2017-03-31 / Front Page

UNE professor begins Eastern Trail study

By Garrick Hoffman Staff Writer

UNE environmental studies professor Noah Perlut uploads data from one of the cameras to his laptop as part of his GapTracks project, which includes photo and video files. Perlut plans to visit the camera sites every month or two to retrieve data. (Garrick Hoffman photo) UNE environmental studies professor Noah Perlut uploads data from one of the cameras to his laptop as part of his GapTracks project, which includes photo and video files. Perlut plans to visit the camera sites every month or two to retrieve data. (Garrick Hoffman photo) When University of New England professor Noah Perlut first heard about upcoming construction happening on the Eastern Trail, he knew he wanted to conduct some kind of study on it, and he has finally found the right time to do so.

“I’ve always kept my eye on this (construction process), and I’ve always wanted to do a wildlife project on the Eastern Trail,” he said. “I’ve built this in my mind over time and thought, OK, now’s the time.”

Perlut’s project has been launched in anticipation of construction on the trail, which is scheduled to begin sometime in 2018. The construction project is called “Close the Gap” – hence Perlut’s project title, “GapTracks,” – that aims to finalize a 1.6 mile gap of the 65-mile portion of the Eastern Trail.

The gap interrupts travel between South Portland and Scarborough, and the project involves construction of two bridges, totaling $3.8 million. At least $3.2 million has already been raised, with Maine Department of Transportation committing $1.55 million, with $550,000 left to raise.

Perlut’s study, now under way, involves eight mounted Bushnell cameras that can endure extreme conditions, one man and about 40 undergrad students, all backed by the support of various local entities. The cameras cost $2,000, Perlut said, and the only other expense will be Perlut’s time, paid for by UNE. He received funding for the cameras from Friends of Scarborough Marsh, a nonprofit organization, and received support from the Eastern Trail Alliance, the town of Scarborough and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

Perlut, 42, is in the environmental studies and science department at UNE. He has a doctorate in wildlife biology from the University of Vermont, where he taught wildlife classes before moving to Maine eight years ago. A fulltime and tenured professor, Perlut continues to teach wildlife classes at UNE and classes on conservation biology and environmental issues. He’s also an ornithologist, which means he studies birds, and has been published in conservation, biology, ornithology, wildlife and college journals.

Perlut mounted the eight cameras on the bottoms of trees within a one-mile radius of Scarborough Marsh on Feb. 26 to detect terrestrial, or ground, animals. The cameras run 24 hours a day, using infrared technology at night, to capture behavior and wildlife activity in that area. The purpose is to collect data from the cameras over a three-year period – with construction ending before the third year – and have students at UNE analyze the data, write it up and present what they learn to Scarborough High School students. He also plans to publish results in scientific literature, which he said students will also help with. He’ll visit the cameras once every month or two to retrieve data.

Cameras monitor the area that will be under construction.

The last time the trail saw new additions was in 2012, when 14 mile markers were installed on more than 3 miles of trail, extending from the Arundel northern boundary to Route 35 in Kennebunk, according to the Eastern Trail Alliance website. Since then, crossing improvements have been made with marked crosswalks and flashing warning lights on Black Point and Pine Point roads. In addition, Memorial Bridge opened in August 2013, which is considered a critical link for those who enter the trail at its southernmost point in Kittery. It connects Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Kittery.

“Right now what we’re doing is kind of a pre-phase,” he said. “We’re looking at wildlife and human use before construction. We’re going to keep this up during construction, then continue the cameras to run post-construction for an equal amount of time as preconstruction.”

Perlut said he and students will look at how the environment changes before, during and after construction. This goes both for looking at the wildlife community – the species that are using the trails, the abundance of animals that changes, and the abundance of animals that use the trail changes – as well as the frequency of human use.

“How does the human use affect wildlife use? We can look at (wildlife and human use) in tandem. That’s sort of the main point of this,” he said.

The project has three components, he said. One is to foster appreciation and knowledge of the Eastern Trail – a wildlife resource, he said. The trail is used by a multitude of creatures including foxes, raccoons and coyotes.

