By: Brian Church, Predator Ecology Lab Technician (edited by: Apryle Craig)
In April and May this year, I was lucky enough to take off a few weeks from work to help Apryle with her ongoing investigation of possible wolf-related effects on browsing of vegetation by ungulates (and others) in north-central Washington. Over the course of 11 days, we were able to survey the vegetation at between one and three sampling sites as well as other signs of animal use in the plots (e.g., scat). We also put up trail cameras on many plots to get photo evidence of use in the following few weeks.
About three hours of every work day were spent driving to, from, and between study sites, and 9 hours surveying plants. Evenings were spent preparing for the next day recharging trail camera batteries or pouring over maps. We managed to squeeze in a few runs through the dusty hills and dirt roads flanking the Columbia River near our bunkhouse in Nespelem. We camped a couple nights to maximize our time in the Bonaparte Recreation Area, where we surveyed 7 sites in 3 days.
In between surveys we tracked down two wayward deer collars, where mountain lions and other scavengers had efficiently reduced the deer to scattered clumps of fur, bare bone, and cached entrails. For the past few years, these collars have sent GPS locations of the deers’ whereabouts, allowing us a glimpse into habitat use before and after fires and in the presence of different predators. This deer appeared to have been killed by a cougar. After making a kill, cougars will drag their prey to a secluded area and cache it, covering the deer with pine needles, dirt and other material to protect it from spoiling and from being eaten other animals. This process can make it difficult to find a brown collar! Typically the cougar will remain in the area near this cache for several days and occasionally return to feed on the carcass.
We had a good deal of success and produced a lot of data, though there were some unavoidable hiccups (as I’m sure there are with any project). The fires during the autumn of 2015 had changed road access, and we occasionally had to try a new route to access a site. Several sites had been badly burned, requiring the reestablishment of plots; though, amazingly, the exclosures at most sites needed only minor repairs. At the few sites where exclosure fences had been damaged, we rebuilt and/or reinforced them. On one unlucky day, we came upon a site that had been almost entirely logged, excepting a copse containing one plot and three of the four trees used as fence posts of another exclosure plot. The deer fence was crushed and tangled with logging brush, and we took our time cutting and rerolling wire fencing to remove the fence remnants from the forest-turned-field.
I am grateful for the opportunity to volunteer with Apryle during this field season during which time she taught me a good deal about plant identification, camera trap monitoring, navigating logging roads, and sundry details about graduate school. After my experience, I am feeling more comfortable with pursuing wildlife ecology in graduate school, myself.