By Gwendolyn Craig
Twice a year, Paul Jensen mixes eau de skunk, also known as skunk essence, and puts it in dozens of thumb-sized canisters punctured with holes. It’s an outdoor job, usually done on a windy day. He wears a hair net, rubber gloves and old clothing. The substance solidifies with the help of petroleum jelly. It’s then sealed and stored in odorless zippered bags.
The stinky work will pay off. It will attract wildlife to dozens of trail cameras stationed around the Adirondack Park.
Jensen, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and an adjunct faculty member at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, runs the Adirondack Inventory and Monitoring Camera Trap Network. The network’s goals are to collect and share data on wildlife populations, monitor species particularly sensitive to climate change and give students in the region real-world training. It started during the pandemic in 2020.
The Adirondack Park is a 6-million-acre question mark when it comes to wildlife data, especially in high elevations and in the backcountry. In addition to local high schools and colleges, Jensen enlisted the help of summit stewards at the Adirondack Mountain Club to set up trail cameras on High Peaks. Jensen hopes the images captured will help state officials with management plans, from updating trapping regulations to identifying habitat that may need protection.
The camera setup
The project is also linked with the Northeast Wildlife Monitoring Network, more than 100 organizations in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine with about 500 trail cameras set across those states. This year in the Adirondacks, about 50 partners are helping monitor more than 200 trail cameras, Jensen said, using the same protocols to capture images of birds and animals. Generally, the camera traps are put out in October and left up until May.
Local cameras have captured nearly every animal species in the Adirondacks, Jensen said. He’s seen photos of moose, red squirrels, coyotes, martens, fishers and snowshoe hares.
The trail camera setup is the brainchild of Alexej Siren, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Vermont. Siren has studied moose, lynx, snowshoe hares and other wildlife in the Northeast.
Participants wrap a motion-activated trail camera around a tree a few feet off the ground. They hammer a snow stake in view of the camera. The stake is about 5-feet tall and provides researchers with a size estimate of an animal and the amount of snow on the ground.
Attached to the back of the snow stake is the skunk essence, which acts as an olfactory lure. Humans may be repulsed, but most animals are curious, Jensen said. On top of the snow stake is a visual lure, usually a turkey feather. Siren said this attracts wild cats like lynx and bobcats.
Researchers and computer scientists at the University of Vermont are working on the data conundrums such a large-scale project can generate. Artificial intelligence projects are being considered to help identify animals in photos, especially those that are easily confused such as martens and fishers. They’re also working on how to store the thousands of pictures to be kept by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Researchers outside of the camera trap network will also have access to the data there.
The data collected isn’t just for ecologists.
Hydrologists and climatologists are interested in it, Siren said. Groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration use models to predict what the snow depth is at high elevations. But snow stakes and trail cameras at some of these summits are showing snow depths greater than what the models predict, Siren said.
Researchers could also use these photos to see how climate change is impacting wildlife in the Adirondacks and Northeast, though it will take years of data collection before scientists can draw conclusions.
“There are very few long-term monitoring projects in general,” Jensen said. “The utility of these datasets, it’s only going to get better and better the longer we can collect data.”
Stacy McNulty, associate director of the Adirondack Ecological Center at SUNY ESF in Newcomb, said research already shows winters are shortening in the Adirondacks. Trail cameras could provide even more on-the-ground information.
McNulty thinks cameras could help answer: What happens to animals after a big snow? What happens when the snow melts? What happens when it rains?
Variable winters are bad for hibernating animals that may wake up too early and find there’s no food available, she said. Shorter winters are bad for snowshoe hares, which turn white to camouflage with the snow. No snow on the ground and they stick out like a sore thumb. Variable winters allow for greater chances of tick survival, bad news for moose who pick up the blood-thirsty arachnids by the thousands. Siren said ticks cause about 50% of moose calf mortalities.
Trail cameras are also helping show the range of animals, which pinpoints lands in need of protection from development.
The cameras on private lands, McNulty said, could provide important missing information about where animals move.
“I think that enriches our ability to say something about what the Adirondacks are doing, and whether it’s all similar across the park, or whether there are pockets where things are happening that are different,” McNulty said.
Dirk Bryant, the director of New York Lands Priority for The Nature Conservancy, launched the “Staying Connected Initiative” for organizations and public agencies working on places for animals to travel safely, especially without the risk of roads.
Some of the work uses “cameras to look at animal movement and figure out where to make the right investments in both land protection and working with transportation agencies on designs around culverts and bridges,” Bryant said.
Jensen is a partner of the initiative and hopes his camera network will lead to updated state recreation management plans and wildlife monitoring plans. He could see the DEC using the data to update unit management plans in the park. The data on fur-bearing animals could also provide DEC with updated population information and could lead to trapping regulation changes.
For some students around the Adirondacks, school might include checking the memory card of a trail camera to find a barred owl was responsible for tipping a snow stake.
Others might find a family of black bears were the vandals.
Nearly two dozen high schools in the region participate in the data collection, mostly because of the grant writing and assistance from Jill Walker, director of Advanced STEM Research at the private Northwood School in Lake Placid. Walker and her former student Lars Kroes were the first to participate in the Adirondack monitoring program. They put out six trail cameras at Heaven Hill Farm property in Lake Placid in November 2020.
Kroes, a 19-year-old from Lake Placid, is now an environmental studies student at the University of Oregon. He loved testing the cameras, hiking into the backcountry and checking the memory cards, even on 15-below-zero days. He saw bears, foxes, coyotes, fishers and bobcats.
After a few months of monitoring, Kroes could see patterns. At certain times of day he would notice more animal activity.
“It sparked my interest for what I want to do for the rest of my life because I enjoyed it so much,” Kroes said.
Walker wrote to science teachers in the area, asking if anyone else was interested in participating.
“We not only collect this data for the good of the Adirondack Park, but (also) get these kids involved in this research,” Walker said. “I think it will be important for them to understand what’s going on in the woods around us.”
After getting funding from The Edward E. Ford Foundation, the Uihlein Foundation, Stewart’s Shops, International Paper and the Toshiba Foundation, Walker was able to purchase about $700 worth of equipment for each teacher involved in the project. Schools from Northville, Lake Placid, Moriah, Boquet Valley and several others are participating for free.
The project is also field experience for college students desiring careers in wildlife conservation, a good fit for Paul Smith’s College students building their resumes. Jorie Favreau, professor of wildlife biology, said students enjoy the outdoor research.
Paul Smith’s College juniors Obadiah Steffen and Nicholas Pett checked two of their trail cameras on a snowy March day. Both are studying fisheries and wildlife science.
They’ve seen fisher, bobcat, “a million deer,” and the occasional hunter on their cameras. Both were more interested in the wildlife management part of the project.
Carrick Palmer, a 28-year-old graduate student at SUNY ESF, said he’s been the brute labor behind the camera network. There are 10 on about 15,000 acres.
“One of the particularly interesting things about it is looking at this time of year that we often ignore as scientists,” Palmer said. “We’re filling in those gaps to what’s happening in winter.”