Yooper Wildlife Watch program allows NMU students to see animal behavior patterns

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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN)- A new program at Northern Michigan University allows undergraduate and graduate students to observe animal behaviors long-term and the use of their habitats.

Yooper Wildlife Watch is a teaching, researching, and mentoring program that uses “camera-trapping” to show how humans and wildlife creatures share the same spaces and the possible impacts it could have on the animals.

The 30 infrared cameras were set up in September, and are located on public lands across Marquette County, including Sugarloaf Mountain, Harlow Lake, and Echo Lake. Each camera is mounted to a tree, which allows the motion sensors to detect when wildlife is in the area. From there, it takes one picture per second for however long it senses motion.

Diana Lafferty, an assistant professor in Wildlife Ecology at NMU, oversees the project and guides the two graduate students who are developing curriculum and analyzing data from the images.

According to Lafferty, the U.P. is rapidly becoming a hot spot for outdoor recreation year-round and that using camera-trapping allows students to get a sneak peek into the intimate lives of wildlife.

“Camera trapping is a really powerful tool that we can use in Wildlife Ecology. It’s a non-invasive tool. So we don’t have to go out and interact with those animals or potentially disturb them. We don’t have to put our hands on them to learn what they’re doing,” said Lafferty.

Tru Hubbard is a first-year student in the Biology graduate program. She organizes the camera deployments and is specifically looking at how carnivores are using their habitat and how their behaviors are changing in regards to the human recreational activities around them.

Although in the past few months the cameras have already captured 21 different species, Hubbard hopes to catch one animal in particular.

“I love felines, so we haven’t gotten any bobcats yet but I’m sure we will get eventually because they’re pretty common. But, my ultimate goal would be to catch a cougar on the camera. I don’t know if that will actually happen at some point, but I would love to see one of them,” said Hubbard.

Hubbard also works with undergraduates and helps them get a hands-on experience of setting up cameras and going through images to identify the different animals. They collect the images about every two months.

The ultimate goal is that the information they learn and the data they collect will help natural resource managers make informed decisions to manage the Upper Peninsula wildlife long-term.

Amelia Bergquist is the other graduate student involved in the project. She is a Post-Secondary Biology Education graduate student at NMU. Bergquist will develop a curriculum from the data set which will allow Education undergraduate students to ask their own research questions. She will start implementing this curriculum in the Winter 2020 semester.

Bergquist also is building the Citizens Science Platform to help tag the pictures of wildlife.

For two months of the cameras being out, there was a total of 28,000 pictures. It took ten students 41 hours to go through all the images. To ensure proper identification of animals, each image is verified ten times by ten different volunteers.

“It’s pretty rigorous but it’s really fun to go through all those images and allow students to engage in wildlife going on around the Upper Peninsula,” said Bergquist.

Yooper Wildlife Watch is partnered with Smithsonian Institution and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, collaborating with 50 other camera-trap projects across the United States. It’s called Snapshot USA and there is one representative from each state. The goal is to look at a discrete-time period (September and October). There are pictures from each state on what animals are doing across the county. To see these images you can visit https://emammal.si.edu/.

The hope for the Yooper Wildlife Watch program is to run up to five years to see how wildlife communities change.

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