Candid Camera

At first there is nothing—windblown leaves maybe, or the quicksilver skitter of a squirrel. I can’t identify the source of the movement, and settle back expectantly because soon, I know, there will be more chances.

Huddled in the twilit hour I am hunting, expecting the common whitetail deer—but hopeful for more elusive game. Where there are deer there could be a wolf, right? A bear? Either would make the wait worthwhile. Or perhaps something I’ve never seen, like the elusive fisher?

Some time passes before I see the princely buck, so hale and burnished brown that my gaze lingers long in pure appreciation. His neck and shoulders are heftier than even the regal eight-point crown suggests. I’ve seen a lot of deer already, but he has presented broadside, at perfect range. My finger hesitates as I savor the action. And finally I decide, yes, this is a keeper.

I shift in my perch and refocus. Yes, there is the heart. My finger flexes. And I click on the heart icon. Subject 4988060, a Dane County buck snapped last November, is now in my favorites folder.

My hunting perch, you may now realize, is my customary recliner, and I’m using my laptop to spy on the wildlife of Wisconsin while dinner warms. In 20 minutes I’ll go through a few hundred of the millions of photos already collected by Snapshot Wisconsin, a growing net- work of trail cameras.

By now everybody’s seen trail cam photos. Maybe you or someone you know already uses them to scout deer, or just to see what’s on your land when you’re not looking.

Certainly someone’s emailed you a photo or short video, or they’ve shown up in your social media feeds. Those are the special shots, curated, viral. Snapshot Wisconsin is the raw feed, and therein lies the fun. Because here you can get your wildlife fix and be a scientist, too. Identifying these animals contributes to a cutting-edge effort that may fundamentally change the way we study wildlife.

“It’s like having 350 people out there in the woods day and night recording everything they see,” says Jennifer Stenglein MS’13 PhD’14, a research scientist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who directs Snapshot Wisconsin. “That’s amazing data that we’ve never really had before.”

And 350 is just for starters. The goal is four cameras in every township in Wisconsin. Stenglein will be happy if they can reach at least 3,000 cameras. “We are, I believe, going to have one of the best data sets in the world,” she says.

At 10:40 every morning a NASA satellite flies over Wisconsin and snaps a series of pictures. The photographs measure many things, including a day-by-day record of how green the landscape is, which in turn gives us an idea of how well the plants are doing. The data has been collected for years—one of the satellites, Terra, has been in orbit since 1999—and offers an ever-lengthening perspective on the American landscape.

Satellite photos are now commonplace, but for most people remote sensing data is an abstraction. Woody Turner, program manager for NASA’s Ecological Forecasting, is always working to make that data matter to as many Americans as possible. “It’s really important to be able not only to understand what’s happening in your backyard or your woodlot but also to put it in the broader context,” he says. “The satellite brings in the broader context.”

In 2012 NASA announced it wanted to fund a project connecting its data with state agencies and university researchers. These are regular customers, but now there was a twist: NASA wanted a project that also used trail cameras and citizen scientists.

Phil Townsend, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology at CALS, had wanted to connect trail cams and remote sensing data for years, and he quickly called his professor colleague Ben Zuckerberg to brainstorm the citizen science angle. Then they reached out to Karl Martin BS’91, then the DNR’s forestry and wildlife research chief,
who knew camera prices were dropping and was also thinking about how to use them to improve research techniques. Martin also had access to a rich store of potential volunteers.

With all the ingredients NASA was looking for, the Wisconsin team won a pilot grant to install 80 cameras. It was an opportunity to improve wildlife research and put big data to work in the natural world. It even seemed like a promising tool for youth engagement—a partial antidote to nature deficit disorder. “It’s a very good example of cross-disciplinary, cross-agency teamwork,” says Martin, now the interim dean and director for UW–Extension Cooperative Extension. “This is how you leverage the Wisconsin Idea.”

Almost as soon as it began, state budget woes put the project on ice. In a curious twist, a raging national debate over gun control led to record sales of guns and ammunition. These sales are federally taxed, and a portion is returned to the states via the Pittman–Robertson Act for natural resource projects. With a secure funding stream, Snapshot Wisconsin began in earnest.

While the technology has been available for years, the ambitious scale remains a challenge. Educators and tribes can install cameras throughout the state, but cameras for private land are being rolled out gradually. Racine, Vernon and Dodge counties recently joined Iowa, Iron, Jackson, Manitowoc, Sawyer and Waupaca. At last count 417 volunteers were operating 607 cameras that have taken more than 8 million photos.

“The logistics are a big part of it,” says Townsend. “The scale that we’re doing this at has never been done before.” But scale is also the payback. Townsend is interested in phenology—the cycling of the landscape from brown to green and back again. Factors ranging from climate change to land use change can influence phenology. The Snapshot cameras are programmed to take an image at 10:40 a.m. every day, in sync with the satellite, providing a much richer data profile for that precise location.

Meanwhile the motion trap captures the phenological patterns of the animals. “Animals respond differently to their environment,” says Townsend. When they give birth, when and where they feed, when they’re out and about and when they’re in hiding all change, and we understand only a fraction of the whys. Bringing landscape data together with animal data may answer a lot of outstanding questions.

