Nature Conservancy field technicians this winter are doing wildlife detective work in New York’s Southern Lake Champlain Valley. This in-between zone characterized by farms and forests and crisscrossed with roads may provide a vital “land bridge” for bobcats and other critters to travel to and from large forest blocks in the Adirondacks and Vermont.
Outdoor guide and writer Elizabeth Lee, of Westport, and University of Vermont graduate student Gus Goodwin are working with the Conservancy’s Alissa Rafferty, who is based in Keene Valley. They are collecting records of animal activity that would be impossible to witness in real time. Good old-fashioned tracking skills—finding animal prints left in the snow, measuring their size, assessing the critter’s gait, and piecing together other clues—help them determine if a print belongs to a bobcat or a coyote, a fisher or a fox, a moose or a deer. They also use trail cameras to supplement these records, helping to confirm animal identification, and snapping photos 24/7 no matter the snow conditions.
This work is not deep in the forest, but along roadways—not every roadway in this region, but along road segments that the Conservancy’s predictive computer models show as probable crossing areas for wildlife. Many of the same roads that connect people to friends, family, businesses, and schools by allowing vehicles to drive from place to place can have the opposite effect on wildlife. Roads can serve as a barrier and isolate different populations of wildlife from each other, putting them at risk of population declines or even local extinction over time.
As part of their fieldwork, the team uploads location and species data into a GPS unit that is later plotted on a map, in combination with other landscape features. All of this work is helping the Conservancy and its partners determine where conservation actions would be most effective. For instance, knowing where the crossing hot-spots are can help highway departments use signs, fences, fence-breaks and culvert upgrades to minimize risks to motorists and wildlife.
While tracking is a reliable data collection method it is also heavily dependent on conditions and timing. Fresh tracks in snow can quickly deteriorate, losing definition under the heat of the sun or getting swept by wind, making the sleuthing more difficult. To overcome some of these challenges and to be able to collect data at multiple sites during all seasons, the Conservancy launched a mini-campaign to raise money for four new cameras through the Adirondack Foundation’s new crowdfunding website, Adirondack Gives. Learn more and pledge your support here.
The Conservancy’s work in Fort Ann rolls up into a larger effort with dozens of partners in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and southern Quebec known as the Staying Connected Initiative.
Below is a video video was captured in 2013 by Nature Conservancy field technicians using a motion-detecting camera within an important wildlife crossing area near Fort Ann. Bobcats, primarily nocturnal, are rarely spotted by humans.
Photos courtesy The Nature Conservancy.