POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. -- Engine revving, the odd-looking little machine plunged into a patch of thick brush.
Its carbide-tipped teeth tore apart everything it touched. In seconds, it turned 75 square feet of tangled saplings, briers, vines and stumps into earth-nourishing mulch.
"See?" said Kem Shaw, standing a safe distance from the mayhem. "With this, we'll be able to clear a lot of new wildlife habitat in not a lot of time."
A casual observer might not look at a patch of freshly cleared ground and see wildlife habitat, but Shaw and other biologists do.
"Right now, almost everywhere in the state, we need more fresh green growth," said Shaw, an assistant district wildlife biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources.
"Almost all our [forests in state-operated wildlife management areas] are in what we call 'older stages of succession,' which is actually poor habitat for a lot of wildlife species. To create better habitat, we plan to cut a little timber and open up some underbrush."
That's where the brush-eating machines come in. Called "forest mulchers," the 6-ton beasts can clear acres of dense growth in a matter of hours. DNR officials have purchased two of them and plan to move them around the state to be used where they're most needed.
"One is being kept in Braxton County, and the other is being kept here [at the McClintic Wildlife Management Area]," Shaw said.
If the mulchers look a lot like small skid-steer excavators, it's because they are. But where an excavator would have a hydraulically powered bucket, the mulchers have hydraulically powered ripper heads, similar to those used on continuous mining machines.
The heads are solid-steel cylinders that spin at hundreds of revolutions each minute. Dozens of hardened carbide teeth, arrayed symmetrically around the spinning cylinders, shred everything they touch.
"They can tear down and mulch anything up to trees 8 inches in diameter," Shaw said.
In the past, DNR wildlife managers cleared undergrowth with standard tractors equipped with "brush hog" attachments.