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Dec. 3, 2022

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Watching the woods: Volunteers track down wildlife cameras hidden in Gifford Pinchot forest

Cameras snapped amazing images of all kinds of animals but were hunting for fishers

By , Columbian staff writer
10 Photos
Researchers placed hidden cameras in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to observe fishers, medium-sized members of the weasel family that are endangered in Washington.
Researchers placed hidden cameras in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to observe fishers, medium-sized members of the weasel family that are endangered in Washington. (Contributed by Cascade Forest Conservancy) Photo Gallery

RANDLE — For three years, dozens of camouflaged cameras staked out remote corners of this rugged forest, waiting for its inhabitants to wander into view.

When they did, the motion-detecting cameras started rapidly snapping — taking three photos every five seconds — and kept on snapping until the visitor moved away again. Then the cameras went still, waiting for more activity to capture.

On a recent Friday morning, 12 hardy volunteers with the Vancouver-based Cascade Forest Conservancy set up for the weekend at Iron Creek Campground north of Mount St. Helens. After an orientation, they donned backpacks, grabbed specialized gear and fanned out across the thickly wooded terrain. Their three-day mission was to track down all 72 wildlife cameras, secure their data and remove them.

“It’s the conclusion of the study,” said Shiloh Halsey, director of programs for the Cascade Forest Conservancy and the leader of this outing. “It’s an exciting time and I’m pretty pumped.”

The cameras were locked to thin trunks neighboring the towering cedars and firs that dominate this section of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The cameras took photos of anything and everything that stopped by, from deer and bobcats to mushroom-picking humans, but their main targets were fishers.

On the web

Cascade Forest Conservancy

Read the interagency report on reintroducing fishers in the Pacific Northwest

Fishers are medium-sized members of the weasel family with fine fur. (The name is misleading, as fishers don’t fish. It was apparently drawn form the word “fitch,” which means polecat or polecat pelt.) While they’re native to this forest, Halsey said, hunting and habitat loss pushed fishers to the point of extirpation — that is, local extinction — by the mid 1900s.

Fishers are listed as an endangered species in Washington. There have been several partnership efforts among governments and conservation agencies to capture hundreds of fishers in Canada and reintroduce them on the Olympic Peninsula and, more recently, in the Cascade Mountain Range.

Between December 2015 and January 2020, 81 fishers were released into the wild at Mount Rainier National Park and here, south of Randle in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, according to a July 2022 final project report from the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The released animals were outfitted with radio transmitters that kept scientists abreast of their movements for two years before the batteries ran down. Those two years have lapsed and the transmitters have gone quiet, Halsey said. But scientists and conservationists remain eager to know how those endangered, reintroduced fishers are faring in the forest.

That’s where the Cascade Forest Conservancy comes in. The nonprofit (which recently moved into a new office in downtown Vancouver) works on numerous fronts to protect the woods and preserve wildlife habitat. The work includes policy advocacy, legal action and labor-intensive science projects that simply can’t happen without volunteers, Halsey said. The conservancy’s many annual volunteer outings range from species monitoring and data collection to post-wildfire recovery and pre-fire prevention work, he said.

“We would not be able to do as much as we do without volunteers,” Halsey said. “And we get to offer unique and exciting opportunities for community members who wouldn’t be directly involved otherwise.”

Halsey, who studied habitat mapping and landscape ecology at Portland State University, and his colleague Sean Matthews, a wildlife ecologist at Oregon State University, developed the plan to monitor fishers in the south Cascades through these wildlife cameras. The Cascade Forest Conservancy and its volunteers did the grunt work of placing, maintaining and finally collecting the cameras and their data. Oregon State University will take the lead in analyzing and publishing the results, Halsey said.

Into the woods

Volunteers Neal and Matt Ballard, along with Halsey and summer intern Alex Torres, walked a forest trail and tracked their location on a topographical map displayed on an iPad. They stopped to size up the remaining distance to their quarry, realized they would need to veer off the trail and began bushwhacking through tangles of underbrush and sword ferns.

“I’ve always been interested in wildlife, and the fisher is very unusual,” said Neal Ballard, 69. “It used to be common, before the white man arrived.”

Ballard, a retired software developer, recently moved from the countryside near Battle Ground into downtown Vancouver. Halsey described him as a “supervolunteer” for the Cascade Forest Conservancy who has faithfully participated over the past decade in many volunteer projects and outings.

“People like Neal make a world of difference for our organization,” Halsey said. “He is so dedicated.”

This time, Neal Ballard even brought along his nephew, Matt Ballard, 33, who was visiting from Missouri and happy to contribute to a volunteer science project in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

“There’s no place like this anywhere in the world,” Matt Ballard said.

After about a quarter-mile of scrambling through thick vegetation, the Ballards’ iPad indicated that they must be right on top of a still-hidden camera. The best strategy now was to fan out and start scanning all nearby trees at eye level while never getting out of sight of one another.

Staying patient, careful and safe is paramount when you’re bushwhacking, Halsey had stressed during that morning’s orientation. Whenever you’re inclined to try something iffy — like hopping over a log or even stepping where you can’t see — it’s best to think again, he said.

“Taking your time to find the camera is good,” Halsey said. “Taking risks is not.”

Handle with care

Many of the well-camouflaged wildlife cameras were challenging to find. The Ballard party eventually spotted No. 64, a small gray box locked to a tree in a shady spot. Neal Ballard unlocked it with a key, released the camera, removed its data chip and handed that to Matt.

“No pressure, but that chip is like gold,” Halsey said.

Matt followed procedure by zipping the chip into a vinyl pouch and securing it in his backpack. Meanwhile, Cascade Forest Conservancy intern Torres checked in with this group’s “buddy team” by walkie-talkie. Halsey and the Ballards removed the camera’s straps from around its host tree and hauled everything away.

Back at the trailhead, a quick preview of the chip from camera No. 64 revealed more than 600 motion-triggered photographs that were taken over the past year since the last time the camera was visited.

Fishers are the point of this project, but the other creatures that routinely appear before the wildlife cameras tell scientists a lot too, Halsey said. Across the years, martens, long-tailed weasels, mountain goats and even rare Cascade red foxes have turned up in the photos, Halsey said.

“We’ve also seen a lot of bobcats,” he said. “They’re one of the primary predators of fishers.”

Fishers were spotted in at least three different locations, he said, but that’s still not the final word. Researchers still must examine thousands upon thousands of photos, he said.

“This information will help us better understand how successful the fisher reintroduction efforts have been and what future efforts might be necessary,” he said. “But we’re also interested in other wildlife species. It’s important to have comprehensive information as we tackle ecological issues.”