Wyoming Wildlife - May 2021

Trail camera images help Game and Fish monitor wildlife

Cody Area trail cam picture of a grizzly bear

Scouting takes many forms. For some hunters, that means hiking deep into the backcountry prior to the season opener armed with only a trail camera in their pack.

5/1/2021 5:11:45 PM

Scouting takes many forms. For some hunters, that means hiking deep into the backcountry prior to the season opener armed with only a trail camera in their pack. These motion-activated cameras are mounted in the forest taking photographs of animals that wander by. Upon return, some find exactly what they are hoping for —some hints on where and how to pursue their game of choice for the fall. For others, the cameras reveal nothing beyond a hint they should look elsewhere. Trail cameras work because they see what people can’t. Hunters rely on the invisibility, a trick lifted by wildlife researchers who’ve started using cameras to document wildlife behaviors and collect management data. 

For Tony Mong, a Cody-area Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, placing cameras is part of his data collection routine. Mong leads an effort to use these cameras for research and data collection. He and area game wardens Chris Queen, Grant Gerharter and Travis Crane head out annually into some of the area’s most inaccessible locales in the Absaroka Mountains to place and check trail cameras. The images later help inform management decisions and show the challenges the animals face on a daily basis. Pioneered by Doug McWhiter when he was a wildlife biologist in the Cody Region, then Large Carnivore Services Supervisor Mark Bruscino and Game Warden Tim Fagan, the trail camera program in Wyoming started in 2010. Although McWhirter is now in Jackson serving as the Game and Fish wildlife management coordinator and Fagan and Bruscino have retired, the team in Cody has expanded the program to add more cameras and locations. The team has placed 25 cameras at varying locations ranging from the Montana border south to the South Fork of the Shoshone River. Because they are motion-activated, when something as small as a squirrel moves in front, the device takes a burst of five photographs. In order to get more species specific image data, Mong identifies locations along migration routes where animals are likely to travel like on game trails and at pinch points.

Because the cameras are located in difficult-to-access locations, the team can’t check them every day or even every month. They return in the late spring or early summer and again in late fall or early winter to swap out the memory cards and batteries. Some locations require such long hikes and horseback rides that Mong may only check them once a year if snow doesn’t keep him out. Luckily, each camera can snap up to 30,000 photographs per battery between check-ins by Mong or game wardens. That adds up to a lot of images to parse. Mong doesn’t mind sorting through them, though. The suspense is one of the things he enjoys most. “It’s exciting to sort through the memory card and see what animals were there and what they were doing,” he said. “These cameras don’t need people present to trip the shutter, so it gives us the chance to glimpse animal behavior when they aren’t influenced by people.” Most cameras are placed along mule deer migration routes and trails traveled regularly by area elk. Depending on what’s documented, wildlife managers can use the images to verify data collected through traditional collection methods and to collect new information as well. The number of young and males in relation to females in a population is traditional information collected usually by helicopter or driving roads and recording sightings.

“With the use of cameras, we are able to check ourselves,” Mong said. “Sometimes it can be difficult to get a good idea of a herd’s makeup through other count methods like helicopter flights for elk because bulls are typically in the timber where they are harder to count from the air. Migration trails are the great equalizer for all animals in the population and allow us to count them before they separate on winter range.” Mong is developing a method to use images to evaluate the body condition of each animal. Over the years, this may show wildlife managers how events like fire, snowstorms, drought and habitat improvement projects influence the body condition of animals from year to year and over time. These photos show the often unseen lives of wildlife. It is common for biologists  to see elk and mule deer once they’ve reached their summer or winter range. However, even the most observant researcher misses some of the critical moments as big game moves across the difficult terrain.

