Mountain Caribou Initiative: Camera Trapping for Carnivores

Text and photos by David Moskowitz Caribou are not the only animal tough to track down in the Caribou Rainforest ecosystem. As part of our efforts to tell the story of all of the creatures that call these mountains home, I have been setting camera traps this winter in collaboration with Swan Valley Connections in northwestern Montana and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative in the panhandle of Idaho this winter to capture images of some of the rare and elusive carnivores that depend on this wild landscape. Here are a few images from this winter field work and some out-takes of images from the camera traps.

 Anything unusual about this snowmobile packing job? Researchers in Idaho and Montana are using beaver carcasses or deer legs as attractants to lure rare carnivores like Canada lynx and wolverines to bait stations set up with hair snagging devises to collect genetic samples from animals without ever having to see or handle the animals. I’ve been hitching a ride out into the field with researchers and setting up my camera traps adjacent to their bait stations.

Anything unusual about this snowmobile packing job? Researchers in Idaho and Montana are using beaver carcasses or deer legs as attractants to lure rare carnivores like Canada lynx and wolverines to bait stations set up with hair snagging devises to collect genetic samples from animals without ever having to see or handle the animals. I’ve been hitching a ride out into the field with researchers and setting up my camera traps adjacent to their bait stations.

 Cody Dems (left) and Adam Lieberg set a bait station in the Mission Mountains of Montana.

Cody Dems (left) and Adam Lieberg set a bait station in the Mission Mountains of Montana.

 Cody inspecting the fresh trail of a wolverine in Montana.

Cody inspecting the fresh trail of a wolverine in Montana.

Skies and pack ready to go after setting up a camera trap for wolverines and lynx in northwestern Montana.
Skies and pack ready to go after setting up a camera trap for wolverines and lynx in northwestern Montana.
 A Canada lynx enjoys some sunshine in a photo from one of my camera traps in Montana. Got many photos of this fellow in this beautiful subalpine forest. Its been many decades since caribou roamed these forests but lynx continue to call these mountains home.

A Canada lynx enjoys some sunshine in a photo from one of my camera traps in Montana. Got many photos of this fellow in this beautiful subalpine forest. Its been many decades since caribou roamed these forests but lynx continue to call these mountains home.

 A photo bombing snowshoe hare set up in front of another camera in the Selkirk Mountains in Idaho.

A photo bombing snowshoe hare set up in front of another camera in the Selkirk Mountains in Idaho.

 An American marten takes in a snowy night at the same camera trap as the snowshoe hare above.

An American marten takes in a snowy night at the same camera trap as the snowshoe hare above.

Learn more about the Mountain Caribou Initiative here. Stay tuned for the trailer for our forthcoming film which should be out this spring. For updates on the film and other material forthcoming from the project, sign up for quarterly emails on the About page of my website.

Track and Sign Certification in the Swan Valley, Montana with Northwest Connections

Northwest Connections is an innovative organization which runs a variety of biological monitoring, conservation, and educational programs all revolving around the unique and wild landscape of the Swan Valley in northwestern Montana where they are based. In April, I delivered a Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certification Event for them. A very talented group endured challenging field conditions (including about 5 inches of fresh snow Saturday night and Sunday!) and everyone in the group earned a Certificate. My friend and colleague Emily Gibson came along to take some photographs and I am grateful to her for sharing a number of the images for this post!

 We started the evaluation on the Northwest Connections campus on the Swan River. Here I am explaining how the evaluation process works at the start of the first day.

We started the evaluation on the Northwest Connections campus on the Swan River. Here I am explaining how the evaluation process works at the start of the first day.

 The evaluation included a number of questions about the remains of a white-tailed deer which had been consumed by wolves.

The evaluation included a number of questions about the remains of a white-tailed deer which had been consumed by wolves.

 Inspecting a leg bone from the deer which had been partially consumed by the wolves revealed the bone marrow which offers clues to the health of the deer at the time it died.

Inspecting a leg bone from the deer which had been partially consumed by the wolves revealed the bone marrow which offers clues to the health of the deer at the time it died.

 Mike Mayernik taking an answer from participant Andrea Stephens about the elk antler rub on the tree between them.

Mike Mayernik taking an answer from participant Andrea Stephens about the elk antler rub on the tree between them.

 Heavy snow Saturday night and Sunday morning called for desperate measures. Here Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Coordinator for Northwest Connections, uses a broom to brush snow off of sign we had found during our scouting for the evaluation.

Heavy snow Saturday night and Sunday morning called for desperate measures. Here Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Coordinator for Northwest Connections, uses a broom to brush snow off of sign we had found during our scouting for the evaluation.

 The scratch marks left by a mountain lion on a leaning tree along a well used game trail above the Swan River.

The scratch marks left by a mountain lion on a leaning tree along a well used game trail above the Swan River.

 Mike points out one of the questions on the evaluation about a mountain lion scat and scrape, created by a scent marking behavior of the large cat, found along the same game trail as the claw marks from the previous photo.

Mike points out one of the questions on the evaluation about a mountain lion scat and scrape, created by a scent marking behavior of the large cat, found along the same game trail as the claw marks from the previous photo.

 We took refuge under a bridge for a few questions on the snowy Sunday.

We took refuge under a bridge for a few questions on the snowy Sunday.

 A blade of grass points to the tip of a mink track found under the bridge.

A blade of grass points to the tip of a mink track found under the bridge.

 Every question on the evaluation is discussed thoroughly after all the participants have submitted their answers. Here we are discussing the sign left behind by an elk which used its incisors to peel bark on a small tree and then rub its head against the tree, a common scent marking behavior of elk.

Every question on the evaluation is discussed thoroughly after all the participants have submitted their answers. Here we are discussing the sign left behind by an elk which used its incisors to peel bark on a small tree and then rub its head against the tree, a common scent marking behavior of elk.