“Wildlife research every now and then gets transformed by technology,” notes Tim Van Deelen, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology. Radio telemetry revolutionized wildlife study in the ’70s, but it also took a while before researchers were able to put that information to use.

“That’s where we are with camera data,” Van Deelen says. “We’re in that lag phase where we are figuring out how to be efficient with the use of that data. I’m betting that as cool as things are right now, they’re going to get cooler as analytic techniques develop. I think there is a lot of basic biology that is going to come clear because underlying Snapshot Wisconsin is a very robust sampling scheme.”

There are two kinds of Snapshot Wisconsin volunteers. One group maintains cameras—either on their own land or special project cameras on public lands. Sited away from human activity and preferably on a game trail, the cameras operate day and night, snapping three photos in quick succession via a motion trigger. Memory cards and batteries need to be changed at least every three months, and the card uploaded back to Snapshot Wisconsin. Here technology takes over. To avoid any possibility of surveillance, the images on the card are encrypted. After decoding they are uploaded to Microsoft Cognitive Services, where special software removes images that contain humans. Then the image batches are sent back to each camera volunteer, who removes any people pictures the software may have missed.

After this double-check, the images move to me in my armchair via Zooniverse, a citizen science web platform designed by the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Its goal is to harness our digital enthusiasm for something more than selfies and cat videos. On Zooniverse you can help with research projects that range from finding evidence of water on Mars to transcribing Civil War telegrams.

Why not just let a computer do it? Even in this age of the Watson cognitive computing platform and pervasive facial recognition, the human mind is still the most agile tool available for subtle pattern recognition. “There is no machine that’s as good as the human brain when it comes to being able to capture these kinds of images and classify them appropriately,” explains Zuckerberg.

Log on to Zooniverse and you’ll soon begin to appreciate both the challenge and your gift. The three-photo sequence captures movement. Some images are empty, and if the frame sways, you can tell that wind triggered the snap. But then you find an empty image where just a tiny bit of vegetation moves, and you realize that something has just passed by. Sometimes there’s just a blur of color, or—at night—eye gleam. After a while, you begin to recognize places and patterns, to appreciate the different ways that animals use and move across the landscape. Even the boring photos can surprise you. There is one squirrel in Sawyer County who loves to run a steeplechase along a few fallen birch logs. Occasionally this camera catches a deer. But just as I was getting frustrated with what felt like the 99th photo of the same squirrel, I realized the field beyond was crowded with 14 young turkeys.

Citizen science dates back at least as far as the then-nascent Audubon Society’s first Christmas bird count in 1900. (Plain folk have been collecting astronomical and meteorological observations for far longer.) In Wisconsin, thousands participate in all kinds of projects, monitoring everything from water quality to bat populations.

Zuckerberg hopes that through Snapshot Wisconsin, biology can join the ranks of such disciplines as meteo- rology that collect data continuously. “Collecting biological data tends to be very difficult,” he explains. State-of-the- art radio tracking can follow only a few individuals. Ecologists want to see how species respond across broad stretches of space and time.

“To me the real value of this is being able to think about animal communities over the course of an entire year,” Zuckerberg says. “It’s thinking about big-pattern ecology.”

Snapshot Wisconsin is in what you might call its giddy start- up phase. There isn’t an end product yet, but as the project ramps up, the anecdotal excitement grows. Director Jennifer Stenglein can tell you that there are quite a few porcupines, not so many striped skunks and a fair number of fly- ing squirrels. Also, that we don’t capture as many wolves as you might think, and that it can be very hard to tell coyotes from wolves. And, to no one’s surprise, there are lots and lots of deer. In fact, 60 percent of the animal photos from Sawyer and Iowa counties have deer. Which leads to an obvious question: Can Snapshot Wisconsin close the persistent (and politically sticky) gap between hunters and the DNR about deer populations? Nobody is taking bets on that, but the project should upgrade research techniques overall. “The way that the DNR tallies wildlife is highly sporadic,” says Townsend. “It’s not systematic, it’s different among different wildlife species, it’s difficult to do and it’s expensive to do well.”

Stenglein’s other major DNR responsibility is care and feeding of the state deer population model, and she sees Snapshot Wisconsin as a dual-use tool. On the one hand, it can contribute to the modeling currently in place, providing an index for population size, some idea of overwinter survival, and the fawn-doe ratio. “Cameras can be the best way to get a couple of those deer metrics, we think,” she says.

“It might also lead to an entirely different way of understanding the deer population,” Stenglein notes. The current model uses data from two observation windows: an August/September survey conducted by the DNR and the public, and the nine-day gun season harvest data. Snapshot would provide many more data points in time.

Two important research projects will help determine the ultimate value of the cameras. Elk reintroduction in Sawyer, Ashland, Bayfield and Jackson counties includes a much higher density of cameras. This will allow scientists to check the validity of the lower-density Snapshot data. And because many of the elk are also collared, traditional telemetry data can also be compared with the camera data. Similar comparisons can be made on another project in Dane, Iowa and Grant counties studying the survival impact of chronic wasting disease. Deer and their predators (coyote and bobcat) are both being collared, and cameras are also planned.

Current deer population models have a strong grasp of general population dynamics, but they are missing crucial landscape factors that we know influence deer. That, says Townsend, is where Snapshot Wisconsin will make the difference. “You are not going to get any one township perfectly, but by sampling enough townships you are going to sample the diversity of land cover and land uses,” he explains.

