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Quest to find the elusive wolverine!

Our fabulous British intern Hannah Field shares her recent expedition to Washington's South Cascades to set up a wolverine camera trap with our volunteer coordinator Alison Huyett and Conservation Northwest volunteer Mike Hitchner.

Quest to find the elusive wolverine!

Success! Here is a wolverine run-pole camera trap doing what it's supposed to do.

Our fabulous British intern Hannah Field shares her recent expedition to Washington's South Cascades to set up a wolverine camera trap with our volunteer coordinator Alison Huyett and Conservation Northwest volunteer Mike Hitchner.

We headed from Seattle at 5.30am to south of Mt. Rainier in Gifford Pinchot National Forest– a new monitoring site for Conservation Northwest. After plying ourselves with coffee, we travelled to the mountains to find a suitable site to set up a run-pole camera trap. These are used to document wolverines specifically, but also anything else which is in the area. The camera is set in such a way that as a wolverine reaches for the bait, a photograph of its chest will be taken. This reveals their unique, pale chest markings which can be used to identify individuals as a method of monitoring populations.

Alison, Mike, and I had never set up a run-pole camera trap. With collective experience of finding good camera trap sites, we hoped to be successful. The extensive list of instructions looked challenging to say in the least, but a small diagram put it all into perspective for us.

How to set up a wolverine run-pole.
How to set up a wolverine run-pole.

We reached the end of the forest road, after driving up surprisingly well maintained tracks with only a few challenging dips. We loaded our rucksacks with all the tools and equipment we would need - luckily most of it was being left at the site and we wouldn’t have to carry it back! The roads and understory were lined with blueberry bushes, which we had to push and scramble through to get anywhere. However, we started noticing good signs of wildlife activity as soon as we entered the forest – fresh elk scat and tracks, puma tracks and I even found a puma skull! There were multiple game trails running through the area, which made it easier to walk through the understory.

Moving up to the saddle, we found ourselves climbing up steep slopes of slippery undergrowth and unstable ground to find a good-looking camera site. After turning back a few times and debating on which way to go, we found a fantastic site. It was relatively open (less dense understory), with an impressive network of game trails running through the site that had fresh tracks and scat everywhere. Next was the challenge to find three suitable trees: one to have the run-pole attached, a second to have the camera attached and facing the bait, and a third tree to give a side-view camera angle of the site visitors. We found what we needed, but next would be tackling the angle of the slope to set everything correctly.

First was the task of creating the run –pole by finding suitable deadwood and sawing off sections to the right size. We needed 2 longer pieces (around 5ft) and a shorter piece for the end of the run-pole, where the animal would be able to stand to reach the bait. We used an electric hand-drill to make the required holes for bolting the run-pole and brace together, and then bolting that to the tree. We held the pieces of wood up to the tree to mark places for drilling. Once all the holes were drilled, there was a lot of ratcheting to be done.

Next was to attach a cable to the two trees, which would hold the bait and take the weight of a wolverine swinging from it! This involved Alison standing on Mike’s shoulders to tie the cable high enough, which was a challenge all of its own – to tighten the cable, the small cable clamps become very fiddly when you’re trying to do it quickly!

Setting up run-pole is a team effort.
Setting up run-pole is a team effort.

I then wrapped the other end around the tree, whilst standing on the run-pole, with the bait attached. The weight of the bait made it very difficult to tighten the bolt on the cable, and so Alison joined me up on our construction to help hold the cable’s weight whilst I tightened it. It’s not as easy as it looks! But, it turned out our construction could hold both me and Alison without budging - a good sign that the run-pole could hold the weight of a black bear if necessary.

The author bravely testing out the run-pole.
The author bravely testing out the run-pole.

The camera facing the bait will get a shot of the animal and Mt Rainier in the background every time the camera is set-off by motion in the area. Not a bad spot!

The last part of the process was the worst – spreading the lure around the site. Fermented pigs blood is very attractive to any surrounding carnivores as it’s a very strong scent (it was for us, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for a wolverine). We put this on trees surrounding the site and leading up to the run-pole, where we had set gun brushes around the tree to catch hairs of whatever climbs up. This would provide samples for DNA analysis.

Overall the day was very successful, and we learnt a great deal along the way too. The wildlife monitoring is a great set of projects, producing invaluable data and having fun whilst doing so. We’re already looking forward to the excitement of checking the cameras in a month’s time!

Inspired by what you read? You can keep this important work going by sponsoring a Citizen Monitoring Team today.

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