By K.C. Mehaffey
World staff writer
WENATCHEE — Sometimes, remote cameras catch images of two-legged creatures.
Kelsey Hilderbrand, owner of High Mountain Hunting Supply in Wenatchee, uses remote cameras to scope out game. But, he said, he bought his first remote camera 10 years ago to catch someone who was smashing his mailbox.
In September, a Tonasket area woman used one to find out who was stealing her prescription drugs. It turned out to be her son.
“I know a lot of people, especially in the outlying areas, who have used them,” said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers. “In law enforcement, we use the heck out of them,” he said.
Jen Watkins, who oversees a remote camera project for Conservation Northwest, said the organization’s cameras out in the woods often come back with pictures of people. “There’s usually the first surprise shot. And then we’ve had quite a few people bring their dog back or their friends,” she said. “As often as we get the adorable mama bear with her cubs, we get the person coming back to pose for the camera.”
And John Rohrer, wildlife biologist for the Methow Valley Ranger District, said people don’t always know what they’re looking at.
“Some of these, at first glance, they don’t look like cameras. So we have pictures of people close up, staring at the box trying to figure out what it is,” he said.
Cameras. They’re everywhere. Whether you’re at a stoplight or a grocery store, it’s hard to stay away from the lens of a camera these days.
But now, in addition to intersections and shopping malls, you may find yourself the subject of a digital image while hiking along your favorite trail.
In the past 10 years, remote wildlife cameras have gotten lighter, less expensive and easier to use. That means more and more hunters, wildlife watchers and research scientists are using them.
Bruce Hosfeld of East Wenatchee started using a remote film camera five years ago to track the habits of whitetail deer in an area north of Colville, where he hunts every year.
Now, he sets up seven remote motion-triggered digital cameras, and leaves them up year-round. He got almost 5,000 photos of wildlife this year.
“Some of the cameras are very high tech, and they’re very popular among hunters. They’re all over the place,” said Matt Monda, wildlife program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Ephrata.
The agency regularly gets reports from people who think they’ve seen rare wildlife, like wolves. Increasingly, they’re getting pictures to go with these reports, he said.
Two years ago, a remote camera set up by the nonprofit group Conservation Northwest captured evidence that the state’s first wolf pack in 70 years was in the Methow Valley.
Research biologists say remote camera technology has changed dramatically in the last decade.
“They’re allowing us to do things we just couldn’t imagine doing 10 or 15 years ago,” said Bill Gaines, forest wildlife biologist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
This summer, Gaines launched the first large-scale effort to find evidence of grizzly bears in the North Cascades.
The cameras, he said, are an important piece of the study.
“When you’re studying these more remote and rare carnivores, like bear and wolves, you need something you can leave at a site and record information for you. They allow us to cover a lot more ground than we ever could by just hiking,” he said.
From big and bulky to light and reliable
In North Central Washington, wildlife biologists are using remote cameras to study wolves, wolverines, lynx and grizzly bears. “They’re incredibly important for inventory and monitoring. We started using them as soon as they became available, maybe 15 years ago,” said John Rohrer, a biologist for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
With other wildlife researchers, Rohrer uses the cameras to track and document the Methow Valley’s wolf pack and to study North Cascade wolverines.
He described the cameras he was using more than a decade ago as “a little camera inside an ammo box that had, for power, a 12-volt car battery. Those were pretty heavy to get around, especially if you wanted them in the back country,” he said.
They also used film, which meant that after shooting 36 pictures, the roll was finished. One pesky or curious creature, like a crow, could set off the motion sensor multiple times and use up an entire roll of film.
Today, he said, “They’re a lot handier to use and a lot more reliable.”
They’re weatherproof and work even in the coldest temperatures.
They can use flash or infrared for night shots.
And they take hundreds of pictures before the memory card is full.
Keith Aubry, a biologist for the U.S. Forest Service Research Station who’s heading the wolverine study, said he’s able to use the cameras to document which sites individual wolverines are visiting, because their chest markings are unique to an individual animal.
Aubry said they tested the method last winter with eight cameras.
It was so successful, he bought 24 more cameras to set up this winter, and hopes to continue to use remote cameras to monitor wolverines once the trapping and radio-collaring portion of his study is complete.
Gaines, who’s heading the search for grizzly bears, said his biologists set up 25 remote cameras in very remote places this summer, including the Pasayten, Sawtooth and Glacier Peak wilderness areas and North Cascades National Park.
The cameras took more than 6,000 photographs, and offered more immediate results than the 700 hair samples gathered from nearby hair snag traps that will take several months to get a DNA analysis, he said.
The photos revealed no obvious grizzly bears, but recorded about 75 individual black bears visiting the sites, along with cougars, moose and possibily one wolf.
Gaines said he likes using remote cameras and hair snags because they are noninvasive ways to study wild animals.
“These are techniques that don’t require us handling the animal, which is expensive, and traumatic for all involved,” he said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512