When all of those cameras meet all of that diversity, patterns will emerge. Find a relationship between deer density and vegetation and you can begin to make predictions. “The strength is in numbers,” Townsend says. “The remote-sensing data is everywhere. Can we harvest all that information to help make the models better?”

Charged with predicting deer populations, Stenglein usually thinks about lots of deer all at once. But as she’s built up Snapshot Wisconsin, a different window on wildlife has opened.

It began when she saw the work of an artist who was using her own trail cam photos for inspiration. Stenglein realized the artist was not painting a generic raccoon, but a very particular raccoon. The artist didn’t “know” the raccoon, and was just looking at photos. Yet there was a kind of individual relationship on view. “I realized that so much of this project is actually about the individuals in these photos,” Stenglein says. “That’s what draws people to this project.”

It was easy to imagine the connection landowners might feel for a camera they install and maintain on their property, or even one on public lands that they use. Stenglein gets lots of email from volunteers thrilled the first time they get a fisher or black bear they didn’t know they had on their property. Sue Steinmann MS’83 volunteered to place a camera on her scrub oak barrens near Arena “to see if we have bear or bobcats,” she says. “I really think we had a wolf come through last winter.” Now she’ll have more than footprints for proof.

Steinmann and her husband are active in ecological restoration, so they are probably more engaged in natural resource issues than most people in Wisconsin. But one of the things being studied by Snapshot Wisconsin is how citizen science can lead to better communication between scientists, resource managers and the public—and how this might lead to better resource management overall.

“When you have folks who are engaged in the process in more depth, and maybe helping to drive some of the questions, or helping to partici- pate in the interpretation of the data, that’s where you’re starting to see some of these community-level outcomes,” says Christine Anhalt-Depies, who is currently pursuing a PhD in wildlife ecology.

Anhalt-Depies is watching the online dynamic among the volunteers— some of whom come from all over the world—and how that evolves. Members of the research team are identified in Zooniverse, and the project also includes a few moderators (you can think of them almost as docents)—volunteers who help new users navigate the learning curve. The chatter is informed and supportive, and while the task might seem rote, it quickly becomes fun.

“I get addicted to doing that and have to stop after a while,” admits Sue Johansen BS’94. As a naturalist at Devil’s Lake State Park, she monitors three cameras for the park and one Snapshot Wisconsin camera in the West Bluff area. While the cameras began as a new way to engage visitors, they’ve also found animals—flying squirrels and short-tailed weasels—that no one knew were in the park. “What happens when you’re not around?” she says. “It’s a different way to connect to the outdoors.”

Then there are the “super users.” Zooniverse projects tend to develop their own core volunteers, people who process fantastically more images than most people. Some of these people are fully vested in the community aspect, engaging in conversation through message boards. Others remain silent. What are they getting from it, Anhalt-Depies wants to know. Will it translate to engagement in the real world?

“These are not cyborgs out there,” Zuckerberg says. “These are people very invested in the research.”

It’s these modern times that make Snapshot Wisconsin so fascinating.

We are becoming so acclimated to screens, to surveillance, to the omnipresence of cameras. Social networks have always mattered, but they are more visible than ever as we attempt to reap their bumper crops and avoid their vicious undertow. Selfies may be changing our very sense of our place in the world. Science and business are being rapidly remade by our ability to collect big data, and by our struggle to understand it.

Snapshot Wisconsin rides the rebounding ripple effects of all of these phenomena. And yet somehow nature remains at the center of the experience.

I admit: I had my doubts. But I threw both hands up in delight when I scored my first black bear. I was tickled to learn the blob that I had thought might be a wounded turkey turned out to be, literally, a happy family pileup of otters. I laughed longer than I should have when the camera caught a coyote leaving a fecal sample. (Photo bomb.)

In nature there is no substitute for observation. And while the parade of images in Snapshot Wisconsin should not be mistaken for being out there, it’s a legitimate supplement, a booster shot against nature deficit disorder.

“If you are going to maintain nature or wild places on this earth as our own numbers grow, I think it’s going to be because we care about it,” says NASA’s Woody Turner. “And to care about something you have to be at least somewhat familiar with it.”

Zuckerberg worries that we are increasingly detached from nature— that some children actually view nature as something to fear. Sometimes he listens to his children, ages 9 and 14, on Zooniverse in the next room. They love all the deer pictures but get totally jazzed by the occasional bear.

“I think using technology to allow another experience is what makes this project fun,” he says. “This offers a window for kids to become interested and engaged in natural history. I think any way you can do that is going to be a positive experience.”

Five things everyone should know about… Sloths

1) A sloth is not a sloth. There are two types of tree sloths that diverged roughly 20 million years ago—two-toed and three-toed sloths, so named for the number of digits on their forelimbs. They differ greatly in what they eat, when they’re active, the trees they use, how far they move and even their mating systems. In a nutshell, two-toed sloths are generalists, using a wide variety of habitat types and resources, while the three-toed sloth is much more specialized, eating leaves from just a few species of trees, and even spending the majority of their lives in just a few individual trees.

2) They are extremely low-energy. Both types of sloths have slow metabolisms, but the three-toed sloth has the lowest energetic needs of any mammal ever recorded. Sloths achieve this by not moving very much, and also by letting their body temperatures fluctuate with outdoor temperatures. In terms of calories, a single potato is all a three-toed sloth would need each day to survive (if sloths actually ate potatoes).

