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What do remote cameras reveal for carnivore researchers? Hike with us to find out.

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Photos by Jason Martin/Woodland Park Zoo

In mid-May, I ditched my day job for the woods. I went to the Olympic National Forest to see what it’s like to shadow a crew of carnivore conservationists. We hiked around to check on remote cameras that were stationed in the forest since this same time last year—and we’d be the first to see what (if anything) this footage revealed. Camera traps allow researchers to determine the presence of rare species and sometimes reveal how we can better support their recovery. This is what it’s like to accompany a team of conservationists up a very steep mountain in search of a very elusive creature.


After winding along the dirt road that skirts Lake Cushman—a jewel-colored swath of blue nestled into this morning’s foggy Olympic mountains—my husband Jason and I meet our hiking companions at the base of Mt. Rose. In the gravel Forest Service parking lot, we unload our packs and greet Robert Long, Betsy Howell, Paula MacKay and Paula and Robert’s pups Alder and Bessy. This trio of Pacific Northwest biologists are the most knowledgeable and experienced carnivore experts we’ve ever hiked with and today we will shadow their journey to remove footage from remote camera traps hidden on the side of the very tall mountain that looms above us.


Dr. Robert Long is Senior Conservation Scientist at Woodland Park Zoo and leads the zoo’s Living Northwest conservation program. For decades, he’s hiked the forests of the Pacific Northwest tracking carnivores and using noninvasive research methods to study wildlife populations and habitat connectivity. Paula MacKay, a Woodland Park Zoo Research Associate, wildlife writer and field biologist, is a leader in carnivore research, wildlife advocacy and compassionate conservation. Her latest piece, “A Tale of Three Weasels” via Earth Island, is a fantastic read on PNW wolverines, martens and fishers. Paula and Robert have devoted their careers to working with carnivores and are leaders in non-invasive survey detection techniques. Betsy Howell is a wildlife biologist with the Olympic National Forest—a natural history enthusiast, carnivore expert and field biologist—she has an immense understanding of the Mount Skokomish Wilderness and has witnessed firsthand the region’s resiliency. Betsy has been on the Olympic National Forest since 2004 and has been surveying for carnivores using remote cameras since 1991.

Climate change could shrink the remaining alpine habitats where at least a few martens still make their home on the Olympic Peninsula.
We begin our hike through the lady ferns, Oregon oxalis and stream-fed vine maples that grow emerald green at the mossy base of the mountain. The trail is immediately steep, about 1,200 feet in elevation every mile or so, making our 3,400 foot assent a challenging first hike of the season. We pass silvery snags from the Bear Gulch fire of 2006. As we climb, the forest opens where the salal and huckleberry bushes have been burnt away, a natural clearing of undergrowth, and here you can appreciate just how massive our forests can be. These old-growth fir trees are tall, like really, really tall. Douglas fir and western hemlock tower hundreds of feet above us. The pitched landscape gives us an almost elevator-like view of just how far up we’ve traveled. Lake Cushman changes its color as we navigate up, up and away.


The Olympic Mountains are iconic—their stunning snow-capped peaks, moss-laden old-growth forests and pooled streams make a breathtaking landscape. This lush temperate rainforest houses incredible ecosystems and endemic species. Creatures you’ll find only in the Olympic Mountains include the Olympic marmot, Olympic mudminnow, Olympic snow mole, Quileute gazelle beetle and torrent salamander just to name a few. On this hike, I’m hoping to see signs of carnivores, but especially fishers and martens—two creatures who tend to hide from really hopeful hikers with cameras.

Our morning is spent drinking in big gulps of cool air as we try to keep up with our intrepid hiking companions. As we hike single file up the lollypop shaped trail of switchbacks, we listen to Betsy describe the history of this forest.

Betsy navigates over old-growth nurse logs on the way to the first camera trap.
The community of wildlife that is native to this area is unique, and each species has its own niche, its own role in the ecosystem. The Ice Age kept the Olympic Peninsula pristine and protected as it formed—it was truly born from a rugged, frozen beauty. When fur trappers came in hot in the last century, followed by the logging industry picking up speed, the old growth forests suffered. Habitat was fragmented and some of the creatures started to disappear, and with their departure came an incomplete ecosystem. As conservation and preservation of these forests came into vogue, much of the wildlife population has returned thanks to a complicated orchestration from local communities, government and the support for protected habitat.




