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IRC Staff Spotlight: Catherine Le, Program Coordinator

PictureCatherine Le

The Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks are home to a large and diverse population of wildlife habitats, with a variety of animals that travel along the same trails we know and love. In order to help monitor the health, movements, and populations of wildlife on the Landmarks, Irvine Ranch Conservancy staff has strategically placed a network of heat and motion-triggered remote cameras throughout the wildlands.
 
Catherine Le, a Program Coordinator for Irvine Ranch Conservancy, is responsible for reviewing and analyzing wildlife use and activity throughout the Landmarks. While earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Evolutionary Biology & Ecology from the University of California, Irvine, Catherine was first introduced to IRC while assisting with arthropod collection and identification, and studying the impacts that arthropods and mammals have on California sagebrush.

“I heard about IRC’s work from my lab principal investigator (PI) when I was attending UCI,” said Catherine. “I had helped identify arthropods in my lab, so I was very fortunate to be able to do that and more when I started working for IRC. I didn’t know there were such vast wildlands in Irvine until I started working here.”
 
Since joining the Irvine Ranch Conservancy team three years ago, Catherine has been focusing on coordinating and maintaining the Conservancy’s long-term wildlife camera traps and image database. Working closely with a team of volunteers, she retrieves camera cards from the traps, processes the photos, inputting camera data and analyzing seasonal trends from the data. Catherine is also responsible for coordinating IRC’s annual butterfly count in Limestone Canyon, and helps with additional projects including arthropod identification and gold spotted oak borer monitoring.
 
“It’s really special to see wildlife in ways I would never be able to see in person,” said Catherine. “It’s sort of like a reward. We take care of the land and we get to see glimpses of how the wildlife thrive. And it’s always fun to see new mountain lion cubs!”
 
With over 50 wildlife camera traps on the Landmarks, Irvine Ranch Conservancy is able to monitor how human activity and land management strategies can impact wildlife activity. Data collected from the camera traps can help IRC staff modify management practices and keep the balance between having recreation and connecting people to the land, while also limiting disturbance to wildlife.
 
In addition to collecting and analyzing data, Catherine has to keep up with camera maintenance to ensure the equipment is in good working condition and providing IRC with the best possible information.
 
“One of the challenges I face while doing my job is when something happens to the equipment,” said Catherine. “Vegetation can block cameras, the cameras can sometimes malfunction, there’s occasional vandalism, as well as large scale damage from fire.”
 
In October 2020, the Silverado Fire burned about 12,466 acres of land, including areas of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks. Unfortunately, some IRC infrastructure was damaged in the fire, including a few of the wildlife camera traps.
 
“The Silverado Fire damaged five cameras. Two got away with minor damages, while the other three had melted,” said Catherine. “Since the trails have changed quite a bit due to the fire and dozer lines, this gives me the opportunity to think of new placement of the camera traps. The landscape is much different now and we may be able to find out what areas wildlife may be using to pass through and how they are adapting to a post-fire landscape.”
 
Since 2007, IRC’s camera monitoring program has collected more than 800,000 images for its database. During that time, Catherine and her team of volunteers have processed millions of photos and look forward to continuing their research.
 
When she can, Catherine enjoys visiting Agua Chinon in Limestone Canyon. An abundance of native vegetation, birds and other wildlife are often caught traveling through the area, capturing mountain lions, grey foxes, bobcats and more on the camera traps.
 
For more information about Irvine Ranch Conservancy and wildlife monitoring on the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, visit LetsGoOutside.org.