 The shredded bark has all been peeled upwards due to the fact that elk only have lower incisors. Numerous hairs from the elk got stuck in the ragged bark and sticky pitch of the tree.

The shredded bark has all been peeled upwards due to the fact that elk only have lower incisors. Numerous hairs from the elk got stuck in the ragged bark and sticky pitch of the tree.

 Congratulations to everyone who participated in the evaluation. In this particularly talented group of wildlife trackers, everyone earned a Level 2 certificate or higher!

Congratulations to everyone who participated in the evaluation. In this particularly talented group of wildlife trackers, everyone earned a Level 2 certificate or higher!

Level 2 Certificates Awarded: Jim Quinn, Trenton Harper, Scott Tomson, Andrea Stephens

Level 3 Certificates Awarded: Cassie March, Luke Lamar, Lara Arvidson, Mike Stevenson, Alissa Anderson, Rebekah Rafferty

For a complete list of certified trackers in North America visit trackercertification.com

Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certification Event in the Swan Valley, Montana

 Senior Tracker and Evaluator Mark Elbroch points out some of the finer details of a track during a discussion of one of the questions on the Evaluation.

Senior Tracker and Evaluator Mark Elbroch points out some of the finer details of a track during a discussion of one of the questions on the Evaluation.

Congratulations to all 11 folks who participated in the Track and Sign Certification Event in wild Swan Valley of northwestern Montana this past weekend, all of whom earned a certificate through Cybertracker Conservation!The event was hosted by Northwest Connections in the very quiet town of Condon. It was great getting to know more about this creative and inspiring organizaiton whose mission to "Integrate Science, Education and Community in the Conservation of Rural Working Landscapes". I highly recommend any and all of the various educational opportunities they have to offer and hope to be back there soon! A special thanks also to Nick Sharp, Wildlife Conservation Society Biologist, and Doctoral student at the University of Montana, who organized the event (and put in a stellar performance on the Evaluation!)Over the course of the two days of the Evaluation, participants were given 70 different questions about tracks and signs discovered in the field. Species varied from voles to grizzly bears and the handiwork of everything from a bushytailed woodrat to a backhoe. Along with covering as diverse a set of tracks and signs as is possible over two days, the evaluation includes questions ranging from very simple (such as a clear deer track) to very challenging (such as interpreting the behavior of an elk which had scraped bark off of the trunk of an aspen with its incisors). For more information on Cybertracker Conservation Wildlife Tracking Evaluation methods click here.

 Senior Tracker Brian McConnell, who assisted in delivering the evaluation, points out one of the questions, marks on an aspen tree to Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Program Coordinator at Northwest Connections. Adam correctly interpreted them to be made by a black bear which had climbed the tree.

Senior Tracker Brian McConnell, who assisted in delivering the evaluation, points out one of the questions, marks on an aspen tree to Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Program Coordinator at Northwest Connections. Adam correctly interpreted them to be made by a black bear which had climbed the tree.

Here are photos of some of the things that were on the Evaluation and the questions about them. All questions are based on actual tracks and signs discovered in the field by evaluators during the Evaluation. After all of the participants have the opportunity to answer each question, the track or sign is discussed as a group and the evaluators carefully explain the correct answer and discuss why it could or could not be various other species, often using illustrations and other resources to help illustrate key features.

 What species and which foot? Front and hind tracks of a red fox.

What species and which foot? Front and hind tracks of a red fox.

 What species, which foot, and what was the sex of this animal? The left hind foot of a female mountain lion

What species, which foot, and what was the sex of this animal? The left hind foot of a female mountain lion

 What species (in regards to the lower tracks)? The front and hind foot of a wolf (above are the track of a whitetailed deer).

What species (in regards to the lower tracks)? The front and hind foot of a wolf (above are the track of a whitetailed deer).

 What happened to these shrubs? Tim Nelson inspects the work of a buck deer which left these marks on a serviceberry shrub with its antlers the previous fall, a marking behavior associated with courtship and breeding activities.

What happened to these shrubs? Tim Nelson inspects the work of a buck deer which left these marks on a serviceberry shrub with its antlers the previous fall, a marking behavior associated with courtship and breeding activities.

 Who removed the bark from this burl on a lodgepole pine? From left to right, Track and Sign Specialist Matt Nelson, Mark Elbroch, Preston Taylor and Adam Lieberg discuss a contentious question, a burl on a lodgepole pine which had been debarked by a red squirrel

Who removed the bark from this burl on a lodgepole pine? From left to right, Track and Sign Specialist Matt Nelson, Mark Elbroch, Preston Taylor and Adam Lieberg discuss a contentious question, a burl on a lodgepole pine which had been debarked by a red squirrel

 Who left this track? The weathered footprint of a grizzly bear.

Who left this track? The weathered footprint of a grizzly bear.

 Mark and Jenn Wolfe discuss one of the harder questions on the evaluation, the identity of a jawbone found in the field–in this case a wolf! Mandibles were not in short supply, and the striped skunk and black bear jawbone were also questions on the Evaluation.

Mark and Jenn Wolfe discuss one of the harder questions on the evaluation, the identity of a jawbone found in the field–in this case a wolf! Mandibles were not in short supply, and the striped skunk and black bear jawbone were also questions on the Evaluation.

 Who made this hole? A foraging badger.

Who made this hole? A foraging badger.

 Congratulations to everyone who participated and earned a certificate at the event!

Congratulations to everyone who participated and earned a certificate at the event!

Interested in participating in a Certification Event or hosting one? Find a list of future events I am running at davidmoskowitz.net. Our North American website for all Tracking Certification events is currently underconstruction. Send me an email if you want to discuss details on hosting an event or links to Certification Events in other parts of the country!