The Olympic Peninsula acts almost like an island—there is little to no movement between species that live in the Olympics and populations in the Cascades or Southwest Washington. Species seen here and elsewhere include black bears, Roosevelt elk, beavers, cougars, raccoon, deer, bald eagles, marmots, grouse, northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, six species of bats, flying squirrels, bobcats, skunk, mice, weasels, otters, porcupine, and a host of amphibians including my favorite—the rough-skinned newt. Interestingly, at least from a natural history perspective, some species that do not naturally inhabit this forest thrive in surrounding western mountain ranges. You might be surprised to learn that species such as ground squirrels, lynx, wolverines, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, ptarmigan, pika, and mountain goats have never been found on the Olympic Peninsula, excluding mountain goats which were introduced here in the 1920s (historically complicated).

This gem of a landscape, unique to Washington, and beloved by so many PNW outdoors-people is ours to preserve. 

The real hero of this story. In addition to our crew of carnivore biologists—we are joined by Robert and Paula’s loyal sidekick, Alder, who is potentially the PNW’s most expert canine camera tracker. This pooch has climbed many a mountain and as we’ll see in a few hours, knows exactly when to sneak in his naps while Robert and Paula offload the camera trap footage. This morning Alder is joined by his cousin, a black lab called Bessy, who happens to be a trained service dog. The two are markedly well-behaved trail users.
We are now about halfway up the slope to what Robert promises is the “very near lunch spot” loop, where the trail splits left and right and hikers continue to the peak in either direction. We are out of breath and the dogs are ready for a cool drink. This is a good time to tell you a bit more about why we are here in the first place and what we’re hoping to find—fishers and martens.

They are both elusive, both native to the Olympic Peninsula and Cascade Range and both species are mammalian carnivores who hunt between dusk and dawn. They are furry, have rounded ears, and slender bodies with long tails. They are closely-related members of the weasel family, but the fisher is a bit bigger (4-12 lbs.) where the marten is much smaller (1-3 lbs.). Both species prefer thick, dense, well-established forests though fishers here will also use more open habitats. Paula explains, "By around the 1930s, fishers had been trapped out of the Olympics and the Cascades, and martens probably survived in only a few high-elevation pockets in the Olympics. Martens apparently fared better in the Cascades, where they remain relatively abundant."

Fishers are about the size of a large house-cat, with a dark tail and somewhat floofy-looking fur. They are mostly nocturnal, roaming the forests for prey such as snowshoe hares, birds, and small rodents. They are great climbers, and scamper around cavities in trees and logs with ease. Ninety fishers were reintroduced into Olympic National Park from a population in British Columbia between 2008 and 2010, an important conservation event since they were determined to be extirpated from Washington State due to a combination of factors, including extensive timber harvest and fur trapping. Now, fishers occupy a good bit of habitat across the Peninsula and they are reproducing--hopeful signs—but whether they’re on their way to a full recovery is yet to be determined.
 
This fisher, known as 0301-M, was spotted in a residential area near Port Angeles. Photo by M. Richard via National park Service.
In present-day Washington, Pacific martens use high-altitude habitat where dense snow pack accumulates over winter. They are just as elusive as fishers, but their story is even more of mystery on the Peninsula. In the nearby Cascade Range, martens are often seen on researchers’ camera traps. But here in the Olympics, Betsy tells me, it’s a different story. After numerous survey efforts beginning in 1991 that have resulted in thousands of photographs from remote cameras, it appears that martens are at a critically low population for an area they once inhabited. Since the late sixties, there have been only 11 reliable detections of martens on the Peninsula. While martens in areas near Mount Rainier are  often photographed at remote camera stations, here in the Olympics they are nearly ghosts. What these researchers want to know is why?



Marten photographed by a rock climber on Mt. Cruiser, Olympic National Park, 2015. Photo: Shemuel Harding
Robert says that we should be seeing them. The habitat is ready for them. When they were thriving here, the Olympic marten population lived throughout the ecosystem, from the snowy mountains to the coast. Their range was broad. Of the 11 reliable detections, six have been documented since 2008 (all at elevations above 3,500’) and include four images from remote cameras, a lucky rock climber’s photograph as well as a deceased young marten found on this very trail (hikers reported the dead animal to the Forest Service in 2008). We know they are here, we just don’t know why they aren’t doing better as a population yet. That “yet” is key. Paula remarks that while the data collection behind this non-invasive survey can seem slow, it’s really telling us a lot about the species here. It’s a puzzle, and researchers are still collecting all the pieces before attempting to piece them together. It takes a lot of patience.