“They aren’t just cruising around the forest and enjoying the birds,” Mong said. “Thanks to our cameras, we can see they’re scratching out a living every moment of their lives.” Mong’s photos reinforce how difficult life can be for wildlife in Wyoming. Every year, Mong gets images of deer and elk pushing through neck-deep snow. The effort of lead animals is evident as they struggle through the powder and forge a path for the rest of the herd. Even when the weather is nice, the struggle is clear. Pregnant deer and elk can be seen crossing mountain passes and panting from the exertion. Fawns and calves less than a month old follow their mothers  across terrain many humans would be unable to cross in their prime. Others show thin elk and deer recovering from a harsh winter. The images viscerally demonstrate how harsh a life in the wild can be and the challenges the animals face. Mong said having such images available shows why it is important for people to work together to enhance the ability of wildlife to move in and through human influenced landscapes “As stewards of the land and wildlife populations, we have to do what we can to make things easier for these animals,” Mong said. “Whether it’s putting up wildlife-friendly fencing, improving habitat, creating crossings at roadways, whatever it may be, we need to work together to get it done.”

Although the Cody area wildlife management team placed the cameras initially looking at migrations and movements for mule deer and elk, over the last decade trail cameras have collected more than 600,000 images of Wyoming’s wildlife. Bighorn sheep, moose, grizzly and black bears, mountain goats, wolves, coyotes, American pine martens, short-tailed weasels, dusky grouse, red fox, snowshoe hares and the inquisitive Clark’s nutcracker have all been caught on camera. “Deer and elk have used these paths for many years which has made them easy to find and follow, so other animals are bound to use them, too,” Mong said.

A bighorn ewe was spotted pushing through chest-deep snow in early October. Another location showed a ewe and lamb looking across a valley. In another shot, a bighorn ram crossed in front of the camera. Moose have been documented lumbering across the trails. In another image, a mountain goat with a shed coat walked across a ridge on a July day. Fairly elusive animals like bobcats and mountain lions also have found photo fame through the trail cameras. Other images have shown wolverines crossing the snowy expanse near Yellowstone National Park — providing documentation of a carnivore rarely spotted in Wyoming. Although these animals avoid interactions with humans, the cameras provide a glimpse at their lives few people get to observe in person. Small animals like chipmunks, squirrels and song birds regularly trip the shutter. On several occasions, strutting dusky grouse have showed off in front of the cameras hoping to attract a mate. Another small animal, a short-tailed weasel, rested in a snowy scape as it looked across the valley to the open expanse of forest.

The trail cameras are typically unnoticed by wildlife, but curious critters do occasionally discover their presence. Squirrels, chipmunks and birds are frequent offenders, approaching and inspecting the cameras. Bears also are curious. They have inspected and even damaged cameras. In another case of trail camera mischief, a wolf was spotted at first with glowing eyes. The series of images shows the wolf as it approaches the camera, eyes set on its position. The final image simply shows a close up view of the wolf’s eye before it tears the camera from its perch. Mong’s images capture daring and sometimes intimate moments with wildlife. Bull elk have locked horns within view of the cameras, unaware their battle would be viewed by humans. In some images, mothers were seen nursing or nuzzling their babies. In what looks to be a humorous capture, several deer ran down a hill with one turned the opposite direction jumping over the oncoming deer. It appears a doe underneath the jumping deer closed its eyes and braced for a possible impact. The photo shows something different than what first meets the eyes, Tony said. Instead of an accidental tangle, the image shows the hierarchical nature of mule deer groups with a lead or dominant doe showing her dominance over the younger doe.

It’s not only these rarely seen moments and new looks at herds that intrigue Mong. It’s the potential these cameras have for future research that excites him the most. “There’s so much untapped information in these images just waiting to be evaluated, ”said Mong. “We’re on the edge of new ground when it comes to using trail camera data in Wyoming.” Mong said it takes time for researchers to find the best ways to apply new technology in specific situations, but Game and Fish is developing new approaches each year. The department has used trail cameras to evaluate the success of roadway crossings, see how animals react to fencing and monitor species like black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls. There’s also potential with camera technology to automatically identify and count animals within a frame. Game and Fish is also evaluating if camera data can be used in population models, which means they could contribute even more when making recommendations for hunting seasons. Other states like Idaho, Colorado and Montana also have trail camera programs and are finding the best ways to use them in management and research.  “I really think the future is in these cameras and the information from these completely unbiased observations will only improve wildlife management, and that benefits big game populations and the people that enjoy them,” Mong said.

— Tracie Binkerd is the editor of Wyoming Wildlife.


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