Maps historically note them in the western part of Virginia but surprisingly little is known about the current range of the Eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Documented populations exist in the George Washington National Forest and the Shenandoah National Park, however, the skunks are believed to be in decline throughout much of their range.
Emily Thorne, doctoral student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech is overseeing a research project to learn more about this elusive nocturnal mammal.
Potential reasons for their decline is due to habitat loss or change, disease and/or increased competition for resources with other carnivores. Though they are active and quick, predators such as dogs, cats, foxes, coyotes and owls can impact populations. Humans used to hunt the Eastern spotted skunks for their pelts even though they can actually aid homeowners and farmers by eating harmful insects and rodents. It is now illegal to hunt, trap or sell pelts of the Eastern spotted skunk.
Even though sightings of the Eastern spotted skunk have been rare or absent since about the 1940s, populations are not currently managed in the Commonwealth.
To determine the presence of the skunks in an area, motion-detection cameras are placed on tree trunks three feet from the ground and aimed at a suet cage about six feet away containing raw chicken. When animals visit, the camera is activated and takes still shots of the activity.
Three cameras have been placed at the White House Farm and one at the EMJ farm, both owned by Scott C. Plein, and have so far captured images of deer, opossum, raccoon, fox and striped skunk.
The cameras are placed at the farms in the skunk’s typical habitat – forest edges adjacent to meadows. Riparian areas and corridors provide cover and habit for the skunks to range and forage.
“March to April is the Eastern spotted skunk breeding season so the likelihood of seeing them if they are here increases,” says Thorne.
The skunks’ natural diet consists of seasonal fruits, insects, larvae, small rodents, birds, eggs and rabbits. They are much smaller than the more common striped skunk, weighing ¾ – 2 ¾ pounds (about squirrel size). They are solitary creatures after becoming independent after 12 weeks from birth but can share a den in the winter.
‘Our aim is to assist in the development of management plans to prevent further population declines and ensure the continued existence of current populations’ notes Ms. Thorne in the project background. But first is determining the full population and distribution of the skunks.
Chris Anderson, Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation