by Robert Colona

What on earth are mustelids? Some sort of jarred edibles that must have their lids put on tightly to prevent spoilage? Wrong! Believe it or not, mustelids are the largest family of carnivores and Maryland’s leading family of furbearers. This group of mammals is more commonly known as the weasel family and contains nearly 70 species worldwide.

Virtually everyone is familiar with the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). However, few people realize that the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), mink (Mustela vison), fisher (Martes pennanti) and river otter (Lutra canadensis) are closely related to the skunk. The ferret, stoat, polecat, marten and badger, as well as the ferocious wolverine, are also members of the great mustelid family but are not found in Maryland.

Family Characteristics
Mustelid bodies and tails are usually long and their legs are relatively short. They have small, rounded ears and a well-developed sense of hearing. Nearly all are quick and agile.

Mustelids are also elusive and rarely seen. In fact, they have a now-you-see-‘em-now-you-don’t quality about them. Found throughout Maryland, they fulfill extremely important roles in local ecosystems; with the exception of skunks, all are predators that feed predominantly on rodents and other small animals. Skunks are predators too, but they feed extensively on insects and some plant matter.

Besides being ecologically valuable, mustelids as furbearers are also a renewable economic resource. Furbearers can be loosely defined as mammals that are legally harvested for their commercially desirable pelts, which are fashioned into fur garments and other useful items. Of the seven species of mustelid that live in Maryland, five are legally defined as furbearers and are subject to regulated harvesting.

a photo of a long tailed weaselLong-Tailed Weasel
Of Maryland’s five species of furbearers, long-tailed weasels are the smallest, with slender, elongated bodies. Their length and weight range from 11 to 17 inches and 5 ounces to 1 pound. Males tend to be significantly larger than females.

Long-tailed weasels are generally brown with a yellowish-white underbelly and a distinct black tipped tail. In the northern United States, they molt in the fall and their pelage (furry coat) becomes totally white, remaining that color until they molt again in the spring, when it returns to brown. In the mid-Atlantic region (including Maryland) and farther south, they remain brown throughout the year.

Weasels feed extensively on mice and other small mammals, but they also eat birds, small rabbits, reptiles and amphibians when available. Unevenly distributed across Maryland, they live in a broad variety of habitats including marshlands, woodlands, meadows, grasslands and rocky outcroppings.

Mink are small, cylinder-shaped animals ranging from 19 to 30 inches and 1.5 to 4 pounds. Males tend
a photo of a minkto be 50 percent larger than females. Their fur is short, soft, dense and lustrous, and varies from light brown to almost black. They have white chin and chest patches that vary in size.

Semi-aquatic, mink live near all types of water bodies, including fresh and brackish marshes, farm ponds, rivers and fast-moving streams. They prey on small mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and crustaceans, depending on what is seasonally available.

Mink are common from Garrett County eastward to the western shore of the Chesapeake and are found infrequently on some of the Bay’s larger islands. For reasons unknown, mink are absent from the Eastern Shore and many coastal regions of the eastern United States.

Striped Skunk
This ubiquitous animal is almost universally recognized by sight and smell throughout its U.S. range. Striped skunks are similar in size to domestic cats, generally 20 to 30 inches in length and 4 to 10 pounds in weight.
a photo of a striped skunk.  All mustelids have glands that secrete a noxious substance, which they use as both a territorial marker and a defensive weapon.The striped skunk is typically black with a white patch on its head and two white stripes that extend down its back, which converge into a white stripe on its tail. There is a great deal of natural variation in the pelage of striped skunks, and individuals may infrequently appear almost entirely black or white.

Skunks feed extensively on insects but will eat plant matter, small mammals, birds and bird eggs when locally or seasonally abundant. Striped skunks are distributed statewide and are found in virtually all habitat types. The largest populations are normally found in mixed farmland and woodland areas, while lower densities are found in marshland and beach habitats.

The characteristic odor produced by skunks comes from butylmercaptan, a sulfurous compound containing sulfuric acid. This compound is forcefully — and famously — discharged from its two anal glands when the skunk is alarmed or threatened. Animals sprayed by skunks often experience temporary blindness, respiratory distress, nausea and burning skin. In fact, all mustelids have glands that secrete a noxious substance, which they use as a territorial marker or defensive weapon.

Probably the least recognizable of the furbearers, the fisher resembles a large weasel with a large bushy tail. Fishers are typically 2 to 4 feet in length and weigh 4 to 13 pounds. Males are characteristically at least 20 percent larger than females, with some approaching 20 pounds. Depending on the time of the year and the sex of the animal, fisher pelage varies from a dark reddish-brown to a grizzled black. This grizzled appearance results from tricolored guard hairs (long, coarse hairs that protect the animal’s undercoat). Males tend to be more grizzled than the females, which have longer, silkier fur.
Unlike most mustelids, fisher are aboreal, preferring to spend much of their time in trees.The fisher diet includes squirrels, rabbits, small mammals, birds and — surprisingly — porcupines. Fisher are arboreal; that is, they spend a lot of time in trees. Consequently, their habitats always include a large wooded component. They are found in or near mixed forests, woodland glades and farm fields.

Historically, fisher populations in eastern North America extended from Canada through the northeastern states and down through the Appalachian Mountains as far south as Tennessee. However, by the early 1900s, fisher were extirpated from Maryland and other central and southern Appalachian states.

In 1969, the West Virginia Division of Wildlife Resources began a fisher reintroduction project. The agency obtained 23 animals from New Hampshire that were released at two sites: 15 on Canaan Mountain in Tucker County and 8 near Cranberry Glades in Pocahontas County. By 1972, just three years later, West Virginia’s fisher population had expanded sufficiently to support a legal harvest season.

Fisher were first documented in Maryland in 1974. Since that time, population densities have risen, and occupied ranges have expanded to include suitable habitats throughout Garrett and western Allegany Counties. Fisher appear to be present at lower numbers in central and eastern Allegany County.

The first modern recorded harvest of fisher in Maryland occurred during the winter of 1977-78, when two animals were incidentally trapped. Maryland established its first legal harvest season in the 1978-79 season, permitting both hunting and trapping.

River Otter
The river otter has typical weasel-like features with a streamlined body, an elongated, flattened tail, short legs and webbed feet. Otters are the largest of Maryland’s furbearers, and vary from 3 feet to A river otter about to enjoy lunch.nearly 5 feet in total length (head to tail) and 12 to 35 pounds. Their short, dense, and glossy fur runs in various shades of brown. River otters feed predominantly on fish but will also eat crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles and other small animals when locally abundant. Like mink, they are semi-aquatic and are found in most healthy bodies of water. In Maryland, they occupy rivers, streams and tidal marshes.

Until the last decade, otters were distributed throughout the state except for Garrett and Allegany Counties and western Washington County, where they had been extirpated in the 1800s. In the early 1990s, DNR began a project to reintroduce the species to the region when otters were taken from resident populations on the Eastern Shore and released in Garrett County. Initial efforts focused on the Youghiogheny River basin but later expanded to include the county’s smaller drainage systems. After populations became self-sustaining in Garrett County, otters were released in Allegany County.

As a result of these successful reintroductions, river otters are now distributed statewide. The highest populations occur in the coastal plain adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay and decrease incrementally proceeding westward until reaching their lowest levels in Allegany County. In Garrett County, otter populations have increased dramatically and the animal is now considered common.

Worth a Better Understanding
Children and adults alike are amused by the playfulness of the otter. The striped skunk can make an awful stink, but people find its waddling walk — caused by flat back feet — funny and somehow familiar. The slinky, hump-backed creep of a weasel reminds us of a burglar up to no good. Who would not feel some sympathy towards the fearless, furious and apparently indignant badger said to have attacked a tractor when a farmer drove over his burrow?

We humans can see a little of ourselves in mustelids, even putting them into our vocabulary. We speak of “ferreting” out the truth and “badgering” a witness. To lose a game badly is to be “skunked,” and to evade an obligation is to “weasel” out of it. Fascinating creatures, they are unfortunately seldom seen and therefore poorly understood by most of us. Mustelids have been around for roughly 35 million years — so now is probably as good a time as any to get to know more about them.

Robert Colona is furbearer Project Leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Vaughn Deckret, a DNR staff writer, contributed to this article

logo for farmers and hunter feeding the hungryHunters & Farmers Feeding The Hungry
by Steve Bittner

Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (FHFH) is a non-profit organization that encourages hunters to return to their traditional role as providers by offering a vehicle through which they can donate harvested deer to feed Maryland’s less fortunate. Through the program, farmers that kill deer under crop damage permits and hunters interested in helping the needy can donate deer to participating butchers, who then process the meat (at no cost to the contributor) and hold the venison for distribution to local food banks.

FHFH was started in Washington County in 1997 and has since expanded across Maryland and into other states. They have also extended the scope of their efforts to work with other types of processors to secure alternative food sources. One such effort is a successful partnership with the Freshwater Institute of Shepherdstown, W.Va., to donate fish from research efforts to local agencies that feed the hungry.

In 2002 the Maryland General Assembly approved an increase in the cost of hunting licenses, mandating that $1 from each regular resident and nonresident hunting license go towards a venison donation program to feed the hungry. FHFH was contracted by DNR to administer a statewide venison donation program from September 2002 through August 2003. In exchange for $100,000 of the new hunting license revenue, FHFH agreed to provide access to deer processors in every Maryland county; supply educational information to butchers and food banks regarding the venison donation program; and distribute to each county at least 2 percent of all donated venison. FHFH raised an additional $57,860 from other sources for program.

How successful was the program? In 2002-03, Maryland hunters donated 1,915 deer, providing more than 400,000 meals to the state’s most needy citizens at an average cost of $47 per deer. This is the largest number of deer ever processed in any season by FHFH and would not have been possible without the financial assistance provided by hunters through DNR. FHFH has again partnered with DNR to provide venison for the hungry in 2003-04.

FHFH now has 26 participating butchers across the state. Although they have had difficulty finding butchers in the metropolitan areas and some Eastern Shore counties, they continue to pursue available alternatives to locate processors willing to participate in this worthwhile program.

What can you do to help? First, visit the organization’s website at to learn more about their activities. Second, help them locate deer processors willing to become part of this program, especially in the Washington-Baltimore area. Third, provide financial assistance to FHFH and help them feed the hungry. And if you are a hunter, consider donating some or all of your harvested deer to this exceptional program. No matter how you choose to contribute, your participation will benefit FHFH’s overall mission: providing nutritional food to Maryland’s hungry this winter and beyond.

Steve Bittner is a Game Mammal Section Leader with DNR’s Wildlife unit.

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