Trail Cam Aids A nimal Tracking
Whether for survival or recreation, humans always have been profoundly interested in wildlife.
Trail cameras and the Internet have captivated us more recently.
A citizen science project that combines all these elements is getting started this year in Wisconsin.
Called “Snapshot Wisconsin,” the effort will enlist the public to deploy thousands of trail cameras throughout the state and upload images of wildlife on a website.
Then an even bigger army of volunteers — anyone who can access the Internet — will be able to view and help identify the animals.
The information will be used to help monitor wildlife distribution and assist with population estimates, according to project organizers. When combined with satellite data, it also may help develop models to assist with wildlife management in Wisconsin and beyond.
If it goes as planned, it will be the largest such trail cam project in the world.
The work is being coordinated by the Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin.
“We’re looking to engage the public and get their help all across the state,” said Karl Martin, DNR section chief of wildlife and forestry research. “With data coming in from thousands of sites, the potential of this is huge.”
State wildlife researchers have been looking at the idea of a trail cam project for several years. The 2012 Wisconsin Deer Trustee Report also included a recommendation for such work.
The DNR has budgeted $350,000 for the project in 2014. The funding will come from the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, commonly known as Pittman-Robertson.
The agency has created a full-time position to manage the project. Jennifer Stenglein, who has a background in outdoor education and is a doctoral candidate in wildlife ecology at UW, was hired for the job in December.
Citizen science has multiple benefits, Stenglein noted, including adding valuable observers in the field as well as improving relationships between agencies and the public.
Of course, you can’t just put up trail cameras and call it good science. Preliminary project plans call for 3,000 to 4,000 trail cameras to be distributed across the state, or about four per township, Martin said.
The goal is to “constantly, consistently and rigorously monitor Wisconsin’s wildlife to inform management decisions,” according to the project outline.
The cameras will be purchased by the state and lent to volunteers. Project managers will assist with site selection for the cameras; to address privacy concerns, all locations would be kept anonymous. No bait will be used near the camera sites.
Stenglein said the agency hopes participants include school groups, individuals, conservation clubs and anyone with an interest in wildlife.
Participants will be required to attend a training session on proper installation and use of the cameras. They also will be required to upload images on a regular schedule.
The University of Wisconsin obtained a $240,000 grant from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration for the project. Researchers will use NASA data from LANSAT and MODIS satellites to link to animal observations from the trail cams, said Phil Townsend, Wisconsin professor in forest and wildlife ecology. The satellites provide data on habitat type, patch size and proximity to agriculture, for example.
Townsend said the first step is to develop maps of occupancy and density of animal species. Then it might be possible to create predictive models.
“If we see certain patterns on the landscape that relate to abundance or occupancy of animals, it can allow us to predict it in other similar areas as well as assist wildlife managers as they make decisions,” Townsend said.
Trail cams are increasingly used by wildlife researchers worldwide. They offer the obvious advantage of 24-hour, 365-day coverage in remote locations.
In Wisconsin, they will be valuable to assist with sightings of species such as black bears and bobcats as they expand their range, Martin said. In addition, the cameras will allow observations of fawn-to-doe ratios and sighting of rare wildlife statewide.
The Wisconsin work is being modeled after a similar project in Africa called Snapshot Serengeti, Martin said. About 240 trail cams are used to monitor wildlife in the Tanzanian park.
The Serengeti project has proved wildly popular with the public. More than 1 million people have logged on to the website to assist with wildlife identification, according to officials.
With more than 10 times the cameras, the Wisconsin project likely will generate many millions of images.
Snapshot Wisconsin will use the same Internet protocol as the Tanzanian project. In fact, the same group of researchers, called Zooniverse and based at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, will help run the website, Martin said.
One of the first steps is to acquire the cameras. The DNR has put out a request for proposal to more than two dozen trail camera manufacturers. The agency intends to use an infrared model with an “invisible” flash.
The DNR intends to begin testing the website this spring to allow people to get familiar with the process. Previously obtained trail cam images will be posted.
Then the project will begin this summer on a pilot basis in several counties and with some school groups.
Statewide implementation is planned in 2015.
“This is an exciting chapter in Wisconsin wildlife management,” Stenglein said. “Whether by putting out a camera or identifying the images on the website, the public will be the key to its success.”