3) Constipation is a way of life. Sloths consume plenty of fiber in the form of leaves (three-toed sloths) and a variety of leaves and fruits (two-toed sloths). Yet these foods are digested so slowly that sloths need to pass feces and urine only about once a week. Three-toed sloths climb down to defecate at the base of their host trees—practically the only time they leave the canopy.

4) The sloth is a miniature ecosystem. And understanding that ecosystem helps clarify sloths’ odd bathroom behavior. Sloths host a dedicated species of algae in their fur as well as scores of flightless “sloth moths” that depend on the sloth’s defecation descent for reproduction. The moth lays eggs in the sloth’s dung and then returns to the sloth’s fur. After the eggs hatch, the caterpillars feed on the dung, become moths, and the moths find—during the only brief moment in their lifetime that they can fly—another sloth to live on. When the moths die, their bodies are decomposed by fungi and bacteria in the sloth’s fur. The products of this decay, nitrogen in particular, provide fertilizer for the algae, which the sloths eat—thus adding nutrients to their diet.

5) Made for the shade. As tropical forests in Central and South America are cleared for agriculture and other uses, sloths (like many other species) need to find or adapt to new habitats in order to survive. Our team studied sloth populations at a large shade-grown cacao plantation in Costa Rica. With its diverse overstory of native trees, the plantation provides suitable habitat for sloths—especially two-toed sloths—and seems to point the way to at least one kind of farming that can benefit sloths and other native tropical animals.

Jonathan Pauli and Zach Peery, professors of forest and wildlife ecology, have studied sloths in Costa Rica since 2009.

PHOTO: Jonathan Pauli watches after releasing a two-toed sloth in Costa Rica
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pauli

For the Birds

Slipping into a patch of woods in western Dane County, Jim Berkelman ignores the swarming mosquitoes and strains to sort through the early- morning chatter of warblers, robins and vireos and the nearby drum of a pileated woodpecker. “I’m hearing something I wouldn’t expect to hear,” says Berkelman, a lecturer in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at CALS and a volunteer contributor to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, a comprehensive, volunteer-powered survey of birds that nest in Wisconsin.

Experienced birders use their ears as much as their eyes to identify species, and Berkelman thinks he hears a northern parula, a small warbler that doesn’t typically nest this far south. Finding a bird, Berkelman explains, is only the start. The point of the Atlas, he notes, is to identify and map where birds in Wisconsin are courting, nesting, breeding and raising their broods.

To be sure of that, “atlasers,” as volunteer observers like Berkelman are called, must find tangible evidence that a species has actually taken up residence. A nest, of course, is the most obvious clue. But most birds are assiduously covert in their nesting and only conspicuous players like robins, herons, orioles, house wrens and bluebirds construct their nests in ways that make them easy to find and identify.

Other definitive hallmarks of breeding birds include observations of birds carrying nesting material or food for nestlings; distraction displays where birds seek to draw animals, other birds or humans away from a nest; and, of course, fledglings. Some bird species are fastidious as well and carry fecal matter away from occupied nests. Such an observation is also a telltale sign of breeding and can be used by an atlaser to confirm breeding activity and provide a new data point that science can ultimately draw on.

Following a rising wooded path to the top of a hill, Berkelman’s rounds on this warm June day encompass two different types of ecosystems: forest, and open fields and prairie. His block is designated as a “priority block,” a specified block within a six-block “quad” on a grid of more than 7,000 three-mile-by-three-mile blocks that covers Wisconsin. Within that grid are 1,175 priority blocks, each of which requires at least a year’s documentation of breeding birds within a five-year period to ensure that the state is uniformly surveyed for the new Atlas. In addition, there are 153 “specialty blocks” that have unique habitat, are of high conservation value or are of particular interest to ornithologists.

Today, Berkelman is recording his data the old-fashioned way: with pen and notebook. Later, he can plug his observations into Atlas eBird, an online checklist program that is a direct conduit to the database that is the bedrock of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas.

Data, of course, are the raw material of science. Astronomers gather it by measuring and parsing starlight. Molecular biologists get data by plumbing the sequence of the chemical base pairs that make up a gene or genome. Meteorologists numerically dissect the many variables of weather—temperature, precipitation, wind, clouds.

To be sure, most data collection is a laborious and numbing process—the antithesis of the eureka moment. Harvesting data can be very expensive, too, as the tools of modern science have become bigger, more complex and more powerful in their ability to see farther or smaller, drill deeper, or accelerate particles to higher energies. Indeed, much of what we hear about modern scientific discovery rests on the pillars of sophisticated technology. Think of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Large Hadron Collider, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory and the Human Genome Project as just a few examples.

But while technology is taking science to new heights, it’s also giving a boost to the age-old methods of data gathering like the ones Berkelman uses in his efforts to document the presence of breeding birds. The Internet and personal computing technology are being used like never before to crowd-source traditional observational data collected by a growing cadre of citizen scientists. Groups of people or individuals armed with laptops and app-laden smartphones are collectively logging everything from trash in the ocean and flying ants to cosmic rays and precipitation, giving working scientists access to oceans of new data and the revelations that come from subsequent analysis and interpretation.

