends and I peer through the dust to see if Jim is okay. He's fine though he's muttering something about me having schemed with his wife to get rid of him and I quickly rebut, accusing Jim of being in cahoots with my husband for the insurance payoff! We check the remaining traps then carefully work our way out of the rocks and back to our vehicles to shake hands and part ways.

An Exhilarating Experience
On my way home I replay all that happened and everything I learned. As has happened in the past, I am once again struck by the wealth of knowledge and professionalism possessed by so many members of our staff.

I wish I could remember all of the fascinating things that Dan told us bout the elusive Allegheny woodrat - like the way they fold grape leaves to collect moisture for their water supply, how they do not hibernate but stay active all winter, that they steal from each other, and how they are very territorial. I was too busy concentrating on my next step and my next handhold to grasp much more.

I have always been a huge advocate of cross training, especially when it involves getting out of the office. I think the change of pace is important and I also think it is valuable for office staff to see how operations take place in the field. Though this trip was much more intense than I ever dreamed, I'm so thankful to have had the experience. When you undertake an activity outside of your "comfort zone" you're bound to learn something new. And like me, you may even learn something about yourself.

Iris Puffenberger, the Assistant to the Associate Director of Regional Operations for DNR's Wildlife & Heritage Service, began her career with the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries almost 33 years ago. She and Alan, her husband of 28+ years, live in Cumberland and have 3 children - Matt, Tara and Cliff. Dan Feller provided the photos for this article.

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