For Mink in South Carolina
By Lisa M. Collins
Stealth at night and invisible during daylighttheyre
fast as a rocket both in water and on land. Cute and furry to the eye,
these little creatures are extremely ferocious and can devour a rabbit
triple their size. Not what youd expect from an animal best known
for the soft fur that its cousins are caged, raised and tortured to produce
for coats and stolesbut wild mink will surprise you.
Mink are a top-level, super-charged predator, thriving on meals of fish,
crabs, rice rats, birds and other critters along South Carolinas
marshy shore. They live in saltwater wetlands, and compete only with the
raccoon for mammal dominance of the grassy marsh food chain. They spend
half their time in water and half out, and raise families of three to
eight babies on dry ground. Adults are highly territorial and only allow
grown-up minks of the opposite sex around during mating seasonrarely
tolerating even adults of the same sex. Because theyre so elusive,
its very hard to spot them except during the highest flood tides,
at night during the new and full moons of the fall and spring. During
those times, they hang out on top of dead marsh grass to gorge on unsuspecting
A Plan for Restoration
The Palmetto States native minks were once rampantly
abundant up and down the coast, and are still densely populated along
the states pristine southern waters. But toxic pollutants dumped
along the northern shores from Myrtle Beach to Charleston in the early
part of the century nearly wiped out coastal minks from those areas.
The state wildlife department is planning to do something about that.
A program just now getting off the ground will reintroduce the mink to
Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary near Charleston. After
an outflux of birds and other wildlife from the sanctuary in the 1970s
due to pollution, pelicans, Ospreys and other sea birds have returned
recently, explained Buddy Baker of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The theory is that the return of the sea birds is an indication that the
water might be clean enough to support minks again.
Buddy Baker and a graduate student from Clemson University have worked
for three months to refine capture techniques around the wetlands off
of Hilton Head Island (one of the southernmost parts of South Carolina,
near the Georgia border). The mink are abundant in this area, and easily
spotted at night during high tides. Since April, 13 minks have been captured
with shrimp and crab nets and transported 25 miles north to the wildlife
Come September, newly captured minks will be subject to a small operationthe
insertion of a two-inch long radio tracking device into their abdomens.
The devices will float freely once inserted, Baker explained. According
to Baker, the devices are necessary to keep track of the relocated minks,
and specifically to monitor movement and mortality rates. We need
to measure the success, Baker commented, We have to be able
to observe how theyre doing. If the animal dies, we need to be able
to find it to determine the causewhether predator, pollution, or
other causes. If the minks are dying, the wildlife department needs
to know why and how in order to determine if the program should continue.
Usually in predator reintroduction projects, a radio collar is used. But
minks dont really have a neck capable of holding a collar on, Baker
said. Apparently, the head goes straight back to the belly!
A Clemson veterinarian will perform the puncture-and-insert procedure,
which has been approved by Clemson Universitys Animal Welfare Committee,
Baker explained. A similar program around the Great Lakes in Michigan
has been successful and has not caused undue harm, stress or death to
minks there, he added. I dont apologize for this, Baker
commented, Its good science. Baker said that in reintroduction
programs nationwideof river otter, red and grey wolves and lynxtrapping
and tracking techniques are used that sometimes offend advocates of the
compassionate treatment of animals. But often those methods are necessary
for reintroduction programs. Without the methods, we cant
restore the species, he said. If the pilot program is successful,
more minks will be snatched from the waters off of Hilton Head Island
and other areas of South Carolinas southern shore to be set free
in coastal wetlands north of Charleston.
Why restore the minks? According to Buddy Baker,
there are two reasons. First and foremost, the presence of minks in the
saltwater marsh is essential to restore balance to the ecosystem. In
order to have a healthy ecosystem, you have to have predators and you
have to have prey, Baker reasoned. Theyre integral.
Second, mink are an excellent indicator of water quality problems and
pollution. The animals, which weigh from ounces to two pounds, are highly
sensitive to pollution. If the waters polluted, the minks
diet will be polluted and the small animals will become ill, have abnormal
birth rates or die, Baker said. Theyre the best indicator
species of the recovery of the ecosystem. If theyre not doing well,
well know theres a problem, he explained.
Baker is hopeful that the coastal areas where the mink are being reintroduced
have been cleaned up enough to allow the mink to thrive. Pollutants that
once plagued the area, such as the deadly fertilizer DDT, are now banned.
Mink are really high-strung, theyre susceptible to stress,
he commented, Thats why they cant handle environmental
stresses of pollution. Hopefully that problem is cleaned upthe whole
restoration project is based on the fact that weve stopped using
DDT and other contaminants.
Every county in South Carolina has wild minks, and it is legal to hunt
them. But according to Baker, its not a large industry in the state
and it isnt expected that people will hunt the coastal minks because
their fur isnt quality. Baker explained that hes
tired of people asking him about the economic value of the minks. According
to him, many people only see the value of a predator restoration project
if theres an economic gainsuch as hunting or trapping.
The public should know that South Carolina has long worked to restore
decimated animal populations, regardless of economic value, Baker said.
For instance, the endangered Loggerhead turtles of the Sea Islands and
cave bats are protected and restored perpetually, without economic or
hunting gains. I think its important we get beyond the mentality
that animals must have an economic value to humans to exist on this earth,
Baker said. We might turn that around and say What good are
we humans? Were out there destroying habitat. I think its
important to view wildlife in general in a more holistic way.
Lisa M. Collins is a reporter who lives in South Carolina.
© STEALTH TECHNOLOGIES INC.