No Skunks in Arlington Isn't Good News for Humans

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dressed from head to toe in black and gray camouflage, Greg Zell and Earl Hodnett checked their gear for the night's hunt: Thermal imager. Check. Night vision scope. Check. High intensity spotlight. Check. Hodnett climbed into the "sniper seat" of a souped-up golf cart, also tricked out in camouflage, called the Bad Boy. The two began to creep in the dark, headlights cut, along the paths of the Washington Golf and Country Club in Arlington County.

Their prey: the elusive striped skunk.

It's a common animal in these parts. Or at least it should be. Skunks, known far and wide for their stinky spray, can survive in urban areas on garbage, bugs and pet food. But for years, no one has seen a skunk in Arlington. And Zell, a county naturalist, fears that they might be gone for good.

"We're 40 percent paved over, so there's not much nature left," he said, shrugging. With a growing population of 200,000, the 26-square-mile county might be reaching a "critical mass" of dense urban landscape, he said, where even the hardiest wild survivors, such as skunks, can no longer make it.

Hodnett, a wildlife biologist in Fairfax County, which has a healthy skunk population, says he has a hard time believing the animals have disappeared from Arlington. "It would really raise questions about our own quality of life," he said. "If a skunk can't make it here, how are we doing?"

So the two set out late one night last week to look in the one place they figured a skunk in Arlington, if one still existed, would be: a golf course. The wooded areas between fairways would give the shy and retiring skunk a place to hide during the day, they said. The open fairways would be prime places to dig for grubs, worms and other insects under cover of night. And a stream that runs through the property would provide plenty of fresh water.

In the cool gloom of twilight, Hodnett swiveled his sniper seat and told Zell to stop at the crest of a slope near a ball washer. "There's something in the shrubs over there," he said softly, peering intently through a thermal imager, a device that picks up the heat given off by living things. Minutes passed. Planes, lined up like a string of stars, roared overhead as they approached Reagan National Airport. Traffic whizzed by on nearby Glebe Road. Hodnett sighed. "It hasn't moved. I think it's a rock."

The Bad Boy crawled on.

For more than two years, Zell has walked every inch of parkland in Arlington to document the little of the once-rich natural life that is left. And although he has found red foxes, raccoons, opossums and deer for this first-ever natural resources inventory, he has yet to spot a skunk. He has checked roadkill data and found no official reports of dead skunks on the roads for more than three years; anecdotal evidence suggests there haven't been any such reports in at least a decade. "That's where you would expect to find skunks, especially on the George Washington Parkway," he said. "So it doesn't look good."

He checked with the county's animal control agency. But it has had no reports of skunk nuisance calls going back 10 years. "Maybe there's just too many of us people now," said Kay Speerstra, executive director of the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, which oversees animal control.

Ditto for urban Alexandria, said Chaun Gorden, director of animal control there, who said he hasn't had a skunk call in 10 years. And Falls Church, where animal control officer Becky Keenan hasn't had a skunk nuisance report in at least seven years. "I get tons of raccoon, opossum, fox and coyote calls daily, but no skunks," she said. "It's puzzling."

Steven Snelgus, owner of TrapPro, a private wildlife trapping company based in Bowie, said he pulls skunks out of southern Prince George's County and from under utility trailers at construction and hospital sites and other places in Northern Virginia all the time. Maybe, he suggested, Zell just isn't looking hard enough. "They move around like ghosts," he said.

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