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August 1999
Wild For Mink in South Carolina

By Lisa M. Collins


Stealth at night and invisible during daylight—they’re 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 you’d expect from an animal best known for the soft fur that its cousins are caged, raised and tortured to produce for coats and stoles—but 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 Carolina’s 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 season—rarely tolerating even adults of the same sex. Because they’re so elusive, it’s 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 crabs.

A Plan for Restoration

The Palmetto State’s native minks were once rampantly abundant up and down the coast, and are still densely populated along the state’s 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 sanctuary.

Come September, newly captured minks will be subject to a small operation—the 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 they’re doing. If the animal dies, we need to be able to find it to determine the cause—whether 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 don’t 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 University’s 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 don’t apologize for this,” Baker commented, “It’s good science.” Baker said that in reintroduction programs nationwide—of river otter, red and grey wolves and lynx—trapping 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 can’t 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 Carolina’s southern shore to be set free in coastal wetlands north of Charleston.

Why Bother?

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. They’re “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 water’s polluted, the mink’s diet will be polluted and the small animals will become ill, have abnormal birth rates or die, Baker said. “They’re the best indicator species of the recovery of the ecosystem. If they’re not doing well, we’ll know there’s 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, they’re susceptible to stress,” he commented, “That’s why they can’t handle environmental stresses of pollution. Hopefully that problem is cleaned up—the whole restoration project is based on the fact that we’ve 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, it’s not a large industry in the state and it isn’t expected that people will hunt the coastal minks because their fur isn’t “quality”. Baker explained that he’s 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 there’s an economic gain—such 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 it’s 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?’ We’re out there destroying habitat. I think it’s important to view wildlife in general in a more holistic way.”

Lisa M. Collins is a reporter who lives in South Carolina.


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