Stories in Washington

Candid Camera: A View into Cle Elum Ridge's Wildlife Project

By Maia Murphy-Williams and Anna Kottkamp-Hoard

A collage of photos of wildlife, including a deer, black bear, mountain lion and woodpecker, caught on a camera trap.
Cle Elum Wildlife Camera A pilot project at Cle Elum Ridge enables TNC and partners to observe wildlife in their natural habitat in a non-invasive, low-impact way. © TNC

An American black bear (Ursus americanus) wades into a forested pool fed by a freshwater spring, taking a chance to cool off on a warm September afternoon. This moment of calm is suddenly broken by an unseen force as the bear abruptly scrambles out of the pool and dashes into the surrounding forest, leaving only ripples. A few minutes later, a dog on a hike bounds into the scene, eagerly drinking from the pool that was so recently occupied.

Wild Encounter An American black bear (Ursus americanus) cools off in a forested spring and dashes off before a dog on a hike appears to stop for a drink.

Humans rarely have the opportunity to glimpse into the everyday lives of wildlife, but a small camera set up on a nearby tree gave us a window into their secret lives. Motion-activated wildlife cameras allow us to observe a moment in time and space, like that of a bear stopping off to cool down. Many of these cameras and pictures together can shed light onto patterns in the lives and interactions of animals in the forest, including the impact of humans.

These photos are part of a pilot project led by TNC scientists Maia Murphy-Williams and Anna Kottkamp-Hoard, in close collaboration with conservation team members Herman Flamenco, Tonya Morrey and Darcy Batura. Our team deployed 15 motion-detecting wildlife cameras throughout the “living laboratory” at Cle Elum Ridge last August to observe wildlife in their natural habitat in a non-invasive, low-impact way. This study is improving our understanding of how wildlife use and move through protected forest landscapes, providing an opportunity to test how forest management techniques impact wildlife and build an evidence base for permanent protection of the region.

Map of the Central Cascades region where TNC is working.
Central Cascades Forest The Central Cascades Forest where TNC manages lands and has implemented the Cle Elum Ridge wildlife project. Cle Elum Ridge is the green block shown north of Cle Elum and Roslyn next to the Teanaway Community Forest. © TNC

In Washington’s Central Cascades, water is a precious resource. A century’s worth of logging and fire suppression have shifted the forest structure toward younger, densely packed trees. These trees are less resilient to fire, uptake more water and are less drought tolerant than the mature, pre-colonial old-growth forests of the past. The effect of this landscape degradation on water supplies is further exacerbated by climate change. This has far-reaching impacts for forest health, fire regimes, stream health, fish survival and overall ecosystem structure and function. The Nature Conservancy in Washington is conducting research on snowpack and the effects on forest management conservation interventions on the landscape to mitigate these effects. This wildlife project is one piece of the “living laboratory” science and conservation research puzzle, homing in on monitoring and evaluating how wildlife use the landscape. As the climate warms and summers become hotter and drier, it’s increasingly important to understand and mitigate impacts on wildlife.

During the 8-week pilot study, we observed more than 35 wildlife species on the ridge. We are still in the process of analyzing the data and processing results, but we wanted to share out these delightful photos and provide a glimpse into life on the ridge.

A collage of images of wildlife walking through a forest.
Caught on Camera Top left: Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Top right: Cougar (Puma concolor) crossing a game trail. Bottom left: American black bear (Ursus americanus) walking along a trail. Bottom right: Long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata). © TNC
Side-by-side photos showing a squirrel on a tree at night and an elk walking down a trail in a forest.
Roaming the Landscape The team observed a wide variety of animals that call Cle Elum Ridge home, from the nimble, nocturnal northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) on the left to larger animals such as this elk (Cervus canadensis) on the right. © TNC

Think back to our warm, balmy summer afternoon and the black bear taking a dip in forest pool.

Not only is this a heart-warming sight of a bear cooling itself much like a human might, but this perennial, year-long water source could also be essential for its survival in the hottest, driest months of the summer.

As temperatures increase, precipitation decreases, and human encroachment and development increase throughout the Central Cascades, it’s becoming more and more important to protect migratory corridors and perennial water sources that animals depend on for year-round survival. Other animals were observed taking refuge at this cool water source on the hottest days, including mule deer, coyote, elk, bobcat and cougars.

Throughout the study, this was a very popular spot, with the most photos of wildlife taken here out of all the cameras we deployed.

A collage of images of wildlife walking through a forest.
Smile, You're on Camera In a dry forest landscape where freshwater resources are precious, many animals were observed drinking and cooling off in this perennial freshwater spring. Top left: Elk (Cervus canadensis). Top right: Cougar (Puma concolor). Bottom left: Bobcat (Lynx rufus). Bottom right: Two elk (Cervus canadensis). © TNC
Side-by-side photos showing a deer looking into the camera and a family of deer walking down a trail in a forest.
Wildlife Sightings These images help contextualize how wildlife, such as mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), use the broader landscape and rely on connections between habitat throughout the year. © TNC

Next Steps

This pilot project gave us important context for the ins and outs of working in the region. It also allowed the team to deepen local partnerships with Washington Fish and Wildlife and other community partners. Next, we’ll analyze the data collected last summer and discuss priorities for phase two of the project with our partners. Variables we’re interested in exploring in more depth are impacts of forest management type, proximity to water source, snowpack and proximity to trails and roads, recreation on wildlife distribution and use of the landscape. We'll work with our partners to hone in on the most salient and impactful applied research questions for phase two.

This project is only possible thanks to our dedicated and knowledgeable team of scientists and conservation practitioners, including Herman Flamenco, Tonya Morrey and Darcy Batura. We’re also collaborating with partners at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who are concurrently studying nearby public lands including the Teanaway Community Forest. This study has also been a great opportunity to involve interns from nearby University of Washington in camera setup and image analysis!