MADISON — Wisconsin scientists have launched an ambitious new plan to catalog wild animals using thousands of trail cameras, a project that could help answer just how many deer and other creatures roam the state.
UW-Madison and Department of Natural Resources researchers hope to place as many as 6,000 motion-activated trail cameras across the state. Photos will be uploaded to a crowdsourcing website; viewers will be asked to view them and try to identify the animals in them. The project, dubbed Snapshot Wisconsin, should provide the best idea yet of the size of animal populations and their movements, said Phil Townsend, a UW-Madison forestry professor and one of the project leaders.
“The important part is we’re going to be covering everywhere,” Townsend said. “We’re hoping to provide data to solve some of these (population) controversies.”
Hunters have disputed the DNR’s deer population estimates and management goals for years, arguing the agency has overestimated the herd size and thus damaged its credibility. James Kroll, a Texas deer researcher Gov. Scott Walker hired to study the DNR’s deer management strategies, recommended in a 2012 report that the agency create a monitoring program that gives landowners and hunters a sense of ownership.
That same year Townsend learned NASA was looking to fund projects that would link its satellite imagery to crowdsourced data to improve landscape management. He approached the DNR about partnering on a trail camera project that would fit NASA’s parameters for the funding. Spurred largely by Kroll’s recommendations, DNR officials agreed, said agency researcher Jennifer Stenglein.
The project calls for dividing the state into 9-square-mile segments and placing a camera in as many segments as possible, with the DNR reaching out to private landowners to get their participation.
The cameras will snap photos as animals wander by around the clock. The pictures will be uploaded to the crowdsourcing Zooniverse website, where people from around the world help researchers with their projects. The site’s visitors can view the photos and identify what they think the animal is with the help of a detailed field guide. Townsend’s graduate students and DNR experts will review photos that don’t get a consensus.
The DNR plans to enter the data into models that will estimate species population based on how often they appear on camera. Townsend’s team wants to juxtapose the information against NASA satellite imagery and build maps showing how animals move as seasons change and what environments they prefer.
The concept is similar to a trail camera crowdsourcing project underway in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. That project includes only 225 cameras, however, according to the project website. Snapshot Wisconsin will be far larger, with more cameras covering far more ground, Townsend said.
Townsend and Stenglein said Snapshot Wisconsin’s data won’t be perfect since people with no scientific training who may have never been to Wisconsin or the United States will be making species identification. But the project will still provide more data on Wisconsin wildlife than ever before, they said.
“Six thousand trail cameras is like 6,000 observers being out in the woods looking at wildlife all the time, and that’s something we haven’t had,” the DNR’s Stenglein said.
The DNR has budgeted about $300,000 in Pittman-Robertson dollars — money from federal taxes on firearms and ammunition — to purchase around 3,000 cameras over the next five years. NASA has committed $1 million, which researchers have used to set up the Zooniverse site and hire graduate students for the project, Townsend said.
Researchers have placed 560 cameras in the woods so far, with most of them in the Clam Lake and Black River Falls areas to record elk movement, Townsend said. The DNR is trying to reintroduce the species to the state by importing elk to both areas. Most of the rest of the cameras are in Iowa and Sawyer counties.
Jeff Schinkten, president of Sturgeon Bay-based Whitetails Unlimited, said the group is glad to see some effort to improve population estimates.
“We are happy to see the DNR include the public in some of their plans as this can help with strained relationships,” Schinkten said in an email. “We are ... cautiously optimistic that the (project) will provide worthwhile results.”
For more information on Snapshot Wisconsin, visit http://www.zooniverse.org/projects/zooniverse/snapshot-wisconsin.