- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

Volunteers with digital cameras will soon search part of the Appalachian Trail to collect information about animals and habitat that will help preserve the landmark for future generations.

“Fifteen to 20 years from now [researchers will] look back on trends that have developed to find out how we can best manage the environment,” said Laura Belleville, regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Roughly 100 volunteers will participate in the Smithsonian/Appalachian Trail Conservation project, including some who will try to photograph the elusive eastern cougar.

William McShea of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo will supply the volunteers with 50 cameras, on loan from the National Park Service in the District.

Mr. McShea said the cameras are connected to infrared heat sensors and take snapshots when warm bodies pass in front of them.

“We’re all interested in wildlife and conservation,” he said. “We all want there to be cougars out there,… but I don’t think there are any.”

He thinks the “cougar sightings” are mostly misidentifications and sometimes previously domesticated cougars that now roam free.

Mr. McShea wants to create a base line of data for fauna along the Appalachian Trail.

Last year, volunteers from Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia periodically moved cameras to more than 300 locations over eight months to track wildlife — especially predators, Mr. McShea said.

The Appalachian Trail stretches 2,175 miles, from Georgia to Maine, and is essentially managed and maintained by a core of volunteers, who will act as citizen-scientists in Mr. McShea’s project.

About 50 members of the 6,500-member Potomac Appalachian Trail Conservation Club will cover the Blue Ridge area in Virginia to the Maryland line, club official Bob Pickett said.

Volunteers will receive training in March and conduct the study from April to November.

Jay Tischendorf, a veterinarian and president of the Eastern Cougar Foundation, said that cougars, mountain lions and pumas are not, but should be, inhabitants of the East.

“There’s a real desire to find the ‘legend of the woods,’ but 100 years of searching the East has shown no hard evidence of these animals,” he said.

Mr. Tischendorf said populations of these animals have been confirmed only in Florida and the West. Sightings have been reported in Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and, most recently, Wisconsin.

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