Marten in the North Cascades, photo by Daniel Harrington.
Wildlife in the Olympics enjoy a robust ecosystem that can handle a slew of carnivores such as black bears, cougars, raccoons, bobcats and otters (yes, otters are considered carnivorous!), weasels, fishers and hopefully marten.

Can you spot the camera trap and scent dispenser?
After a refueling lunch, we continue up the trail with Betsy leading the way. She has a GPS, which tells her exactly where we need to dive off the trail towards the first camera station and scent dispenser. We scramble under and over nurse logs with a sense of earnest excitement as we near the spot. Then Robert spots the dispenser, and after a few seconds of scanning the mossy bark of the trees, we see it, too. About twenty feet above the steep forest floor is our prize, the first remote camera trap and scent lure device.

Robert removes a monitoring camera placed high in a tree on Mt. Rose.
We plop down our bags and the dogs know that’s their cue to curl up in the ferns and get their rest in. Paula quickly sets up a remote desktop station with an iPad and notebook. Betsy makes notes from her GPS and records the date and time of the retrieval. As quick as can be, Robert is up a tree. He’s attached to a small climber’s harness (safety first) and scrambles up the trunk to the height of the camera. Paula and Betsy hand off tools to Robert who is unscrewing the straps that have held the camera in place all winter long. The crew is removing this station, it’s done its job, so every nail and piece of equipment must be taken down (leave no trace). Robert tosses the camera down to Paula who gets going on removing the SD card and uploading all the images to the iPad. Paula promises she isn’t peeking at the images as they load up, but we can’t help sneaking a look at the teaser of thumbnail images flashing before us.



As soon as Robert has safely climbed back down the tree, he is up another to remove the adjacent scent dispenser and a nearby beef bone, hung from a wire to serve as a visual attractant. The scent dispenser is a very awesome conservation technology solution. Robert worked with Microsoft and a biologist from the Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife to invent these special scent dispensers, originally designed to drip a tiny amount of scent lure (smelling of skunk) each day to attract wolverines to camera sites. Each dispenser is built into a bear-proof metal box and able to function all through the seasons, allowing researchers to acquire valuable wildlife photos without having to replenish the lure “juice” during snowy winters, when access to high-elevation habitats is difficult and at times dangerous. Paula mentions that, in its pilot year, this technology increased wolverine detections by tenfold. It worked so well for wolverines that the team is hoping it works just as well for martens.


 
Supplies include notebooks, hiking sticks, the camera itself, an iPad to read the footage and plenty of fuel (snacks).
Betsy inspects a hair snare that previously encircled the tree below the scent dispenser. Sometimes if they are lucky, researchers can obtain DNA from the hairs of the animals that approach the lures. It’s an easy way to get a little bit more information on the animals they are studying. Unfortunately, this one just had a lot of forest fluff (moss) on it.
Here is the view from the camera, you can see the lure and hair snagger right below the out-of-sight scent dispenser in this image. So rad.
The excitement is palpable as we all hunker around the iPad to see what a year’s worth of camera trap footage will reveal. First, a very well-fed mouse. A Steller’s jay and... then the mouse again. We see the mouse return day after day until leaves begin to fall, then snow, and then our mouse leaves the iPad’s frame for its cozy winter nap. We scroll through a year’s worth of landscapes (the camera takes a test image every day), but no more motion sensor images reveal any animals. Robert and Paula guess that something may have gone awry with this scent dispenser, there is too much juice left in the bag we’ve removed to have been functioning properly. So, on we go to the next camera trap, back up the trail and still hopeful that this next site will be more fruitful.



After cutting through a ravine of devil’s club and trillium, we climb up a steep slope to the east of the trail. Robert again seems to sprint up the tree to reach the equipment. We sneak in cheese and crackers and trail mix while we watch him remove the lure and camera. This time, almost all the scent juice is gone from the bag—a very good sign.



