Where the Wild Things Are ... in Rhode Island

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Yes, there are bears roaming free in Rhode Island — and beavers, fisher cats, minks, bald eagles and coyotes. There are no moose, mountain lions or wild elephants, only at the zoo.

Here is a brief rundown of some of the uncommon creatures and critters inhabiting the Rhode Island wilds. Many of the animals haven't been seen since Colonial or pre-Colonial times, when they were either hunted into oblivion or lost their forest habitat.

Charlie Brown, a wildlife biologist for the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, said there are no exact numbers, but suggests many of these animals are coming back because of an increase in forested land, less hunting and the reintroduction of animals in neighboring states.

Black bears may not be breading in Rhode Island, but their numbers are growing between 7 percent and 8 percent in Connecticut and Massachusetts. "Those excess bears have to go somewhere," Brown said. Young male bears tend to "wander aimlessly" across large territories, especially in the spring when 2-year-old bears leave the care of their mother. "They basically strike out into the world trying to find their place," Brown said.

Bears have been spotted in management areas and forested habitat, and occasionally in Providence, Kent and Washington counties. They are mostly vegetarians and tend to avoid humans. "The trend is there are likely to be more in the future," Brown said.

Beaver pelts were a fashion staple and the animal was quickly wiped out during Colonial days. "They were a huge sought-after valued commodity," Brown said. "They were probably one of the first to disappear." Bewtween the 1950s and '70s, beavers were trapped and relocated in Connecticut and Massachusetts and since have migrated back into western and northern Rhode Island. Their numbers continue to grow and are now found in seven watersheds, according to Brown.

Fisher cats are not actually cats but are members of the weasel family. They have been long gone because of hunting, perhaps since the early 1700s. Fishers retreated northward until they re-emerged in the 1980s in wooded areas of all four counties in mainland Rhode Island, but not Aquidneck Island or other islands.

Coyotes never lived in Rhode Island or much of the eastern United State until the 20th century. The first recorded shooting of a coyote in Rhode Island occurred in Warren in 1968. Today, sightings are common in urban areas and in much of the state, except on Block Island. Coyotes are shy and attacks on humans are rare.

Mink, also a member of the weasel family, never left Rhode Island. They are mainly nocturnal mammals living in wet habitats. Minks are carnivores that feed on rodents, fish, crustaceans, frogs and birds. They can be found in all six New England states.

Mountain lions. Brown said he hasn't seen any credible evidence of mountain lions in Rhode Island. The last mountain lion in the state was shot in 1847 in West Greenwich and is preserved at Harvard University. There is no native mountain lion population anywhere in New England, according to officials.

Moose. About 1,000 Moose live in Massachusetts, but there are none in Rhode Island, according to Brown.

Beavers, coyotes, fisher cats and minks are all still trapped for their pelts in Rhode Island, along with raccoons, skunks, foxes, opossums and weasels. River otters are common, but can't be trapped. Other uncommon critters seen rarely in these parts include bobcats, southern flying squirrels, star-nosed moles and shrews.

Rhode Island has more forested land now than it had in 1900, Brown said, largely because of the shrinking of its agrarian sector. Trees have filled in much of the farmland, but new construction is always a threat to wildlife habitat, Brown said. "Once you start putting in shopping malls and urban development it's never coming back," he said.

Protected management areas are at risk of becoming islands as adjoining open space that allows many species to roam across larger territories is cleared for buildings and pavement. The stable growth of once rare animals in Rhode Island, Brown said, "looks good on paper, but it's not getting better."

He also said many smaller amphibians and reptiles are becoming less common because of their inability to relocate from smaller lots lost to development.