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Watching the woods: Volunteers track hidden wildlife cameras in Gifford Pinchot Forest

RANDLE — For three years, dozens of camouflaged cameras lined remote corners of this rugged forest, waiting for its inhabitants to wander into view.

When they did, the motion-detection cameras began snapping photos rapidly – ​​taking three photos every five seconds – and continued taking photos until the visitor moved away again. Then the cameras froze, waiting for more activity to be captured.

On a recent Friday morning, 12 brave volunteers from the Vancouver-based team Waterfall Forest Conservation set up for the weekend at Iron Creek Campground north of Mount St. Helens. After an orientation session, they donned backpacks, grabbed specialist gear and fanned out into the densely wooded terrain. Their three-day mission was to track down all 72 wildlife cameras, secure their data, and delete them.

“That’s the conclusion of the study,” said Shiloh Halsey, director of programs for the Cascade Forest Conservancy and the leader of this outing. “It’s an exciting time and I’m pretty motivated.”

Cameras were locked onto slender trunks neighboring the towering cedars and firs that dominate this section of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The cameras snapped pictures of everything from deer and bobcats to mushroom-picking humans, but their primary targets were fishermen.

Anglers are medium-sized members of the weasel family with fine fur. (The name is misleading, as anglers don’t fish. It was apparently taken from the word “fitch,” which means skunk or skunk skin.) Although they are native to this forest, Halsey said, hunting and habitat loss has driven fishermen. to the point of extinction – that is, local extinction – in the mid-1900s.

Anglers are listed as an endangered species in Washington. There have been several partnership efforts between governments and conservation organizations to capture hundreds of anglers in Canada and reintroduce them to the Olympic Peninsula and, more recently, the Cascade Range.

Between December 2015 and January 2020, 81 anglers were released into the wild at Mount Rainier National Park and here south of Randle in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, according to a July 2022 project final report the National Park Service and the US Department of the Interior.

The released animals were fitted with radio transmitters which kept scientists informed of their movements for two years before the batteries ran out. Those two years passed and the transmitters fell silent, Halsey said. But scientists and conservationists remain eager to hear how these endangered and reintroduced fishermen are faring in the forest.

This is where the Cascade Forest Conservancy comes in. The non-profit organization (which recently moved to a new office in downtown Vancouver) works on many fronts to protect the woods and preserve wildlife habitat. Work includes policy advocacy, legal action and labor-intensive science projects that simply cannot happen without volunteers, Halsey said. The reserve’s many annual volunteer outings range from species monitoring and data collection to wildfire recovery and pre-fire prevention work, he said.

“We wouldn’t be able to do as much as we do without volunteers,” Halsey said. “And we can provide unique and exciting opportunities for community members who wouldn’t otherwise be directly involved.”

Halsey, who studied habitat mapping and landscape ecology at Portland State University, and his colleague Sean Matthews, a wildlife ecologist at Oregon State University, developed the plan of monitoring fishermen in the south waterfalls with these wildlife cameras. The Cascade Forest Conservancy and its volunteers did the heavy lifting of placing, maintaining, and ultimately collecting the cameras and their data. Oregon State University will take the lead in analyzing and publishing the results, Halsey said.

In the woods

Volunteers Neal and Matt Ballard, along with Halsey and summer intern Alex Torres, walked a forest trail and tracked their location on a topographic map displayed on an iPad. They stopped to assess the distance remaining to their quarry, realized they would have to veer off the trail, and began to weave through tangles of underbrush and sword fern.

“I’ve always been interested in wildlife, and the angler is very unusual,” said 69-year-old Neal Ballard. “It was common, before the arrival of the white man.”

Ballard, a retired software developer, recently moved from the countryside near Battle Ground to downtown Vancouver. Halsey described him as a “supervolunteer” for the Cascade Forest Conservancy who has faithfully participated in numerous volunteer projects and outings over the past decade.

“People like Neal make all the difference to our organization,” Halsey said. “He’s so dedicated.”

This time, Neal Ballard even brought along his nephew, 33-year-old Matt Ballard, who was from Missouri and was happy to help with a volunteer science project in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

“There’s no place like this in the world,” said Matt Ballard.

After about a quarter of a mile of scrambling through thick vegetation, the Ballards’ iPad indicated that they must be directly above a camera that was still hidden. The best strategy now was to spread out and start scanning all nearby trees at eye level without ever losing sight of each other.

Staying patient, careful and safe is paramount when bushwhacking, Halsey stressed during orientation this morning. Whenever you’re inclined to try something dodgy — like jumping over a log or even walking where you can’t see — it’s best to think again, he said.

“Taking your time finding the camera is fine,” Halsey said. “Taking risks is not.”

Handle with Care

Most well-camouflaged wildlife cameras were hard to find. The Ballard group eventually spotted No. 64, a small gray box locked to a tree in a shady spot. Neal Ballard unlocked it with a key, pulled out the camera, removed his data chip, and handed it to Matt.

“No pressure, but this chip is like gold,” Halsey said.

Matt followed the procedure by slipping the chip into a vinyl sleeve and securing it in his backpack. Meanwhile, Torres, an intern at the Cascade Forest Conservancy, connected with that group’s “buddy team” via walkie-talkie. Halsey and the Ballards removed the camera straps around its host tree and took everything away.

Back at the trailhead, a quick look at camera chip #64 revealed over 600 motion-triggered photographs that have been taken in the year since the device was last visited. Photo.

Fishermen are at the heart of this project, but the other creatures that regularly appear in front of wildlife cameras also tell scientists a lot, Halsey said. Over the years, martens, long-tailed weasels, mountain goats and even rare Cascade red foxes have appeared in photos, Halsey said.

“We also saw a lot of bobcats,” he said. “They are one of the main predators of anglers.”

Fishermen have been spotted in at least three different locations, he said, but that’s still not the final word. Researchers still have to review thousands and thousands of photos, he said.

“This information will help us better understand the success of fishermen’s reintroduction efforts and what future efforts may be needed,” he said. “But we are also interested in other wild species. It is important to have complete information when we tackle ecological problems.