By Luke Lamar
Since the beginning of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative Carnivore Monitoring Projectin 2012, Swan Valley Connections (SVC) has been collaborating annually with various partners to monitor rare carnivores. The scope of work and our partners have changed over time, leading to new and exciting research opportunities in 2019.
While many partners have joined the rare carnivore monitoring project since 2012, over 20 field crew members and interns have come and gone. Both Mike Mayernik and I have been involved with the project since its inception.
In the 2012 pilot season, from January through March, SVC started to systematically survey the 1.5 million acre Southwestern Crown of the Continent (SW Crown) for three focal species: lynx, wolverine, and fisher. Lynx are listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the SW Crown represents the southern-most extent of critical habitat occupied by the species in the United States. Lynx management and recovery is currently a high profile issue for federal land management agencies. Wolverines have been a Sensitive Species for Region 1 of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for many years. After a 2013 proposed listing as Threatened under the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided not to list the species in 2014. However, in 2016, a federal judge overturned that decision and sent it back to USFWS for further review, which is where the matter currently stands. The Crown of the Continent serves as an important linkage between wolverine populations in Canada and remaining populations in the contiguous U.S. Fisher have been petitioned several times for listing under the ESA and are currently managed as a Sensitive Species in Region 1 of the Forest Service. Lynx and wolverine may also be particularly susceptible to changes in a warming climate due to their adaptations and reliance on deep snow.
We combined two field methods to maximize our detection of these rare animals: bait stations and snow track surveys. The bait stations were crude ‘fisher boxes’ that consisted of a chicken wing inside a triangular plastic box armed with gun brushes to collect hair from any animal that entered the box to eat the bait. We came back every few weeks to collect the hair which we would then send to the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station for genetic testing to identify species, sex, and specific individual. In addition, we would search for tracks of our focal species and backtrack them to collect their genetic material (hair, scat, urine) to also send to the lab. We would also record track locations of non-target carnivores such as mountain lions, wolves, pine martens, and bobcats. The field crews learned much that first pilot season such as how to get a snowmobile good and stuck, how to get a snowmobile unstuck, and that we didn’t like our bait station methodology. We found that the fisher boxes were small and are meant for fisher, but not lynx and wolverine. Sometimes the boxes would get snowed under. Sometimes ermines, hares, squirrels, skunks, and other critters would raid the small portion of bait within a few days before our target species had a chance to find it.
In 2013, after some discussion and research on alternative bait stations, we adapted our non-invasive methodology to hanging a deer or elk quarter in a tree with gun brushes surrounding the bait. This enabled a multi-species approach where we could collect genetics from lynx, wolverine, or fisher from our bait stations, while avoiding other ground dwelling animals. Crews used road-killed deer and elk for bait, and we quickly grew accustomed to odd looks along the highway and winter clothes that were stained and smelled of an odd mixture of 2-stroke snowmobile exhaust, rotting meat, and a skunky long-distance call lure that we also applied at our bait stations.
We mostly surveyed the SW Crown landscape in 2012-13 on snowmobiles, but did survey some backcountry and Wilderness areas by snowshoes and skis.
After finalizing our protocols and preferred bait station method in 2013, our work surveying the SW Crown landscape continued from 2014-2016. In a just a few years, we collected important baseline information on the distribution of lynx and wolverine and a minimum number of individuals.
To put our work into context, there had never been a systematic survey for these rare carnivores within the SW Crown landscape. Long-winded discussions with other crew members on how many wolverines and lynx we would find were common and we all eagerly awaited the genetic results like they were Christmas presents. Conservative guesses generally ranged from 2-4 wolverines. It turns out that we detected 32 wolverines and 39 lynx from 2013-2016 across the SW Crown landscape. Not only did we know the minimum abundance, but we knew wherethese species were detected and how they were distributed across the landscape. One of the primary goals of the project was to collect this baseline information, then use that data to help land managers make informed, science-based decisions. Systematically surveying the landscape would allow us or others to repeat the surveys in the future to track how land management and natural disturbances like wildfire affect these species over time.
Fisher were detected in the SW Crown in the recent past, with the last confirmed detection from a fisher hair snare east of Seeley Lake in 2011. Other fisher records date back to the early 1980s from FWP trapping records. Despite historical records of fisher, we unfortunately did not detect any fisher on the landscape.
The group of partners ended the full surveying and monitoring of the entire SW Crown landscape after the 2016 season, with hopes of repeating the surveys again in the future.
As our work continued and we gained more knowledge and data, we found other land managers and partners who were interested in our work. When the project began, our partners included the USFS, SVC (then Northwest Connections), and the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative. But over time the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) joined the partnership as they wanted to learn about these focal species on lands they manage in the Blackfoot Valley. The Blackfoot Challenge also joined the partnership, providing place-based knowledge and additional field crew.
TNC had purchased all remaining Plum Creek Timber Company lands (117,000 acres previously known as the Clearwater/Blackfoot Project and now called Montana Forests Project) in the Blackfoot Valley in 2014, and was interested in learning more about lynx, wolverine, and fisher abundance and distribution on their lands to help better inform future management decisions. SVC partnered with TNC to survey their lands, as well as adjacent USFS and BLM lands from 2016-2018.
Previous USFS research had shown a population of lynx in the Garnet Mountain range on BLM lands in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After adding that area into our monitoring project, we documented just one individual lynx over several years, so it appears that there is no longer a viable breeding population of lynx in the Garnets. This concerning discovery is precisely why it’s so important to monitor these species over time.
During that same timeframe, 2017 led to yet another new partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) and the Western States Wolverine Conservation Project. The effort included Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington and the goal was to document where wolverines occur across the four states. As part of the larger project, SVC surveyed parts of the SW Crown and documented wolverines in every area that was modeled wolverine habitat. The result of the effort is that wildlife researchers and land managers now have baseline data to determine if distribution of wolverines shrinks or grows over time. Results also showed that the SW Crown is one of the few hotspots for wolverines in Montana, possibly suggesting that this landscape provides not only important habitat and connectivity, but also may be a productive source of wolverines dispersing to other mountain ranges throughout the western U.S.
In 2019, SVC once again adapted its expertise to address research and monitoring needs in another new, exciting partnership with the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station. USFS Research Wildlife Biologist Dr. John Squires has been conducting lynx research in the Seeley Lake region for the past 25 years, documenting how lynx respond to management actions as well as wildfires. With his long-term datasets, the 2017 Rice Ridge (160,000 acres) and Liberty Fires (29,000 acres) provided opportunities to study how lynx use habitat soon after large wildfires, over time as forests regenerate, and how salvage logging operations affect this use. There is currently no scientific data available to help inform salvage logging in burned areas that are lynx habitat. Dr. Squires’ crews live-trapped and put GPS collars on several lynx in the Rice Ridge and Liberty Fires in 2018, and they are repeating collaring efforts this year. To advance Dr. Squires’ research project, SVC is filling the need for an experienced crew who can backtrack lynx and wolverine within these burn perimeters to help calibrate and ground-truth the GPS collar data, and perform vegetation plots to collect habitat use data along their tracks.
We’ll continue to provide blog updates throughout the remainder of the season. Stay tuned!
Mike Mayernik and I plan on presenting our annual update on our carnivore monitoring and research work at our first Wednesday community potluck on May 1st. Hope to see you there!