In the realm of ecology, citizen science has gained a new standing as researchers have tapped into the potential of an interested public. Citizen science projects, mapping things like the presence and behaviors of bumblebees, manta rays, butterflies and bats, have fueled dozens of published studies.

It’s proven to be a powerful resource for Ben Zuckerberg, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology at CALS. North American birds and their distribution on a changing landscape are a primary focus of his research, a significant portion of which depends on data gathered by volunteer observers.

For instance, Zuckerberg and post-doctoral fellow Karine Princé drew on citizen science data to tell us that the cast of characters we see at our bird feeders in the winter is shifting, most likely due to climate change. Their study of wintering songbirds shows that some species, once rare during the Wisconsin winter, are shifting their ranges north, remaking the resident communities of birds that visit our backyard feeders.

The conclusions of the study rested on two decades of data gathered by thousands of citizen scientists through the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch.

“Birds have always been important environmental indicators,” Zuckerberg explains. Rapidly declining songbird populations in the 1950s and 1960s, he notes, were used to help ascertain the consequences of widespread use of the chemical insecticide DDT, which was subsequently banned, first in Wisconsin and then nationally.

The DDT story was famously informed by the unintended involvement of ordinary citizens who gathered baseline data in the form of bird eggs. In the 19th century, collecting bird eggs was a widespread hobby, an artifact of the Victorian obsession with the natural world. Many collections ended up in museums where, decades later, CALS ornithologist Joseph Hickey and his students used them to document the thinning of eggshells subsequent to the widespread introduction of DDT into the environment in the 1940s and ’50s.

Today the contributions of citizen scientists tend to be more directed, and the advent of personal computers and smartphones, in particular, are making participation easier, more immediate and more effective. And a prime example of that trend is the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, a collaborative project by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory.

This year, the group launched a second iteration of the Atlas. Zuckerberg and other scientists are working with Atlas coordinators and waiting in anticipation of a flood of new data from the project, which recruits volunteers statewide to survey thousands of designated blocks over a five-year period for evidence of breeding birds.

The first Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas featured data collected by nearly 1,600 volunteers between 1995 and 2000. As its name implies, the Atlas is a survey that documents the distribution and abundance of birds breeding in Wisconsin. It provides critical baseline information about bird species that live in our state and is an important benchmark in terms of assessing potential changes in bird populations over time due to things like habitat loss and climate change. It also helps document avian diversity, the state of endangered and rare bird species, and habitat needs in Wisconsin.

Such data, explains Zuckerberg, help scientists make sense of a world that involves players ranging from microbes to plants and animals, including birds. There are so many moving parts that capturing a wide snapshot of what exists where at a given point in time can give scientists insightful information about the dynamics, nuances and health of an ecosystem.

“Ecology is necessarily a messy endeavor,” Zuckerberg observes. “But at certain scales, it all becomes very clear.”

Drawing on things like Breeding Bird Atlas data, Zuckerberg and other scientists can get at the scales that matter: geography and time. As the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II effort gets under way, ecologists are laying the groundwork for analyzing the data by formulating hypotheses and ideas about what the data might show and how it will compare to data in the first iteration of the Atlas, which, according to the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology, “represented the largest coordinated field effort in the history of Wisconsin ornithology.”

Data collection for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II began in 2015 and runs through 2019. In September the DNR released findings for the first Atlas season. Volunteers submitted nearly 24,000 checklists documenting the location and breeding activity of 229 species of birds. These early data show that wild turkeys are on the move, now populating nearly every corner of our state. And eight species of birds new to the Wisconsin breeding landscape since the last survey—including the iconic whooping crane—have cropped up in the new Atlas data.

“The stories that come out of the data are so robust,” Zuckerberg says. “We go in with our ideas of what we’re going to uncover, and some of the patterns just jump out at us.”

The major advantage of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, according to noted ornithologist Stan Temple, a CALS emeritus professor in forest and wildlife ecology, is that it documents the relationship between birds and the places they require to successfully reproduce. “Habitat affinity is where the Atlas works best,” Temple explains.

Temple cites other long-standing citizen science efforts to document birds. The North American Breeding Bird Survey was officially launched in 1966. Conducted during the breeding season, volunteers traverse by car more than 3,700 randomly selected 24.5-mile road transects in the United States and Canada. Stopping every half-mile, volunteers document every bird seen or heard in a three-minute span before moving to the next observing station. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Temple argues, is the gold standard for measuring population trends among birds.

A more recent citizen science effort—one that capitalizes on personal computing technology and helps inform the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas—is the aforementioned eBird. Taking old-fashioned pen and paper checklists into the digital age, eBird is an online checklist linked to a central database. Used by amateur and professional birders, eBird logs millions of bird observations worldwide in any given month through a simple and intuitive web interface. The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II is the first state Atlas effort to employ it.

“We’re in the information age now,” explains Nick Anich, the Wisconsin DNR Breeding Bird Atlas coordinator. “We have eBird. We’re excited to use this new system. The developers have put an awful lot of effort into the checklist input, and they just launched the maps function. And the data update at least every 24 hours, so we can see things in real time.”

But can the information gathered by armies of citizen scientists be trusted? Can it help researchers predict the future of Wisconsin’s environment? How is it validated? Can scientists get over any qualms they might have about data collected beyond the strict parameters of controlled experiments and expert observation?

