North Carolina town under siege by starving armadillos – Mother Jones

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A captive zoo armadillo.Sebastian Kahnert / DPA / ZUMA

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Office collaboration.

Iin total darkness, Jason Bullard deftly shoulders his rifle and aims it at the object. “It looks like one! He mumbles. It is in fact a fuse box. Another candidate, again targeted with a pistol, is revealed as a rock.

In this city besieged by armadillos, anything that has a fleeting similarity to the enemy in armor is suspected.

Bullard, an affable man in a camouflage shirt, with a sonorous voice and a prodigious beard, quickly went from never seeing an armadillo in his bucolic western corner. North Carolina to kill 15 last year. In the past two weeks alone, he has shipped eight of the animals.

The owners, disturbed by the tearing of their lawns by the newly arrived mammals, initially replaced Bullard as some sort of armadillo bounty hunter, giving him $ 100 for every dead carcass he produced. But the armadillos have taken such horticultural havoc that dozens of people in and around Sapphire, North Carolina, now have Bullard on a detention, allowing him to prowl around their properties at night, armed, in the hope to shoot the culprits.

The task was learned in a hurry on the job. The standard .22 rifles Bullard used on early armadillos didn’t seem to kill them instantly. One of the creatures fled in a frightening kangaroo-like leap, leaving an astonished Bullard to stir. Armadillos give off a sort of silty gray color at night, a brilliant light absorbed by their bodies rather than reflected in their eyes.

“It’s like hunting aliens,” said Bullard, who is more used to hunting wild pigs. “We don’t know anything about them. We can’t seem to kill them easily. They show up unexpectedly. And their number has just exploded.

To spot armadillos in North Carolina was, at first, incongruous. The creature has been the state mammal of Texas for over two decades, accustomed to the scorching heat of the dry, flat state. There they are regularly seen as road casualties or in small-scale races where they are forced to hurtle down a 40-foot track.

Armadillo meat is consumed in Central America and, to a lesser extent, in the United States, where it was called “poor of the poor” in Texas during the time of the Depression and has been tainted by the link of the species. with leprosy.

Sapphire, meanwhile, is nestled 800 miles and all over the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s part of a scenic plateau that receives so much rainfall that it has developed into a temperate rainforest, with the ground and rocks draped in lush mosses amid towering firs and spruce trees. In the fall, the region is a magnificent riot of red and orange fall hues. The region even has a small ski resort.

When the first armadillo was seen here in 2019, Bullard got a call. “I just didn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought the woman had a possum and a drinking problem.” But less than a year later, Bullard was spending his nights on the local golf course, going from hole to hole on a golf cart, killing armadillos on the greens as a sort of cross between Tiger Woods and Davy Crockett.

The Sapphire Valley is the last place to witness the seemingly relentless march north of a species native to South America, but now heading to the northeastern United States.

“It’s only a matter of time before we see an expansion of the range in other states,” said Colleen Olfenbuttel, fur-bearing animal biologist at the North Carolina Wildlife Commission. . The agency confirmed the first armadillo in North Carolina in 2007, but numbers have skyrocketed in the western half of the state since 2019. “The damage caused by armadillos is difficult to deal with. They are difficult to trap and I don’t know if there is a repellant for them, ”Olfenbuttel said. “I’m as curious as anyone as to where they will appear next. “

Tit has nine bands The armadillo – there are 20 different species, only the three-banded variety can curl into a ball – made its way to northern Mexico in the United States through human intervention and its own ingenuity in the late 19th century. century. The animals, known for their keratin-armored shells, travel unhindered by potential predators. A booming reproduction rate that sees females giving birth to quadruplets multiple times is also helping their population grow.

An emerging theory for this armadillo advance is the climate crisis. Animals don’t like freezing conditions, and global warming is making winters milder, making areas of the northern United States more favorable for armadillos. Around Sapphire, armadillos happily root themselves in the earth with their snouts and claws, feasting on insects at elevations above 4,000 feet. “We just don’t have those really cold winters anymore and I’m sure that helped them,” said Olfenbuttel.

Armadillos have reached Missouri, Iowa and even southern Nebraska. Barriers such as rivers are not a problem – animals can hold their breath for up to six minutes and walk on the river bed, or even inflate their intestines to float to the other side.

“By warming up, it helps them,” said Lynn Robbins, a veteran biologist at Missouri State University who was one of the first people to study armadillos in that state. “As long as they have water and places to dig, they can settle down. But people are still amazed to see them.”

Robbins said he had “a lot of fun” trying to catch armadillos for research, due to their surprising speed. The eerie leap seen by Bullard comes from an armadillo reflex to leap about three feet in the air when threatened – useful when in the clutches of a bear, less so when a car is approaching. “If you’re silent you can walk up and grab them by the tail,” Robbins said. “They are very strong. Sometimes they’ll just jump into your arms, and then you can put them straight into a bag.

In March 2019, as North Carolina armadillo sightings began to increase, officials in Virginia received a call from a baffled resident of Buchanan County, in the western part of the state. After noticing cone-shaped holes in her garden, the woman took photos of the first living armadillo documented in Virginia. “It was a complete shock,” said Nancy Moncrief, curator of mammalogy at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. “My coworker said he was probably from eastern Kentucky and I said ‘what are they doing in Kentucky?’ My next question was “can we get a dead one and put it in my museum collection?” “”

Within months, Moncrief made his wish come true, when a dog fatally attacked an armadillo near the initial sighting. The dead animal has been brought into the museum and its preserved shell and skeleton form what is the first official specimen of the species in Virginia.

“We put on facebook and the people were like ‘the sacred cow!’ ”Moncrief said. She suspects the animals follow food-rich river valleys along the Appalachian Mountains and will spread through Virginia over time. Armadillos may soon march on the White House, in New York City and beyond. “They’re just going to keep sniffing north,” Moncrief said.

Back to Saphir, Bullard begins his night patrols of client properties, circling large converted farms and barns with an air rifle. Armadillos have poor eyesight but a keen sense of hearing, so Bullard stealthily scans the area with a heat-sensing scope to pick up patches of body heat that he can sneak up on.

“Look at the damage, the yard has been hammered,” he whispers, looking at the grass which appears to have been torn apart by dozens of tent poles.

Bullard has a dog that helps track armadillos, but the dog was left at home this time and in his absence Bullard made a blank. “They can cover an expanse of 25 acres and they’re the size of a soccer ball, and you have to find it in the dark,” he said. “I have to manage expectations with the owners. “

Bullard doesn’t like what he considers unethical legged traps, but on a confirmed armadillo burrow – they dig a hole a few feet deep in the ground to hide – he sets traps in box that capture live animals before killing them.

Locals also employ Bullard to kill feral hogs, beavers, skunks, and even otters – they eat the fish that have been added to lakes for recreational fishing – as well as armadillos. Wild animals live by our side until we ruthlessly decide to unilaterally change the rules once they subconsciously cross some kind of line, for example by changing the aesthetics of our gardens or simply interfering with our enjoyment.

The epic story of armadillo survival may cause it to simply be added to the list of annoying pests.

“There is no meanness on my part and there is no meanness on the part of the animal,” Bullard said. “They’re not doing anything wrong, they’re just trying to eat and survive. But they are causing damage, so we have to remove them. “

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