Snapshot Wisconsin uses trail cameras for study

It seems that everyone from elementary-school kids to seniors has a smartphone. Whether most of these people really need a phone 24/7/365 is one thing, but there’s no doubt that having a combination still camera and video camera handy is a good thing.

We sportsmen have discovered another way to take photos. Trail cameras are one of the greatest developments for deer, bear and predator hunting. When we leave the ground blind or tree stand and go home, those hard-working trail cams keep on clicking away, even in the dark of night.

Even non-hunters can use these electronic marvels to record images of wildlife (or even human trespassers) in their woods or even their back yards.

I started poking around the house a few days ago, thinking about the coming deer season. I knew I had two trail cameras, but forgot I’d purchased a Browning trail cam sometime this year. It might be overkill for my slice of a 40-acre hunting club, but having more than one camera makes it easy to determine which trails are being used and which aren’t.

Now a statewide program called Snapshot Wisconsin aims to use trail cameras to gather data on wildlife in what’s labeled the largest volunteer-supported wildlife study in state history.

Jennifer Stenglein, a research scientist in the Department of Natural Resources Office of Applied Science, calls the process of using photos to study animals “camera trapping.”

“One benefit of trail camera trapping is that we can monitor multiple species at once,” Stenglein said. “Wildlife monitoring is the collection of observational data on a species of interest. In the case of Snapshot Wisconsin, those data are the individual photos taken by volunteer-hosted trail cameras.”

Snapshot Wisconsin started four years ago as a 26-county network of folks monitoring trail cameras and went statewide this week. Statewide coordinator Susan Frett said the program has used more than 1,000 volunteers monitoring 1,243 cameras and compiling 22 million photos of Wisconsin wildlife. Now that program needs many more volunteers to expand the program statewide.

The millions of photos are categorized by volunteers and posted on Zooniverse, a website where information can be shared.

Check out the Zooniverse site at www.zooniverse.org/projects/zooniverse/snapshot-wisconsin/about/research.

The data can help the Department of Natural Resources monitor mammal and other animal populations and even help them make decisions about wildlife in a cost-effective manner (for example, some animals are difficult to survey in winter because of deep snow).

Using trail cams to prove the presence of certain rare or visiting species isn’t new. Several citizens’ trail cams snapped the photos of visiting cougars in recent years, with those snapshots proving these big cats’ presence at specific times and places (thanks to time/date stamps). Trail cams also have been used to monitor the state’s reintroduced elk populations at three sites. But this expanding program should yield a wealth of data on a variety of species, including seldom-seen animals.

Perhaps the best part of Snapshot Wisconsin is its use as an education tool. There’s a curriculum developed to incorporate student trail cam monitoring in the classroom.

Lesson plans for students in grades K-12, including such categories as “Animal Alphabet,” “Wildlife Detectives” and “Schoolyard Stewards,” are found at dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot/lessonplans.html.

Zooteach, a companion site to Zooniverse, allows teachers to share related resources with other educators. There’s even a monthly newsletter.

Snapshot Wisconsin volunteers need a minimum 10-acre site to monitor and agree to remove SD cards from the cameras a minimum of four times a year. Students can help monitor trail cams at parks or nature centers, and also can help count and categorize the animals recorded on trail cameras.

The DNR provides all the needed training and supplies to accepted volunteers. No prior trail cam experience is necessary, but basic computer skills and internet access are needed. Snapshot Wisconsin has in-person fall training scheduled, or you can train online.

For more information on Snapshot Wisconsin, go to dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at Ross@wolfriverccw.com.