Zuckerberg, who has published on the use and value of crowd-sourced data, believes that many scientists are coming around to the idea that the data indeed represent an accurate picture of the natural world. “There has always been some skepticism about it in ecology. But studies show it is valuable data that are relatively accurate for picking up ecological patterns and processes,” Zuckerberg says.

“There are entire subfields of ecology dependent on these data. Theories in macroecology and how species respond to widespread environmental changes, such as pollution or climate change, for example,” Zuckerberg observes, referencing the study of relationships between living organisms and their environments at large spatial scales. “We wouldn’t be able to do anything like that without citizen science.”

That kind of insight is essential, Zuckerberg stresses, as broad-scale environmental change due to pollution, deforestation, reforestation and climate change will have significant and possibly lasting effects on birds in many different types of ecosystems.

According to Temple, the power of citizen science lies in the sheer numbers of observers. As a new CALS faculty member in 1976, Temple launched the Wisconsin Checklist Project. “The Wisconsin Checklist Project did in the predigital age what eBird does now,” Temple explains. “It is a rigorous way of engaging lots of bird-watchers in a very systematic way.”

For the most part, Temple says, the data are trustworthy. “Bird-watchers are used to keeping records, so you’re not asking them to do anything that already isn’t part of the culture. Mistakes in observing and recording happen, but it is safe to say those few errors become insignificant noise in comparison to the strength of the signal: the overwhelming number of accurate observations.”

For atlasers like Florence Edwards-Miller, a 31-year-old communications specialist from Madison, the chance to go into the field and gather data blends neatly with her deep-felt appreciation of the natural world.

Trekking through the prime birding habitat of Madison’s Nine Springs E-way on a rainy midsummer morning, Edwards-Miller is on a mission. An experienced birder, she knows she can confirm any number of breeding birds that use the settling ponds of Madison’s Metropolitan Sewerage District to raise their broods. And she is eager to contribute those little bits of data to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas effort.

“You can’t make good decisions unless you know what’s out there,” says Edwards-Miller. “I believe in science. I believe in the importance of the data.”

In a little more than an hour, she confirms the presence of breeding mallards, Canada geese and red-winged blackbirds—all pedestrian wetland species—by noting offspring and, in the case of the blackbirds, a cantankerous distraction display.

It takes a little longer to find the killdeer fledglings, but at the end of our circuit around the pond, there they are: little puffballs on stilts trailing behind their foraging parents. It’s a beautiful sight. And another valuable data point for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas.

Russia: Monitoring Russia’s “rewilding”

Doing fieldwork in the remote wilderness of Russia isn’t for the faint of heart. There are long distances to travel on deeply rutted roads, bleak outpost towns with meager accommodations, and bears and wolves to contend with. Plus—in the case of visiting American scientists—the constant presence of an armed guard who wasn’t there to protect them from large carnivores. “

He was there in case we encountered illegal poachers,” explains forest and wildlife ecology (FWE) professor Volker Radeloff, who has been visiting Russia in a research capacity for a dozen years, most recently with his fellow FWE professor Anna Pidgeon.

According to the duo (who are married), the opportunity to visit two of Russia’s protected areas— the Kologrivksi Forest northeast of Moscow and the Caucasus Mountains in the south—is worth the trouble.

That’s because Russia offers a unique case study for conservation scientists interested in studying the impact of land use changes on wildlife populations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, citizens abandoned the state’s collectivized farms, leaving many of the agricultural fields to revert to a more natural state—and opening up new space for animals to live and roam.

“Their forests are regrowing and their wildlands are coming back, which is something we don’t see in many other places on the planet—especially at that magnitude,” says Radeloff.

Radeloff, an expert in using satellite imagery to monitor land use changes, can look at his remote sensing data and see that forests are expanding in Russia. But the images don’t tell Radeloff and Pidgeon much about what’s happening “on the ground” with local wildlife populations. For that, they need to partner with Russian scientists, working with them on their turf.

As an example, while satellite imagery can help identify promising habitat for the reintroduction of European bison into new areas within the Caucasus Mountains, many other factors will determine a herd’s ultimate success.

“We identified an area that looked like good habitat, but the local scientists made it quite clear that this would not work because of the human context,” says Radeloff. “They told us the bison would all be shot there within a week; they’d never survive. That’s the kind of information we need that we cannot learn remotely and that nobody is publishing about in scientific journals.”

That “human context” is a significant factor, even within the nation’s protected areas. Animals are hunted for food by locals and for trophies by affluent sportsmen. In the southern Caucasus Mountains, ibex, a type of wild goat, are killed for their horns, which are used as wineglasses during traditional Georgian wedding ceremonies. The Saiga antelope of the Kalmykia are likewise poached for their horns, which are sold on the Chinese medicine market. These forces must be factored in.

Trips to Russia also enable Radeloff and Pidgeon to develop important scientific relationships. They regularly host Russian conservation scientists in their Madison labs, giving visitors the opportunity to work on short projects that can aid their efforts back home in Russia.

“Both of us are interested in capacity building, particularly in countries where the resources or training may not be quite as comprehensive as it is here in the United States,” says Pidgeon. “These relationships lead to a cross-pollination that benefits both sides as we work to study and support wildlife populations in Russia.”

