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Backcountry Scientist Project – Round Two

We are excited to begin our second season of working with volunteer backcountry scientists on the Helena National Forest. Winter Wildlands Alliance is coordinating with Wild Things Unlimited (WTU) and the Montana Wilderness Association, with support from the Helena National Forest, and Defenders of Wildlife, to get citizen scientists into the backcountry to monitor forest carnivore presence and activity along the Continental Divide in Montana. We will be using a combination of snow tracking and camera traps to document forest carnivores – which species and where they are – on the Helena National Forest.

The goal for project is to find out more about how forest carnivores, including lynx and wolverine, are using Forest Service lands along the Continental Divide. The area where we will be working, the Little Prickly Pear Creek drainage, is just over the Divide from where WTU has previously documented wolverine and lynx but little is known about how forest carnivores use the area on the east side of the Divide. The Helena National Forest is revising their long-term land management plan and the information collected during this project will help the Forest Service better understand the wildlife resources on the forest and guide management decisions that can help to protect wildlife and the wild lands they depend upon.

Last year backcountry scientist volunteers, along with WTU staff, conducted 53 snow-tracking surveys covering almost 200 miles. They documented lynx, wolverine, wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, martens, weasels and more throughout the project area.  Volunteers were critical to the success of the project last year, allowing us to more than double the number of surveys conducted over the winter.

During our training workshop for new volunteers this past weekend we documented bobcat, coyote, both short and long-tailed weasels, snowshoe hare, and a variety of ungulate species. Snow tracking is a great way to read the landscape and understand how other species travel and live in wild places in the winter. For example, one group of volunteers came across a bloody cottontail rabbit buried in the snow. After studying tracks they were able to deduce that an epic battle had occurred, starting with a sneak attack by a weasel and ending in the rabbit’s demise (and the weasel’s dinner). We’re looking forward to reading more stories in the snow and gathering important information to inform the forest planning this winter.