No matter where you live, there are some types of wildlife you can see almost every day. But some wildlife species are rare enough (or shy enough of humans) that you may share their landscape, but almost never see them. Sometimes that’s better – it means wildlife are staying wild. But knowing what species are living nearby – especially if they’re endangered – is vital to protecting them and their habitat.
This winter, more than 140 volunteers in Missoula, Montana had the unique opportunity to find out exactly what lives in their surrounding forests. Teaming up with the Bitterroot National Forest, we launched a citizen science project to document animal activity. We were looking especially for evidence of mesocarnivores – animals like lynx, fishers, martens, and the ever-enigmatic wolverine.
Our “Wolverine Watchers” set up 22 wildlife monitoring stations in the northern half of Bitterroot National Forest. We equipped the monitoring stations with wildlife cameras and baited “hair snares” – effective and non-invasive tools to gather data on multiple wildlife species simultaneously. We use the hair snares (essentially wire brushes) to collect – you guessed it – hair from different animals. Then we send these samples to a genetics lab to determine what species the hair is from. We also installed wildlife cameras on nearby trees to capture any activity that occurred at the station. Not only did our volunteers trek deep into the forest (not an easy task in an icy Montana winter!) to set up each of these 22 stations, they also returned every 3-4 weeks from January to April to check for wildlife activity and re-bait stations. And on top of that, each time they had to carry a hunk of roadkilled deer (the bait) and a sponge with extraordinarily stinky lure (to attract wide-ranging animals like wolverines to our sites)! The data they collected gave us extremely valuable information about what animals live in the area, and how often they came to these sites.
Why Watch for Wildlife?
Wolverines, fishers and lynx are very rare, highly elusive animals in the Rockies. Because they are difficult to observe in the wild, and because they live in such remote areas where gathering data can be difficult, we don’t have as much information about these species as we do other wildlife. Many of these species are already in serious trouble or declining, but the level of protection they receive through the Endangered Species Act (ESA) varies. For example, lynx are listed as threatened under the ESA. But today, wolverines are not. In 2013, the USFWS announced its intent to list wolverines as threatened, but reversed that decision in 2014, indicating there is not enough information about threats to the species. Defenders and our conservation partners are challenging this decision in court. FWS also decided not to list fishers in the Rockies in 2011, again primarily due to a lack of information about threats. Defenders and our partners also re-petitioned Rockies fishers for listing in 2013 and that decision is still pending.
The bottom line is that wildlife biologists need more information about these species to better understand their habitat requirements and the threats to their survival. Too often, we see land managers make decisions about areas where these species live without knowing how those decisions will affect them. With more information on where these species are found and how they behave, land managers and policy makers can make more informed decisions. And with ever-dwindling government funding for national forest wildlife programs, efforts like this monitoring project are vital.
While the Forest Service has been monitoring parts of the Bitterroot National Forest for several years, with limited resources, the agency was only able to monitor the southern portion. Our Wolverine Watchers expanded that into the northern half of the forest as well, and nearly doubled the number of monitoring stations in the forest as a whole!
So… what did we find out about the wildlife in the Bitterroot?
Our incredible group of volunteers – from ages 8 to 72 and including university students, retired USFS employees, military veterans, diehard backcountry skiers and new transplants to Montana – submitted over 400 hair samples to the genetics lab to determine species. Meanwhile, we examined photographic results from January-April captured by the motion-sensitive cameras. Thousands of photos were taken .
The energy around these volunteers was palpable and it was inspirational to channel it into collecting such valuable data! Here’s what we found:
- We discovered wolverines at four of the camera stations, with a wolverine returning more than once at each station. It is unknown yet how many individual wolverines we documented (genetic information from the hairs we collected will be processed later this summer), but based on the photographs, it appears that we documented at least two different wolverines!
- American martens, a small relative of wolverines and similar to fishers in size and habitat, were documented at 20 of the 22 stations… and were highly entertaining to watch as they try their best to remove the tasty meat attractant wired to the trees!
- We saw a number of other notable species, including bobcat, wolf, red foxe, long-tailed weasel, mountain lion, moose, and northern flying squirrel.
- The cameras also picked up more common (but equally nice to see) species, like red squirrel, snowshoe hare, deer, mice, and birds such as magpie, Steller’s jay, gray jay, Clark’s nutcracker, and black-capped chickadee.
We didn’t spot any lynx, which was disappointing but not entirely surprising, as they are rare in this specific part of Montana. We were surprised (and concerned) that we did not see a single fisher. Even though fishers are rare, this was a region in Montana that has had fisher sightings in the past. This is why work like this is so important, and why we will continue it into next year and beyond. We need to determine where fishers may be and to better understand why they may no longer occur in this area.
In 2015-2016, Defenders plans to continue this project, and we’re always looking for volunteers to help us! Having a second year of data will be very important, particularly since this winter had a unique lack of snow and wintry conditions, which is sure to impact wildlife movements. By monitoring this landscape across more than one year – and potentially returning with this effort in a few years – we can begin to see how landscape changes impact where different species are found over time.
All in all, we had a fantastic time working with our wonderful volunteers, visiting with them as they stopped in to the office to pick up supplies, and celebrating with them as exciting photos were captured of amazing critters like wolverines. We can’t wait for next year!