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Capturing Native Wildlife – On Camera

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Irvine Ranch Conservancy project studies urban impacts on local animals with images from wildlife monitoring cameras.

For the people of Orange County, the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks provide a gorgeous getaway from urban life—a place to reconnect with nature and take part in outdoor recreational activity. Yet to thousands of plant and animal species — some threatened or endangered — these wildlands are a vital resource, a homeland made up of some of the few remaining intact natural habitats in the region. These wildland areas provide safe haven for a plethora of biologically important bird, mammal and reptile species.

Balancing the basic needs of wildlife with the recreational needs of the public is a challenge, but scientists with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy have developed an innovative way to sneak a peek at these creatures and their habits. The Conservancy’s Wildlife Monitoring Program uses camouflaged, motion- and heat-sensitive cameras to gather images that show where animals and people are moving throughout the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks.  Purposefully placed near water sources and along trails, the cameras capture footage of wildlife that would otherwise be extremely difficult to observe by humans.

The camera images help Conservancy scientists study the land in a variety of ways:

  • Tracking the patterns of landscape use and behavior of local wildlife,
  • Helping landowners respond quickly to human impacts on wildlife habits,
  • Indicating population increases or decreases over time,
  • Recording the appearance of diseases such as mange in animal populations, and
  • Revealing whether wildlife is shying away from very active trails or is indifferent to human use.

The strategy and goal of the project is to “monitor wildlife trends as well as their relationship with human activity over the long term,” explains Jutta C. Burger, PhD, Managing Director of Science and Stewardship for the Conservancy. Through careful analysis of the data—currently a total of nearly 72,000 photographs—the Conservancy is able to make science-based recommendations to landowners about how to accommodate the needs of wildlife while providing recreational opportunities for visitors within these nature preserves.

Combining this data with other studies – such as an annual raptor survey – landowners are able to provide recreational opportunities that are also respectful of the needs of local wildlife. Scheduling for an early-morning hike, for example, may be adjusted to stay clear of an area with mountain lion activity or a particularly sensitive raptor nesting site. Or if data reveals that wildlife tends to avoid areas with repeated human access within the same day, scientists can recommend that activities and events be clustered to include “rest days” for the land, decreasing the impact of visitors in any one area.

The cameras were particularly useful to scientists in the aftermath of the 2007 Santiago Fire. Not only did the cameras capture the fire as it spread through Limestone Canyon, but the history of data combined with photos take after the fire helped project recovery times for local species.

When we compared photos from the same month in 2006 to those taken after the fire, we found that appearances of mountain lion, deer, coyote, and gray fox all declined in burned areas,” said Burger. “We also noticed traffic to water sources increased, and that unburned neighboring habitat appeared to serve as refuges for deer. Tracking these patterns has allowed us to understand that wildlife recovery will take several years to occur; that animals are concentrated to areas with resources such as water, and that neighboring, protected, unburned habitat is crucial for their survival.”

Since its advent over six years ago, the wildlife monitoring project has grown into the longest-running data-gathering program operated by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, and the camera data have served as a valuable tool for scientists. Data have already been used by universities such as San Diego State University, for a regional analysis of post-fire patterns of behavior. Currently, the Conservancy team is collaborating with Dr. Winston Vickers of UC Davis to study human, deer and mountain lion relationships and to compare the pattern of mountain lion activity observed on cameras to that of radio-collared mountain lions in the area.

As new technologies for wildlife cameras become available, the Conservancy hopes to advance the technical capabilities of the project. Photos from the project are also used in slideshows created by the Conservancy. These slideshows offer close-up, candid shots of wildlife interactions, and the slideshows can be found on the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks Facebook page.