Reshaping Wildlife

Earlier this winter, I performed some mental gymnastics on this blog trying to figure out whether I could ethically justify putting a camera trap in the woods to spy on shy carnivores.

I think I decided it was okay…..kind of.  Even though there is no doubt the bait and the cameras are an intrusion, it seemed like they might contribute to the wonder and excitement that is required to keep animals like lynx, wolverine, and fisher protected.

Our camera, together with several others in this project, did capture a number of images of furtive fur-bearers (see below). Snapshots of martens, fishers, bobcats, wolverines, and mountain lions proved that wild animals still prowl the woods in this part of western Montana in measurable numbers. While plenty of the photos snapped nothing more than waving branches or common birds like Stellar’s jay and Clark’s nutcrackers, the meso-carnivores showed up enough to convince the wildlife boffins analyzing the data that all is not yet lost in the forested ecosystems nearby.

Lynx, unfortunately, did not offer us any glimpses of their humongous paws and distinguished-looking faces. I’ll just have to keep hoping these stately felines are still out there, outsmarting us by half again in our inelegant efforts to spot them.

Of course, the irony is that by setting out scented bait and visual attractants for these photo shoots we are changing these animals in our quest to catch a glimpse of their wild selves. As a consequence of our interventions in the forest, they are more used to being drawn into a scent made in a facility in Minnesota, more accustomed to seeing shiny metal objects flashing among the trees, and more used to finding road-killed meat wired six foot up trees that smell vaguely of that bizarre and normally-to-be-avoided creature Homo sapiens.

Inadvertently, our efforts are making these animals just a tiny percentage more domesticated than they would otherwise be.

 

On urban fringes, this process is already well underway. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Urban Canid Project is studying coyotes that live around cities to try to determine the ways their behavior adapts to their new environment.

Trapped coyotes have some blood drawn and their vital signs recorded before being fitted with a tracking collar. The collars allow for their movements and interactions to be monitored. Collars placed on one of the coyotes’ competitors, the red fox, allow for data to be gathered on inter-species relationships in the urban environment.

Normally, red foxes and coyotes would be competitors, with the smaller animals making themselves scarce when their canid cousins show up. In the urban environment, however, there is enough variety of habitats that they can live in the same general area and mostly avoid each other. The foxes and the coyotes coexist in the city, hunting at similar times of day, albeit in slightly different micro-habitats. The foxes tend to be more urban-minded, while the coyotes look for the city parks.

These behavioral changes track other changes noted in urban wildlife. Peregrine falcons living in cities are less likely to swoop down on their prey from above than their cliff-bound relatives. They have learned to hunt birds from beneath at night using the glow of streetlamps reflecting off their prey’s bellies to create a more visible target. Even bats now fall victim to these knights of the darkened city sky.

For all urban-adapted birdlife, the proximity of buildings, the range of ambient noises, and the array of food choices mean that aeronautical, communication, and feeding techniques all have to be modified. The new behaviors favor individuals with different physiologies which leads, in surprisingly short order, to species adapting genetically to their new home. Darwin, as Menno Schilthuizen has put it, has come to town.

All this is very interesting from the point of view of evolutionary biology and ethology. Some of it is also very useful from the point of view of wildlife management. Data from the urban canid study might be used to help develop strategies for how humans and coyotes can do a better job of co-existing than they have in the past.

Underneath the questions broadly rooted in biology are other questions that are deeply rooted in philosophy. As the human influence reaches further and further into the natural world, what will happen to the idea of wild animals as beings that live independently of the planet’s most influential species? Is the whole idea of “wildlife” becoming more and more compromised by the day? Is the entirety of nature now colored by human influence?

The camera traps in the woods have almost all come out now that the winter season has ended. Their presence was temporary and, as the snow melts and the trilliums, the arnica, and the glacier lilies emerge from the forest floor, there will be little evidence they were ever there.

The influence that these baiting stations had on the animals that passed through them was in all likelihood both fleeting and inconsequential. But it is hard not to see these cameras as the tip of a massive human iceberg that has the potential to mess with earth-bound processes both big and small.

And like ice all over the world today, this berg is relentlessly fracturing and floating off from where it originated towards places where its future is deeply uncertain.

Photos of fisher, wolverine, mountain lion, marten, and bobcat 
courtesy of Wolverine Watchers/Bitterroot Mesocarnivore Monitoring Project.

 

 

 

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