Alligator River/Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
P. O. Box 1969
Manteo, North Carolina 27954

Contact: Bonnie Strawser - 252-473-1131

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News Release

April 9, 2009

Refuge Intern Is Learning About Wildlife One Hair at a Time

Many Dare County residents and visitors to the area have been asking about the barbed wire that has been recently added above the guardrails on the side of US Highway 64 through Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, 11.7 miles of barbed wire have been attached to the wooden supports of the guardrails. Many observers wonder if the Refuge is trying to keep something or someone “in” or “out”. The answer is that we are doing neither!

Refuge Intern Katharine Becker was excited to hear about the questions and eager to share her newly-acquired knowledge about the subject, “The wire is one of the research tools used as part of the U.S. 64 Corridor Project being undertaken by Virginia Tech and the NC Department of Transportation, in cooperation with the refuge. The NCDOT is proposing to widen 64 through the refuge, expanding it to 4-lanes. This study is a way of monitoring wildlife that cross the highway to determine where to plan safe crossings.” The barbed wire will pull hair from individual bears, wolves, deer, etc. that may pass over the guardrail. DNA analysis of the hair will tell researchers how many different animals crossed and where.

According to the NCDOT.GOV website, “The Study Corridor of US 64 passes through numerous managed and/or protected local and nationally-recognized areas of environmental concern. The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge may be impacted, as well as state gamelands managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Habitats of several threatened and endangered species may also be encountered. In addition, the proposed project will likely impact natural resources that are important to the region, such as wetlands, drainage canals, and wildlife foraging corridors. As such, the project study will involve significant coordination with natural resource agencies such as the US Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Service, NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and others. Measures will be studied to avoid and minimize impact to these important resources.” This study resulted from NCDOT coordinating planning needs with the Refuge.

Katharine and Virginia Tech Biologist Andrew Trent are collecting data for these wildlife studies. While traveling on U.S. 64, you might catch a glimpse of the two as they meticulously check the entire length of wire every 10 to 14 days for signs of hair and disturbances such as tracks and scat. Katharine and Andrew also conduct road kill surveys while checking the wire. A GPS unit is used to record the location of each road-kill occurrence. When possible, the species of the road-killed animal is also identified. Additional study components include trapping and outfitting bears and red wolves with radio collars. These new collars will replace existing collars on wolves. The collaring is expected to begin in early summer.

This study will give researchers more information as to which species are using particular sections as crossovers. It will be conducted over a two-year period before road construction to provide a scientific database for important decisions regarding locations for wildlife passage structures. Additional studies will be conducted during and after construction. It is important to understand that these studies are as much about human safety as they are about wildlife.

During the summer months, there may be a graduate student and/or a technician from Virginia Tech and several other refuge interns helping with the collection of data for this project. “I’m happy we’re going to have more help, “ explained Katharine, “Working on a study like this sounds really exciting, but that’s a really long line of barbed wire! It’ll be nice to have a variety of people involved.”

So the next time you travel U.S. Highway 64 through Alligator River Refuge or relax along the canal with a fishing pole, don’t be afraid of being kept “in” or “out” by the barbed wire. If you are around when one of the researchers is collecting data, feel free to stop and ask about their work. Katharine and the others would probably appreciate the break and would enjoy explaining their latest findings. While you’re at it, ask about how Katharine likes being a refuge intern. But, don’t be surprised if she entices you to sign up as a volunteer for the refuge. She has a way of making a seemingly mundane chore appear to be exciting. After all, it’s not often you can learn about wildlife one hair at a time.

Photo credits: FWS, Cindy Heffley

Katherine stands with the guardrail with barbed wire in front of her and a canal behind her.
Refuge Intern Katharine Becker pauses along her "hair collection route" to collect a small clump of white, fluffy hair. She labels the sample and records location and time of collection. The route encompasses over eleven miles of barbed wire strung above the guardrail on US Highway 64 through Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. DNA analysis of the hair will tell researchers what species, and even what individual animal, left this hair as it crossed over the guardrail.

The highway 64 curve across from the creef cut wildlife trail with the new barbed wire on the guardrails.
The eleven-plus miles of barbed wire attached above guardrails on the side of US Highway 64 through Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge have folks wondering if the Refuge is trying to keep something or someone “in” or “out”. The answer is that we are doing neither!