New Brunswick researchers are launching a first-ever campaign to try to determine just how many raccoons are in the province.
The animals will be live-trapped and tagged at 14 sites throughout the southern and central parts of the province over the next two weeks.
"We are providing government with data they need for efficient management," said Joe Nocera, a biologist professor with the University of New Brunswick assisting with the project. "It also provides a learning opportunity for students."
Mike Allan, provincial rabies co-ordinator, said the project will give officials a better idea of the provincial population, which will in turn enable them to better streamline the provincial rabies vaccination program.
"We've been running our baiting vaccination program for three years now with only a general idea of the amounts of baits versus the amounts of animals we are vaccinating," he said.
The number of raccoons will be estimated using the "mark and recapture" process, a common practice in ecology and wildlife management.
The animals will first be live-trapped, tagged and released back into the wild. A second series of live trappings will note the amount of animals recaptured that are tagged and from those two samples numbers biologists can extract an approximate population estimate for a given area.
"They will ear-tag the animals and release them at the point of capture," said Allan. "All animals will be handled humanely and safely."
Allan noted that so far there have only been 30 reported cases of the rabies virus in the province since New Brunswick started dropping baits containing vaccines from airplanes in 2014. Of those cases, 27 were reported in 2015.
Raccoons are a common vector species for the virus, as are skunks and foxes. But raccoons pose a larger threat with the virus due to their continued close proximity to people. They are one of the few species that tend to thrive despite human development and encroachment on habitat.
"In many ways the species is vilified," said Nocera "In Toronto they call them 'trash pandas,' but all they're doing is taking advantage of evolution which allows them to avail themselves of resources that somebody else isn't using. And so, it's actually very clever and admirable that they are able to survive in conditions that other species aren't."
The majority of the field work will be done by biology masters students at the University of New Brunswick.
Traps will be checked daily for animals, including domestic animals that may be accidentally caught. Those animals will be released immediately upon discovery, according to Allan.
Anyone who finds an animal in one of the live traps is encouraged to call the phone number printed on the top of the cages so a biologist can be dispatched.