Elk Snapshots Mean Better Elk Modeling
The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.
At the start of every year, DNR staff begin compiling a large dataset of elk sightings from the previous calendar year, and the data, once compiled, is used to calculate the total number of elk that live in the state. This method has been a standard practice since the second reintroduction of elk to Wisconsin.
What some of you may not know is that Snapshot plays an important role in counting elk by providing sightings, particularly of bulls. In fact, Snapshot has more than 250 of its cameras (over 10% of all Snapshot cameras) dedicated to monitoring elk alone. These cameras are clustered in the three areas of the state with part of the elk herd – Clam Lake, Flambeau River and Black River Falls. These elk cameras are arranged into a grid-like pattern in each area, just like the rest of the Snapshot grid, except that the density of cameras in the elk grid is a lot higher.
A few members of the Snapshot team are among those working on the 2020 elk dataset, so the team decided to focus this newsletter on elk and how they use photos to learn about the elk herd.
The Snapshot team invited Dr. Jennifer Price Tack, Large Carnivore and Elk Research Scientist and fellow scientist within the Office of Applied Science, to add her perspective to this newsletter on why Snapshot’s photos matter for elk.
The task of integrating Snapshot data into the elk model was originally the work of Joe Dittrich, who laid a solid foundation for Price Tack. Since Price Tack joined the Office of Applied Science at the end of 2019, she has been using Snapshot data to model how various quota alternatives will affect the elk herd size in the years to come.
“My research focuses on [elk] populations because populations are the scale at which we manage wildlife,” said Price Tack. Population is the starting point for all decisions that are made about managing wildlife in Wisconsin. The status of a population determines how decisions are made, policy is framed, quotas are set, permits are allocated, and so on… Population is the unit of concern for the DNR.
Price Tack continued, “While individual animals are important and make up a population, our ability to manage them breaks down some at the individual level, [simply] due to the infeasibility of monitoring individuals.”
For species like elk, which normally lack easy-to-identify markings, individual identification is often difficult. Possible, as discussed in the next article, but difficult. Thus, populations tend to be the scale of most species work at the DNR, including Price Tack’s work on elk.
As Price Tack walks us through her research on the elk population, check out the unique way that Snapshot photo data are used to monitor this large herbivore population.
Feeding Photo Data Into The Model
Photos of elk can have multiple forms of data in them, beyond just what animals are present in the picture. There is camera location data, for example, which provides information about which areas of land the elk are using and not using.
There is also movement data. The Snapshot team learned that elk calves, cows and bulls have different movement patterns and are seen at different rates throughout the year. When bulls are the most active, for example, cows tend to be less active.
The camera data also helps Snapshot determine a calf-to-cow ratio for elk. Although, it isn’t as simple as dividing all the calf photos by the number of cow photos. Cows move around more than calves do and are more detectable in photos, given their larger size. Using knowledge about calf/cow visibility, calves and cows are modeled separately, and those numbers are then used to calculate the calf-cow ratio for elk.
“I remember first learning about Snapshot and thinking it is such a cool resource! There is so much you can do with camera data.” said Price Tack. “I have experience working in other systems that use camera data, so I know [firsthand] that using camera data has a lot of benefits” – benefits like providing many forms of data at once and being more cost-effective than extensive collaring. “I wanted to tap in and work with these folks.”
Price Tack mentioned that she even had the Snapshot logo in her interview presentation. She was already thinking about how to get the most out of Snapshot’s camera data.
“Now that I’m here, my focus is on filling research needs to inform decisions,” Price Tack continued. “[Our research] is going to be critical to helping wildlife management and species committees make informed decisions for elk, such as deciding elk harvest quotas in the upcoming years. Snapshot data is one tool we can use to fill those research needs. It is available, and I’d like to use it as much as feasible.”
Besides estimating the population of the elk classes (e.g. calves, cows and bulls), Snapshot data is currently being used to help estimate population parameters and help us understand what is happening with the population. Population parameters are estimates of important characteristics of the population, such as recruitment (birth rate), mortality (death rate) and survival rates of different elk classes within the population.
Price Tack’s model uses matrix algebra to take an initial elk population size and projects the population into the future, using what we know about elk population parameters. In other words, the model can predict how large the elk population is likely to grow in the years to come. There is natural variation however, that can cause some years to be unpredictably good or bad for elk, so the model needs to be updated each year to keep its accuracy as high as possible.
Thanks to Snapshot’s camera data, we have a system in place to calculate each year’s population parameters and continue updating the model each year. This should help us catch if anything of concern happens to the population and (hopefully) fix it before it becomes a threat.
Improving the Elk Model
Another of Price Tack’s tasks related to Snapshot is improving the elk model. Many of the improvements Price Tack is researching aim to address data collection for a larger population.
The elk population was very small when the DNR first reintroduced elk to the state in 1995 and again in 2015. The DNR used intensive monitoring methods back then to collar (and track) every elk in the herd, since intensive methods are best suited for small populations. However,with the elk herd doing so well, it won’t be long before a different approach is needed. The DNR wants to transition to a method more appropriate for a larger elk population.
Currently, the DNR is early in the process of ramping up non-invasive, cost-effective methods like Snapshot monitoring and toning down the collaring effort. Although, this transition will take time, happening over the next few years.
Price Tack also mentioned another modification under consideration. Price Tack and the Snapshot team are looking into repositioning some of the cameras within the elk grid. Currently, the elk grid doesn’t perfectly align with where the elk are congregating. There are a few cameras outside of the elk range that don’t see any elk, and there are edges of the elk’s range that extend beyond where the cameras are deployed. Repositioning the cameras should mean more elk pictures, which means more elk data.
The Frontier of Camera Monitoring
The role of Snapshot in monitoring elk is evolving, and Price Tack and the Snapshot team believe it is for the better. While they can’t guarantee that Snapshot will always play a central role in collecting data on elk, Snapshot will fill this role for the next few years at least.
Price Tack said, “This is the frontier of using camera trap data for elk. Every year, new approaches to using camera trap data are being developed. That has me excited that, even though we don’t have all the answers now, more opportunities may be on the horizon.”
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