By: Brand Ambassador, Lindsey Browne Davis
For the last 3 years, I’ve been participating in a citizen science research project called Wasatch Mammal Watch. It is a camera trapping project directed by the University of Utah Biodiversity and Conservation Ecology Lab, the Wild Utah Project, the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Department of Wildlife Resources, Salt Lake City Parks and Public Lands and the US Forest Service. The goal of the study is to measure how wildlife activity is affected by human traffic and development, and enact conservation strategies based on key habitat areas found throughout the region. I am one of over 100 volunteers collectively monitoring non-invasive, motion sensor cameras at over 200 locations throughout the Wasatch. For 3 months every year, I maintain and monitor cameras in key locations. This is what conservation across a mountain range looks like.
Citizen science and camera trapping are incredible tools for collecting data. By training and equipping the public, scientists can execute a research study with an incredible amount of latitude, and realize conservation at a much larger scale. The cameras allow us to monitor animals in their natural state and get fine-scale data with high levels of confidence. This allows biologists to create habitat profiles for each species and identify pockets of high occurrence, along with habitat pinch points throughout the canyons of our mountain range.
We know the obvious: roads, ski resorts, trails, and high use areas disturb animal’s ability to move freely throughout the ecosystem. What we’re learning is that when human activity is high, animals can change their behavior profiles. A recent BYU study concluded that there is a noticeable difference in animal behavior on weekends in the Wasatch Mountains, specifically deer, elk, and moose. Known as the ‘weekend effect,’ these animals will be active for a certain amount of time during the week and then on Saturday and Sunday, become active during different parts of the day. This leads to new overlap in the ecosystem between species, shorter feeding hours, and more competition. Conclusively, animal activity patterns are changing in response to human traffic.
Though no one here likes to admit it, increased recreation presence and development in our wild spaces are inevitable. The hope of the Wasatch Wildlife Watch study is to provide management agencies with wildlife data for strategic development in the region. With the cameras, we can identify areas of high species density and advocate for their protection and connectivity, while focusing on development where there is less species persistence. A healthy population relies on genetic diversity, and the ability to breed with other groups. Individual variation makes animals capable of withstanding the stressors of their environment, including disease. Connectivity is one of the biggest ways animals cope with pressure. In order to prolong the health of these populations, there has to be dispersal between them, by way of strategic corridors between key habitat areas. With the human population and impact only increasing, it is critical we focus our efforts on habitat connectivity.
Hunters, hikers, bikers, skiers – all recreation has an impact on wildlife. Our presence and our development footprints have a measured effect on animal behavior. Using citizen science, we can map out long term strategies for coexistence, enact sound conservation strategies, and really understand how to plan for coexistence in our ecosystems.
Photographer: Camren Dengel