Wildlife Tracking and other Non-Invasive Research Methods

Designed to detect and study wildlife without needing to actually handle or even observe directly, non-invasive research methods provide safe, cost effective, and accessible methods to answer many contemporary wildlife research and management questions. They also provide some of the most effective and engaging field-based educational experience for training in wildlife biology and ecological concepts. David works primarily with three categories of field methods: wildlife tracking, remote camera traps, and genetic sample collection.

Wildlife Tracking

Found in the Traditional Ecological Knowledge basis of most cultures around the world, interpreting the indirect evidence (tracks and signs) left behind by wildlife continues to be a fundamental field skill in the modern fields of wildlife research and management, hunting, and environmental education.

_MG_5773 Tracks of a member of one of Washington State’s wolf packs. Besides identification, tracks can be used to help determine home range, habitat use, and numbers of animals in a group.
_MG_3548 Trail of a fisher in the North Woods of Wisconsin. Many studies which rely on wildlife tracking depend on snow cover for creating consistent detection probabilities.
Cougar kill sites tracks bed The cached carcass of a black-tailed deer in the Washington Cascades. Wildlife tracking also involves interpreting a wide variety of signs left on the landscape. Understanding the typical behavior of various species of carnivores around a large prey item such as this is helps to determine who killed this animal. In this case, the sheered fur on its rump and the fact that it had been carefully covered (when discovered only one of its legs was sticking out of a pile of forest duff and ferns) indicate that this deer was killed and cached by a mountain lion.

Remote Camera Traps

Modern technology has allowed us to use another field skill with a very long history, wildlife trapping, to detect and study wildlife without directly interacting with or harming wildlife. Much like traditional trapping methods designed to capture the actual animal (for fur, meat, or nuisance animal removal) remote camera traps are designed to capture images or video footage of wildlife using either naturally occurring or strategically placed attractants or predicated travel corridors. Camera trap design depends on the target species, landscape, time frame, and often a number of other management considerations.

IMG_5297 Remote camera set: This camera, attached to the tree on the left of the image and obscured by mosses, was set to monitor a game trail on the edge of a wetland in the Washington Cascades, focused on a scent marking scrape of a mountain lion. Careful concealment of cameras can help reduce the impact of the camera on wildlife and reduce the risk of damage or loss due to human theft or vandalism.
EK000141 Within a month, a mountain lion returned to this location and marked at the same location. Scent marking locations are an example of a natural attractant that can be used to successfully locate a camera trap.
EK000032 This mountain lion, captured in another camera trap, on the east side of the Washington Cascades, was returning to a deer carcass that it had killed about two weeks before the photo was taken. The carcass was found by following the tracks of the mountain lion, an example of integrating multiple field methods.

Genetic Sample Collection

Collection of scats and fur samples in the field for genetic analysis out of the field has become a standard method for a variety of research questions including species identification, home range size, and population dynamics. Samples are collected from naturally deposited material such as scats and fur found in beds and tracks, or through artificial collection methods, mainly as hair snagging devises. Once out of the field these methods are based on cutting edge DNA analysis but in the field, methods are once again typically adaptations of traditional tracking and trapping methods.

IMG_0869 An old fencepost found in the Swan Valley of northwestern Montana acts as a scent marking post for bears as indicated by the claw and scratch marks on the post and fur caught in the old barbed wire. Collection of fur from natural rub locations or ones created by researchers is an effective method for capturing genetic samples for a number of carnivore species including bears.
Several strands of moose hair have been trapped in the snow where the animal bedded down and then stepped up to leave. Following tracks of animals can often lead to hair or scats for genetic samples.