Cameras for Conservation
How motion-activated cameras are moving our conservation efforts forward.
Each Tuesday morning wakeup brings a fresh roll of #trailcamtuesday photos to social media taken from the water tanks that dot the Backcountry Wilderness Area’s 13-square-miles of wildlife habitat conservation property. You click through the snaps of twin bear cubs splashing as the mama looks on, birds perched on the tanks’ edges, and, of course, the personality-filled cow elk with her tongue stuck out. As Backcountry Wilderness Area staff, we love looking through the photos just as much as it seems like our community does. But, beyond the entertainment, what we’re all watching is conservation in action.
The camera traps, as they are called by biologists—which are partially funded by the Backcountry Conservation & Education Fund 501c3 nonprofit—are one of the most effective, and least intrusive, tools we have for wildlife habitat conservation in the Backcountry Wilderness Area. Positioned near our water resources, they allow us to monitor the wildlife, the property, and the impacts of our conservation efforts. For starters, the cameras allow us to make better population estimates and gauge diversity across all of the species that visit the Backcountry Wilderness Area. Diversity in species is a great marker for conservation success. When the ecosystem is working, larger predators (mountain lions, black bears, raptors) are present and can find abundant food options.
As the collection of photos grows over time, we’re starting to curate a historical timeline of the different species in the Backcountry Wilderness Area. Details include health, travel patterns, and seasons of migration, as well as clues to where they may rest. One prime example of using the camera trap footage to make direct habitat conservation decisions is choosing to avoid use of a certain part of the property during and immediately following elk calving season.
It is difficult to monitor elk calving without disturbing the elk, disturbances which can cause increased calf mortality. The camera traps have provided a way to monitor the property and collect data over a period of years that demonstrates elk calving mostly takes place in the southern part of the property. It’s well-known that elk do not assimilate to being bothered by humans, especially during calving season. The extra stress of people when they are trying to give birth and raise their calves can have deadly consequences including the cow elk abandoning their calf to flee humans. Recent studies established “elk calf survival rate drops to zero when elk are repeatedly disturbed during critical times of the year.” With this knowledge, we restricted use of the area from our camps and programs until long after the season ended. The balance of conservation, education, and recreation is our mission and using the game cams as data and a decision-making tool perfectly illustrates it.
As it turns out, the cameras don’t just pick up on the behavior of animals, but of humans as well. The Wildcat Mountain trail system is closed each year from January through March to allow wintering wildlife, especially elk, a place to rest in solitude without the threat of people making them move. Extra movements during this crucial period deplete the elk of the limited fat they need to survive through to the spring. When there isn’t a place for them to bed down, uninterrupted for long periods of time, near water, they waste that precious energy and may not make it through the winter. For the last few years, we became aware of many individuals who decided that their daily workout was more important than the struggle of the wildlife during the winter and would jump the fence to get in a run or ride.
Last spring, we turned the camera on our local recreational trail users during the annual closure of the Wildcat Mountain Trail system. Once we caught a significant number of trespassers on camera, the photos were released into the social media world for all to see. Even though we blurred the offenders’ faces, we noticed an immediate drop in rogue trail users for the remainder of the closure. After nearly five years of elk opting not to use the area during the winter closure because of humans consistently disturbing them, the herd stayed put for more than six weeks for the rest of the 2021 closure.
We know that using game cams as a non-intrusive eye on the wildlife and land will yield more opportunities to improve the habitat and continue to support this thriving ecosystem in our backyard.
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