Keeping Track of Wolf Deaths

Tim Van Deelen, a CALS professor of wildlife ecology, specializes in the management of large mammals, including population estimation and dynamics, hunting, interaction of deer life history and chronic wasting disease—and, not least, the growth of Wisconsin’s wolf population and its effects on white-tailed deer.

As this year’s wolf hunt season opens in Wisconsin, we talked with him about a hidden and disturbing topic: illegal killing, which Van Deelen says may have increased in recent years. Much of the data on this subject, he says, comes from work by his former doctoral student Jennifer Stenglein MS’13 PhD’14, who is now a wildlife researcher with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Can you give us an idea of how wolves die?
As we know from radio collaring data, wolves die for a variety of reasons. Wolves in Wisconsin have relatively high mortality rates, and that probably has to do with the fact that they’re living on a landscape that’s much more highly impacted by humans than, say, northern Canada or Alaska. We have higher levels of wolves getting hit by cars, especially as they begin encroaching parts of central and southern Wisconsin where we have higher road densities.

Wolves are also territorial, so on the margins of their pack territories or where there are territorial disputes between packs, wolves will kill each other.

Wolves die of disease. We’ve had deaths due to parvovirus and mange. Wolves sometimes starve to death if they can’t get enough prey or if they’re old or injured and otherwise inefficient as hunters.

There’s also a fair amount of unexplained mortalities that we have from radio tracking data.

Can you elaborate on that?
We have radio-collared wolves that outlive the radio collars—that is, they outlive the battery that powers the collar—so you have a record that starts when the animal is radio-collared and ends when you stop getting signals. Understanding mortality rates at the population level requires you to make some decisions about how you’re going to treat those animals once the record stops.

Research that my graduate student has been doing suggests that a fair number of those animals are dying.

Do you suspect illegal killing?
Well, the problem with illegal killing is you don’t observe it. You can’t point to something and say, “That wolf died from illegal killing,” but you need extra mortality in the system once you explain everything else in order to reconcile the mortality rates that we’re seeing with the reproductive rates that we get from the pup counts and the growth rate that we see from the annual population counts.

So there’s a missing gap in the data of why some animals disappear.
Right. The basic population dynamics equation is very simple. It says that the number of animals born minus the number of animals dying is the net addition or subtraction from the population. If we have a population that we can count every year like we do with wolves—we count them every winter—then we can mathematically fit an equation to that growth using things like observed deaths and estimated reproduction.

When we can’t get that to reconcile, then we need some additional deaths that are unobserved to make the growth rate that we see agree with the mortality and the reproductive rates that we’re measuring.

The suspicion is that many or some of those unobserved deaths are due to illegal killing. Because from our radio tracking data we do have good estimates on the relative amounts of deaths that are due to other things, like being killed by other wolves or dying of disease or being hit on the road.

What would prompt illegal killing?
Human dimensions research done at the Nelson Institute suggests that people living in wolf range have a sense of frustration that many people think traces back to this on-again, off-again listing of wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

We went through a period where the wolves would be de-listed, or there would be movement toward de-listing, and then somebody would step in, the courts would intervene, and the wolves would become listed again.

There’s good human dimensions research in wildlife that says that attitudes toward wildlife tend to degrade when people feel like they have no options for dealing with the problems that those wild animals are causing.

When wolves are put “off limits” because of the Endangered Species Act, then people who are experiencing problems with wolves, real or imagined— their attitudes toward wolf conservation begin to degrade.

That aligns with some of the research that’s been done on this campus suggesting, among other things, that people who are interviewed in the
north say they’d be more willing to illegally kill a wolf if the opportunity presented itself. More people are saying that now than in the early 2000s. That time period aligns with the growing frustration people have experienced over de-listing.

How many unexplained wolf deaths are there?
About 20 to 30 per year, in our best estimate. That’s been from the period 1980 to 2013, where we fit the models. There’s evidence that it’s been increasing recently. By “recently,” I mean within the past five or 10 years.

Can you please elaborate?
During the early part of the growth phase of wolves in Wisconsin (1996– 2002) the wolf population averaged about 200 wolves during midwinter counts. We estimated that about 43 of these would die during the year, and unobserved deaths were likely not needed to reconcile observed popula- tion growth. During the latter part of the growth phase (2003–2012), Wisconsin’s wolves averaged about 600 wolves, and about 138 of these would be expected to die during the year. However, you would also need another 24 dead wolves to reconcile the rate of population growth observed. These 24 would include a mix of natural and human-caused subtractions, including an unknown level of illegal killing. The change from 1996–2002 to 2003–2012 suggest that illegal killing may have increased.

What kinds of conflicts do people have with wolves in Wisconsin?
Probably the most important right now are conflicts with livestock producers. We have a handful of areas in Wisconsin that are hot spots where there’s been sort of long-term chronic depredation by wolves on livestock.

That’s a real problem—and fortunately in Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources has a partnership with USDA Wildlife Services. They have professional USDA trappers who can go in, verify whether a calf or a cow was killed by wolves, and then help the landowners either by excluding the wolves from the territory or by trapping and euthanizing the wolves that are causing problems. They’re very professional, they’re very good at what they do, and they’re very successful.

