In search of a wildlife camera

October 27, 2016 Alaina Kowitz

By Alaina Kowitz, Communications and Outreach Associate

The life of a wildlife monitoring camera is a difficult one. It's fraught with uncertainty and danger, bad weather and thieves, user error and malfunctions. It's not an easy life to be carted out into the woods, tied to a tree, and left for months on end. Anything could happen out there.

Something did happen out there, there being near Mount Baker in the North Cascades. Through our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project (CWMP), a volunteer had placed a camera at the top of a ridge in a stand of trees, hoping to capture images of gulo gulo, the elusive and ferocious wolverine

But last winter, deep snow had buried the camera and disoriented the volunteer when she went in to retrieve the equipment, and she was forced to return empty-handed. Our CWMP coordinator, Aleah Jaeger, knew the camera had to be retrieved before the weather turned this year or she risked facing the same challenge and losing a valuable piece of our research equipment. 

Learn more about our wildlife monitoring project and how you can support it! 

So last month, Aleah gathered a rescue team, consisting of last year's monitoring intern, Erin Tudor her present intern, Grace Rivera, and myself. Erin had helped place the camera last year and thought she could find it again. Together, they trekked the rocky and steep climb in to the ridge with Mount Baker glistening in the not-so-far-off distance, hoping to find the monitoring site with the camera intact and functioning. 

The trek to the monitoring site begins.
The trek to the monitoring site begins.

And find it they did, as well as the run pole on the opposite side of the site. (The run pole is a structure built in front of the camera, over which bait or scent is placed. Wolverines will venture out onto the run pole and look up at the bait as the motion-sensor camera snaps photos of the wolverine's unique chest blaze, which is its identifying feature.) 

A wolverine on a run pole in the Teanaway Valley. Photo: Aja Woodrow/USFS
A wolverine on a run pole in the Teanaway Valley. Photo: Aja Woodrow/USFS

Wolverines are fierce carnivores and quite rare; it's estimated that Washington state only has about three dozen at most. The majority of these wolverines have been documented in the North Cascades, where they dig their dens in the deep snow. 

A mostly solitary creature, the wolverine can take down an animal up to five times its own size given the proper situation. However, most of their food comes from smaller animals like ground squirrels or from scavenging winter-killed deer and mountain goats. Through our monitoring project and the volunteers who help run the project, Conservation Northwest has worked for years to collect data on these fascinating native animals to better understand their population numbers, movement, and responses to changing habitat due to climate change.

Despite our cameras being secured to tree trunks with Python locks and lock boxes, it's not uncommon for them to get stolen. Some creative thinkers cut through the Python locks with axes, or simply cut the tree down to get at the equipment. Luckily, this camera had been left alone.

2015 monitoring intern Erin Tudor detaches the camera from its tree.
2015 monitoring intern Erin Tudor detaches the camera from its tree.
CWMP coordinator, Aleah Jaeger (left), and current intern Grace Rivera take down a cable in the monitoring site.
CWMP coordinator, Aleah Jaeger (left), and current intern Grace Rivera take down a cable in the monitoring site.
The camera-retrieving team in front of Mount Baker. Success!
The camera-retrieving team in front of Mount Baker. Success!

Not bad for a day at work! 

Spirits were slightly dampened when no wolverine photos were discovered on the camera's card, but we'll continue to monitor the North Cascades for them. 

In order to continue our mission of keeping the Northwest wild, we have to understand our region, the creatures that inhabit it, and how they move within the landscape. So we'll keep trekking, researching, and enjoying the beautiful wild places that we're lucky enough to call home. 

Our monitoring project is currently in the stages of collecting results from the 2016 season, a process that includes volunteers submitting photos and other data points, as well as Conservation Northwest staff compiling that information into an end-of-season project report. That report is expected to come out around the holidays, so stay tuned!

Mount Baker

To learn more about our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project, visit our webpage or contact Aleah Jaeger at ajaeger@conservationnw.org.

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