Paula loads up the images and we huddle around the iPad once again. First, a Steller’s jay. Then flying squirrels, Douglas tree squirrels, a black-tail deer, a black bear, coyote, one mountain lion, some mice and then, before I even register what I’m looking at, Paula shouts “FISHER!” Friends, there was a fisher. It’s a big deal. We all high five (or at least verbally high five). Witnessing this little carnivore felt like winning. Even the veteran wildlife biologists are pleased. The motion detection camera did its job and the scent dispenser worked and the animal showed up.

Welcome to fisher town! An auspicious fisher shows up on the iPad.

A beautiful photo from the camera trap, a fisher checking out the beef bones.
Spotting a fisher in 2019 isn’t quite as exciting as spotting a marten might have been, but it’s been a relatively short time since fishers were reintroduced to the Peninsula, and they are still a very lucky thing to find—and a reminder that saving a species is possible. Studying animal populations is complex. Reintroducing locally extinct animals and mapping their success is an ecological logic puzzle. While fishers tend to prefer dense, old-growth forests within the park or national forest, they’ve also been known to den in old clear-cut areas where a few snags can make a home. Animals have to work with what habitat they have—and they don’t follow human-drawn boundaries. Providing adequate habitat with little or no disturbance is never a simple equation, but when we get it right the species can do the rest.

Betsy records the details and location of what we do—she has a lot to keep track of in these woods. Betsy is someone who knows her stuff and hiking with her was an honor. We need more Betsys, Paulas and Roberts in the world. #inspired
Robert up a tree, Betsy watching, and Paula recording data. Me in awe. Not pictured: Jason Martin who took all these pics, thanks Jason!
We all have a spring in our step as we make our way down the trail. This summer, a field crew will visit the remaining 12 camera/dispenser stations that were installed last summer in Olympic National Park. If martens have visited these stations, then they will be replenished with lure and bait, as well as a hair-snare box to obtain hair for genetic analysis. If there are no martens on the stations, they will be removed. In either case, the team will be gathering again in the fall to decide the next steps for investigating the mystery of martens on the Olympic Peninsula.

As the sun sinks to filter through the alder leaves and our Jeep bumps along the gravel road back towards Hoodsport, I imagine a fisher, or perhaps a marten, making its way out of a shadowy den. High above Lake Cushman, it sniffs at the cool evening breeze.  I think of it deliberately investigating our footprints on the trail, its soft paws making an almost inaudible shuffle. Its nose and round ears on the lookout for the first snack of the evening. The fur on its tail brushes against a licorice fern. It doesn’t need a camera trap to sense the cougar or the deer. Was it aware of our every move in its forest? Is it curious about the very human way we snapped twigs or stopped to rest on our way to the camera traps? I imagine so.

Just because you can’t see carnivores, does not mean they are not there.
I’ve since returned to my desk job, and although I will continue to hike and camp all summer, this trek will stick with me as a very special one. It reminded me that being one with the woods doesn’t just mean leaving no trace and following good hiking ethics while I’m out there, it also means supporting those whose job it is to manage the forests all year round.

The Pacific Northwest’s forests enchant, inspire and cleanse our little PNW souls as soon as we step into them. Even those of us who would rather appreciate the murky, sogginess from the comfort of the coffee shop are proud to call our forests home. But, protecting this habitat takes people. It takes humans to manage the very ecosystems we’ve disrupted along our way. Just like the fisher’s reintroduction—a community journey involving many biologists, conservation organizations, local and federal government agencies—keeping our landscapes whole means we all have a role to play in doing all we can for healthy forests.


 If you’d like to learn more about tracking carnivores, I highly recommend you follow Robert’s adventures on Twitter at @RLongEco and be on the lookout for our carnivore spotter citizen science program. Paula’s incredible work can be found at Earth Island Journal and Inside Ecology. To catch Betsy, I recommend picking a hike in the Olympic National Forest, there are so many great ones!  If you’re into Shinrin-yoku (forest-bathing) and all things PNW, listen to our friend Chris Morgan’s new podcast “The Wild” and while you’re at it, you should definitely check out the zoo’s other Living Northwest projects at https://www.zoo.org/livingnorthwest.

Thank you for loving forests and PNW creatures as much as we do—we’ll see you on the trail!

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