Another problem in Wisconsin is wolves depredating hounds. These are mostly hounds used for hunting bears and smaller carnivores. If you’re running hounds late in the summer, that’s when the wolves are provisioning their pups at rendezvous sites.

The wolves probably interpret that incursion as an invading pack, so they would attack and kill those hounds. That happens, that’s an issue to deal with. DNR has been proactive with trying to identify those areas where depredations have occurred and might be more likely, and warn people to avoid those areas with their hounds if at all possible.

There’s a lot of talk about wolves having impacts on deer in the north. In some places, that’s probably a reality. In some places it might be more perception than reality. At a statewide scale using the harvest statistics, we just haven’t seen a real impact of wolves, but that’s sort of a coarse-filter approach.

We have two deer research projects going, one in eastern farmland and one in the northwest. We actually don’t find a whole lot of wolf predation on adult deer, which would be the mechanism by which wolves would have the most impact on the deer herd. Still, if you’re the unlucky individual whose hunting spot happens to be sitting right on top of a wolf rendezvous zone, you might not be seeing very many deer.

What would you like to see done with wolf management going forward?
One of the unique things about wolf management in Wisconsin is that we’re managing this population now at a pretty high exploitation rate—meaning that we’ve got heavy harvest seasons. Those are designed explicitly to reduce the wolf population.

Harvest management theory would suggest that there’s some danger of long-term instability. I think the most important thing that managers of Wisconsin’s wolf population need to do is keep putting efforts into monitoring the wolf population—tracking population trends, tracking the extent to which wolves live on the landscape. Those are the measurements you can use to identify some sort of instability and then be able to deal with it.

To be fair to the managers, they know that, they’re working on that. We’re collaborating with them to come up with more cost-effective ways to get the sort of information they need to track population trends.

 

Not Quite Bucky

Badgers are notoriously difficult to study. Not only do they spend all day in underground dens, emerging only by night to hunt—they can’t even be tracked using radio collars. The devices slip right off of their heads, which taper from shoulder to nose. Badgers are so hard to work with, in fact, that researchers aren’t sure how many of them live in Wisconsin, even though the badger is our state animal.

“We don’t have a clue. We just don’t know much about badgers in Wisconsin,” says Jimmy Doyle, a forest and wildlife ecology graduate student who is studying the reclusive carnivores as part of a joint UW-Madison–Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) project called the Wisconsin Badger Study.

The project, which relies on surgically implanted radio transmitters to monitor the movements of badgers living in the southwestern part of the state, represents the first big effort in Wisconsin to better understand these animals. It will shed light on the landscapes where badgers prefer to live, where they prefer to hunt, how far they roam, whether their territories overlap and much more.

But first, Doyle has to find and catch them.

Working with various DNR technicians, he has walked through scores of miles of grassland over the past two seasons looking for dens, setting traps and then coaxing badgers into travel crates. The effort yielded three badgers in 2011 and 12 in 2012.

“They tend to be pretty feisty,” says Doyle. “There’s lots of snarling and snapping.”

Once caught, the badgers are driven to Madison for a health exam and to have a small radio transmitter the size of an AA battery surgically implanted just below the skin at the scruff of their necks. It’s a quick procedure, and the badgers are returned to their dens within about four hours. The transmitters enable Doyle and his DNR collaborators to track the badgers’ movements at night from the comfort of an antenna-equipped truck—without ever needing to get near the animals again.

The project has a second purpose: to help inform DNR efforts led by DNR grassland community ecologist David Sample to protect grassland-nesting birds in the study area.

Wildlife ecology professor Tim Van Deelen, who is Doyle’s advisor, explains the connection. “Grassland birds have this problem in the Midwest where they have to pull off reproduction in a very predator-rich environment—just think of all the small rodents that would love to eat a little bird egg,” he says. “Badgers might actually be good for birds because they might suppress some of those predators—by eating them.”

Class Act: Hardwood and Soft Skills

When CALS sophomore Logan Wells tells you he spends his spare time sawing logs, he doesn’t mean he’s catching up on sleep. He’s actually out in the woods, running logs through his portable sawmill, making lumber for clients—and making money to help cover his college expenses.

Wells’s Smock Valley Timber is more than a business—it’s part of his education. He started it as a hands-on project for the National FFA Organization, the youth program focused on agricultural and natural resource careers, while he was still in high school. Wells enjoyed working the wood and growing the business so much that he opted to enroll in CALS as a forest and wildlife ecology major with an eye toward a career in forestry or forest products.

While practicing and studying forestry keeps Wells busy, the program that sent him into the woods in the first place keeps him even busier. Logan is a state vice president in the Wisconsin FFA Association, representing 24 FFA chapters in Dane, Rock and Green counties.

Much of that work involves going out to middle and high schools, where he encourages FFA members to get active in the program and talks with them about the importance of “soft” skills—a positive attitude, good work habits, teamwork and other traits that can put them on the path to success.

His own high school FFA project helps them understand where a good idea and a good attitude can take them. His timber enterprise paid off in more than money. It earned a top prize in a national FFA competition, which in turn earned him a spot on an agricultural exchange trip to Costa Rica featuring visits to banana, coffee and cacao plantations, whitewater rafting and trips through the rainforest on zip lines and suspension bridges—all very exciting stuff for students to hear about.

“I get to tell them my story and inspire them to do something like that for themselves,” Wells says.