Understanding elusive species through camera traps

Hello readers, so far this summer has been a busy one. Most of the shepherds have already traveled up into our Project Area, and our wolf survey efforts are providing insight into the animal communities residing here in the valley.

A cougar that was captured on one of the Wood River Wolf Project's camera traps in the Wood River Valley of Idaho. 

Idaho is home to a diverse array of large carnivores, from grizzly bears in the northern mountains, cougars prowling the ridgelines, and wolves spread across the upper half of the state. While each species has their own differences, they share one common attribute – they are elusive. This makes it challenging for scientists to attain baseline information, such as population estimates and distribution, to develop effective conservation programs.

Kris Thoreson, the WRWP Field Manager, setting up a camera trap and recording the GPS coordinates in the Project Area.

Photo Credit: Lauren Hennelly

To piece together a detailed picture of an elusive species’ ecology and behavior, scientists must rely on special techniques and equipment. Used worldwide, camera traps are an important conservation tool to document the diversity of wildlife residing in a specific region. These motion-detecting cameras have helped scientists conserve tiger populations in India (1), evaluate impacts of forest logging on carnivore species in Madagascar rainforests (2), and understand predator-prey communities in Central Idaho here at the Wood River Wolf Project.

We have captured many photos of bears within the Project Area of the Wood River Wolf Project!

While it may seem quite straightforward – just set up a camera trap and return a couple weeks later to collect the images – it takes in-depth knowledge of the region’s topography, habitat types, and the focal species’ behavior to have a chance at successful photos. And largely, it comes down to luck! Because large carnivores favor core areas with little human impact, our field team often treks miles to remote locations to reach one of our camera traps. These non-invasive methods allow our team to effectively study the local wildlife without the need to directly handle or stress the animals.

This effort has revealed important information on animal communities that share their habitat with livestock during the summer months. By checking our cameras periodically, we are able to notify incoming sheep bands of large carnivore presence in nearby regions. In this way, shepherds have greater awareness of potential threats to their sheep, enabling them to have the non-lethal deterrents readily accessible in the case of a conflict. As the summer shifts to autumn, we are continuing these camera trap efforts and hope to end this year as a depredation-free season.

Lauren Hennelly

Lauren Hennelly (the author of this post and WRWP's Wolf Biologist) and Phoebe Bean (our Social Media Coordinator and Project Photographer), set up a camera trap in the Project Area.

Photo Credit: Andrew Kane of Backcountry Image Photography



(1) K. Ullas Karanth. 1995. Estimating tiger Panthera tigris populations from camera-trap data using capture – recapture models. Biological Conservation 71(3): 333-338. 

(2) Brian D. Gerber, Sarah M. Karpanty and Johny Randrianantenaina. 2012. The impact of forest logging and fragmentation on carnivore species composition, density, and occupancy in Madagascar’s rainforest. Oryx 46(3): 414-422.