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Cameras Capture Wildlife in Action

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Cameras help landowners balance the basic needs of wildlife with providing recreational opportunities for the public on the Landmarks.

The Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks is a stunning, unique place for people to connect with the outdoors, and also an essential resource of native habitat for local wildlife – some of whom are threatened or endangered. Landowners including OC Parks, the City of Irvine and the City of Newport Beach are constantly striving to accommodate the needs of wildlife while also providing recreational opportunities for visitors to the open space. Striking a balance can be challenging, but it is vitally important to ensuring that the Landmarks can be enjoyed by generations of visitors to come.

The Irvine Ranch Conservancy Wildlife Monitoring Program is one innovative way scientists can sneak a peek at rare and protected birds, mammals and reptiles to better balance recreation and conservation. Camouflaged cameras placed throughout the Landmarks use heat and motion sensors to gather images showing the health, movement and distribution of local wildlife. Conservancy staff use the data collected to make informed, scientific-based recommendations to landowners on how to best protect important species while continuing to give the public ways to explore the Landmarks. The Conservancy recently replaced about a dozen cameras, and invested in new software that helps staff sort through the thousands of photos in a more efficient manner.

“Generally speaking, wildlife monitoring without camera traps is a really difficult, time- and resource-intensive science that takes a lot of expertise,” said Courtney McCammon, wildlife research technician and the Conservancy’s wildlife monitoring expert. “Having scientists on the land daily to track animals would be highly invasive to these species. The cameras offer us a way to monitor wildlife activity in an affordable, noninvasive way that doesn’t interrupt animals’ natural behavior on the Landmarks.”

Wildlife activity can change in response to seasons, rainfall levels, fire, and the amount of human activity on the land. Native species such as mule deer, bobcats and mountain lions are especially sensitive to these factors, and photos from the Wildlife Monitoring Project help Conservancy scientists in their efforts to ensure the continued maintenance of these animal populations.

“The land is not the same as it was in 2007 when we started this project,” McCammon said. “It doesn’t look the same, and human activity is not the same – being able to track how these changes affect wildlife over time and through an event such as a drought is really important to the animals’ well-being over the long term.”
The Wildlife Monitoring Project is the longest-running data-gathering program operated by the Conservancy, and camera data have proven to be an invaluable tool for Conservancy scientists. The camera images help Conservancy staff study the Landmarks in a variety of ways, including:

  • Tracking the patterns of landscape use, seasonal activity and behavior of local wildlife;
  • Helping landowners respond quickly to human impact on native habitats;
  • Observing increases or decreases in animal activity of a certain species over time;
  • Recording the appearance of diseases such as mange in animal populations;
  • Revealing how wildlife is impacted by human activity.

There are 47 wildlife monitoring cameras placed strategically throughout 40,000 acres of the Landmarks. The cameras are purposefully placed near water sources and along the trails, and are equipped with motion and heat sensors – as wildlife or humans pass by, the increased movement or temperature trigger the camera to take a photo. Trained volunteers check the cameras regularly, replacing batteries and downloading the digital images for further analysis. Each camera will capture a couple hundred photos in a two-week period; to date, more than 1.1 million photos have been collected by the Conservancy, showcasing images of everything from mule deer and coyotes, to quail and red-tailed hawks, to bobcats and mountain lions. Photos that capture unauthorized human access – which can disturb wildlife or increase fire risk – are turned over to partners in local law enforcement agencies.

Wildlife photos from the monitoring project are shared with landowners and researchers, including biologists from the United States Geological Survey and various schools and universities. Currently, data from the Wildlife Monitoring Project are being used in a collaborative grant-funded project with the Natural Communities Coalition to evaluate the human activity and wildlife monitoring project. UC Davis researchers also receive real-time images of both radio-collared and non-collared mountain lions in the area for their studies on the animal’s movement.  Conservancy scientists are also using images to analyze bobcat pelt patterns to identify how many individual animals are in the City of Newport Beach’s Bully Gully Reserve and surrounding areas. Past projects utilizing data from the Wildlife Monitoring Project include a San Diego State University analysis on post-fire behavior of wildlife. The cameras were also vital in capturing photos of the 2007 Santiago Fire’s spread through OC Parks’ Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve, and aided scientists in monitoring the health of wildlife in the Landmarks afterward.

Since animal movement and behavior patterns can always change, Conservancy staff consistently re-evaluate camera locations and capabilities that will net useful data. As new technologies become available, scientists hope to expand the Wildlife Monitoring Project even more to better observe rare and important species in the Landmarks that would otherwise be virtually impossible to study. 
For more information on the Irvine Ranch Conservancy Wildlife Monitoring Project, click here. And the next time you’re out exploring the Landmarks and come across a Wildlife Monitoring Project camera, know that the photos captured are helping to protect wildlife and ensure you can enjoy those trails for years to come!