Another component is education related. Perlut plans to integrate the study in his terrestrial wildlife course, which he teaches every other spring at UNE. The course typically involves teaching students how to track animals in snow and encouraging them to think of how animals survive during Maine winters. The study will be integrated in the next semester of this course by collecting data and having students use it for the length of the semester. Students will score photos to determine the best ones, evaluate what animals were present and ask different kinds of questions about wildlife and human use of the trail. He will also share findings at Scarborough High School. The next time he teaches the class will be when GapTracks ends, so students will be able to use and analyze data across its three-year span, write it for publication and present it to Scarborough students.

“My whole research lab explores how animals – primarily birds – adapt to human habitat modification,” he said. “This (part of the Eastern Trail) is changing wildlife habitats, in some ways for the better. We created a trail right here and some wildlife could (navigate) easier because they don’t have to trudge through the snow. Others might be scared of it, because of the dog pee. So there could be positive and negative effects.”

The third component of the study is the science of it, which is to understand how the trails that comprise the Eastern Trail – as well as the human use of these trails – affect wildlife communities and their adaptations to it.

“I think the Eastern Trail is an incredible resource, and I want to value it and understand the value of it,” he said.

Information from the camera is important, Perlut said, because it reveals what times animals use a particular part of the trail.

“The timing of their movements – that’s something of particular importance. When this trail is expanded, the trail we are on is going to get more traffic – more people, more dogs. Is that going to influence when the animals use the trail? Who knows,” he said.

Perlut said the study will have tangible effects in Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach because it looks at how animals use the section of the trail to traverse it. They disperse long distances, he said, particularly young foxes, which could easily move down from, say, South Portland to Saco to breed or from Saco to South Portland.

The study also has a human component because the study can determine how often people use the trail.

“In an ideal world, the trail will not decrease wildlife use, and in some ways will actually facilitate wildlife use in this area, because it’s going to be creating two bridges, so wildlife, in an ideal world, will use those bridges to cross between habitats,” he said. “If it doesn’t do that, and it negatively impacts wildlife, we can ask, what are the reasons they are negatively impacted? Is it the time of use? Is it night use? Is it dogs off leash? This trail does not allow any motorized vehicles. Is it because there’s illegal motorized vehicles on the trail? Is there just no explanation, and it’s just a fact of human abundance?”

Regional wildlife biologist Brad Zitske of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, a state department that aims to conserve, protect and enhance inland fisheries and wildlife sources, said the department supports Perlut’s project because it will help increase awareness about wildlife. Zitske helped Perlut choose locations for the cameras.

“(The project to us) is mostly just for inventory, for monitoring what’s there,” Zitske said. “The department is particularly interested in New England cottontail. It’s a rabbit that is critically endangered in Maine. There are fewer than 300 estimated in total to be around.”

Zitske said there have been New England cottontail reported by the Scarborough Marsh, though that was in 2009, and there have been more recent populations seen in Cape Elizabeth.

“This is something we’re very interested in finding, if there are more cottontail than we think there are,” he said.

On Thursday, March 16, Perlut visited the location of two cameras to retrieve data by removing the cameras’ memory cards and inserting them into his laptop. The process of transferring the data to the computer took about 20 minutes because of the amount and size of the files, which include photos and videos. He plans to have students go out to the sites and retrieve the data themselves because of his time constraints as a professor, husband and father.

When Perlut later looked at the files, he was pleased to see an array of animals captured on camera within a nearly three-week span, which included wood ducks, gray foxes, a red fox, raccoon, gray squirrel and a coyote, all captured at different times. There were, of course, people and their dogs during the day and a couple at night.

Perlut said no one has raised concerns about the project so far, which could include issues about privacy due to cameras being on for 24 hours per day. The part of the trail the cameras are on is private land and the owner of the land supports the project, he said.

“(The project information is posted on the trees) so everybody understands that this is here and this is what we’re doing,” he said. “I don’t want people to think Big Brother is watching them because this is not the case. This is aimed at understanding the community resource,” which is both public and private.

Perlut created a Facebook page for information on the project, as well as a page on his lab website through UNE for communication, which can be found at blog.une.edu/perlutlab/the-gap-tracks-project. He encourages people to look at the project’s Facebook page for updates, which includes photos and videos.

“I’m going to put interesting pictures up there so the public can see them and go, ‘Oh, sweet, I was on that trail, look at all those deer’ . . . They can understand what the animals really are in their area.”

Staff Writer Garrick Hoffman can be reached at news@inthecourier.com.

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