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At first there is nothing—windblown leaves maybe, or the quicksilver skitter of a squirrel. I can’t identify the source of the movement, and settle back expectantly because soon, I know, there will be more chances.

Huddled in the twilit hour I am hunting, expecting the common whitetail deer—but hopeful for more elusive game. Where there are deer there could be a wolf, right? A bear? Either would make the wait worthwhile. Or perhaps something I’ve never seen, like the elusive fisher?

Some time passes before I see the princely buck, so hale and burnished brown that my gaze lingers long in pure appreciation. His neck and shoulders are heftier than even the regal eight-point crown suggests. I’ve seen a lot of deer already, but he has presented broadside, at perfect range. My finger hesitates as I savor the action. And finally I decide, yes, this is a keeper.

I shift in my perch and refocus. Yes, there is the heart. My finger flexes. And I click on the heart icon. Subject 4988060, a Dane County buck snapped last November, is now in my favorites folder.

My hunting perch, you may now realize, is my customary recliner, and I’m using my laptop to spy on the wildlife of Wisconsin while dinner warms. In 20 minutes I’ll go through a few hundred of the millions of photos already collected by Snapshot Wisconsin, a growing net- work of trail cameras.

Trail camera photos of wildlife provided by Snapshot Wisconsin, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

By now everybody’s seen trail cam photos. Maybe you or someone you know already uses them to scout deer, or just to see what’s on your land when you’re not looking.

Certainly someone’s emailed you a photo or short video, or they’ve shown up in your social media feeds. Those are the special shots, curated, viral. Snapshot Wisconsin is the raw feed, and therein lies the fun. Because here you can get your wildlife fix and be a scientist, too. Identifying these animals contributes to a cutting-edge effort that may fundamentally change the way we study wildlife.

“It’s like having 350 people out there in the woods day and night recording everything they see,” says Jennifer Stenglein MS’13 PhD’14, a research scientist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who directs Snapshot Wisconsin. “That’s amazing data that we’ve never really had before.”

And 350 is just for starters. The goal is four cameras in every township in Wisconsin. Stenglein will be happy if they can reach at least 3,000 cameras. “We are, I believe, going to have one of the best data sets in the world,” she says.

At 10:40 every morning a NASA satellite flies over Wisconsin and snaps a series of pictures. The photographs measure many things, including a day-by-day record of how green the landscape is, which in turn gives us an idea of how well the plants are doing. The data has been collected for years—one of the satellites, Terra, has been in orbit since 1999—and offers an ever-lengthening perspective on the American landscape.

Satellite photos are now commonplace, but for most people remote sensing data is an abstraction. Woody Turner, program manager for NASA’s Ecological Forecasting, is always working to make that data matter to as many Americans as possible. “It’s really important to be able not only to understand what’s happening in your backyard or your woodlot but also to put it in the broader context,” he says. “The satellite brings in the broader context.”

In 2012 NASA announced it wanted to fund a project connecting its data with state agencies and university researchers. These are regular customers, but now there was a twist: NASA wanted a project that also used trail cameras and citizen scientists.

Phil Townsend, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology at CALS, had wanted to connect trail cams and remote sensing data for years, and he quickly called his professor colleague Ben Zuckerberg to brainstorm the citizen science angle. Then they reached out to Karl Martin BS’91, then the DNR’s forestry and wildlife research chief, who knew camera prices were dropping and was also thinking about how to use them to improve research techniques. Martin also had access to a rich store of potential volunteers.

With all the ingredients NASA was looking for, the Wisconsin team won a pilot grant to install 80 cameras. It was an opportunity to improve wildlife research and put big data to work in the natural world. It even seemed like a promising tool for youth engagement—a partial antidote to nature deficit disorder. “It’s a very good example of cross-disciplinary, cross-agency teamwork,” says Martin, now the interim dean and director for UW–Extension Cooperative Extension. “This is how you leverage the Wisconsin Idea.”

Almost as soon as it began, state budget woes put the project on ice. In a curious twist, a raging national debate over gun control led to record sales of guns and ammunition. These sales are federally taxed, and a portion is returned to the states via the Pittman–Robertson Act for natural resource projects. With a secure funding stream, Snapshot Wisconsin began in earnest.

While the technology has been available for years, the ambitious scale remains a challenge. Educators and tribes can install cameras throughout the state, but cameras for private land are being rolled out gradually. Racine, Vernon and Dodge counties recently joined Iowa, Iron, Jackson, Manitowoc, Sawyer and Waupaca. At last count 417 volunteers were operating 607 cameras that have taken more than 8 million photos.

“The logistics are a big part of it,” says Townsend. “The scale that we’re doing this at has never been done before.” But scale is also the payback. Townsend is interested in phenology—the cycling of the landscape from brown to green and back again. Factors ranging from climate change to land use change can influence phenology. The Snapshot cameras are programmed to take an image at 10:40 a.m. every day, in sync with the satellite, providing a much richer data profile for that precise location.

Meanwhile the motion trap captures the phenological patterns of the animals. “Animals respond differently to their environment,” says Townsend. When they give birth, when and where they feed, when they’re out and about and when they’re in hiding all change, and we understand only a fraction of the whys. Bringing landscape data together with animal data may answer a lot of outstanding questions.

“Wildlife research every now and then gets transformed by technology,” notes Tim Van Deelen, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology. Radio telemetry revolutionized wildlife study in the ’70s, but it also took a while before researchers were able to put that information to use.

“That’s where we are with camera data,” Van Deelen says. “We’re in that lag phase where we are figuring out how to be efficient with the use of that data. I’m betting that as cool as things are right now, they’re going to get cooler as analytic techniques develop. I think there is a lot of basic biology that is going to come clear because underlying Snapshot Wisconsin is a very robust sampling scheme.”

Continue reading this story in the Summer 2017 issue of Grow magazine.

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