Taking photographs of camera-shy Canada lynx and wolverines is tough, but it’s even more difficult when the camera is placed at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet or deep in the underbrush of the Beartooth Mountains.
Add to that the additional challenges of swarming mosquitoes, flood-swollen streams and slow-to-melt snow and you have some idea of what Simone Durney, 22, has faced this spring and summer.
“Physically and mentally it’s been pretty draining, but also rewarding,” said Durney of Pocatello, Idaho. “You’re carrying all of this extra equipment, and it’s a challenge deciding what is the best habitat to place these cameras.”
Durney is hoping to capture photos of the elusive predators for a study she is working on that’s being overseen and funded by the Yellowstone River Research Center at Rocky Mountain College. The center works with partners to develop research projects to provide undergraduate students a taste of what they may encounter in graduate school.
Durney, a recent graduate of Rocky Mountain College’s Environmental Science program, is the lead student on the study. She is being assisted by Rocky students Blake Brightman, a senior from Ellisville, Mo., and Sean Flynn, a senior from Sioux Falls, S.D. Also pitching in are volunteers, professors and a backpack-load of sponsors.
Since May, the students and volunteers have chased the snowline gradually higher to place cameras near scent-baits and hair traps in hopes of capturing photos of the reclusive predators. Hair samples will provide a source of DNA to identify different individuals and possibly project population sizes.
The study is concentrated between the East Rosebud drainage and the Line Creek Plateau in the Beartooth Mountains.
“There are probably not more than five records of wolverine or lynx sightings in the area we’re studying” going as far back as the late 1800s, said Kayhan Ostovar, associate professor of Environmental Science and Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Rocky, who is overseeing the students.
There’s a reason the animals are rarely seen: Not many of them are left.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing wolverines as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, with a final rule or withdrawal of the rule by Monday. The Canada lynx was listed by the USFWS as a threatened species in 2000 in 14 states, including Montana and Wyoming, hence the interest in where the predators may be living.
To narrow in on possible sites, the general habitats were first identified in the region by using geographic information systems software under the guidance of Luke Ward, an assistant professor of Environmental Management and Policy at Rocky.
Once in the general area, the ground crew chose a camera and bait site. For lynx, Durney and her crew searched out dense understory in moist areas to set up cameras. Wolverines can cover a lot of ground prowling for food, but they often seek north slopes that hold snow as places to dig dens for their offspring. They also favor locations with whitebark pine trees because their wide branches shield the snow from quickly melting.
So far, out of about 4,000 images captured by 14 high-grade remote trail cameras similar to those used by hunters, no photos of wolverines or lynx have been captured.
Instead, the cameras have taken digital photographs of just about every other animal – a bobcat, a black bear, two black bear cubs, elk, deer and plenty of snowshoe hares, a key food for Canada lynx. But just because the cameras haven’t photographed a wolverine or lynx doesn’t mean the animals are not in the area.
“Very few people have done this in the summer,” Ostovar said.
That’s because baiting predators is much easier in the winter when food is scarce. In the winter, entire animal carcasses or portions can be hung up to lure animals. In the summer, fear of attracting bears means only scents can be used. And as Ostovar noted, “Scent doesn’t work as well as a dead animal.”
The study will continue into the fall, and Ostovar said he hopes other students – possibly Flynn or Brightman – carry on the project in coming years.
“We’re trying to do it for five years in a row and get more citizen scientists out with us to learn about the species and the political issues surrounding them,” Durney said.
And even if by the end of this year’s study Durney still hasn’t seen a photo of a wolverine or lynx in one of the cameras, she’ll be discouraged but also confident that the work has identified some great lynx habitat.
“It’s important to get out there because there hasn’t been a lot of research in these areas,” she said.
She’s also been enriched by a summer spent hiking 160 miles (so far) into backcountry lakes and flower-filled meadows, saw a young male grizzly bear near Red Lodge and watched four foxes playing in the middle of the road for about five minutes. It’s the most time she’s ever spent in the wilds, and the most backpacking she’s ever done.
“The Beartooths are gorgeous and challenging at some points because they are so rocky,” she said. “But they have magnificent views, and the flowers and mountain lakes are breathtaking.”
Partners in Durney’s study include the Forest Service, Montana Wilderness Association, Cinnabar Foundation and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation.
Those interested in volunteering as citizen scientists can contact Ostovar at 657-1175 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.