To Protect Open Space, Stewards Focus on Photographic Technology

This photo of a coyote pup was captured by one of the motion-triggered cameras placed around Mount Tam. Photo courtesy of Marin Municipal Water District.

For more than a century, photographs have helped protect open space in California, inspiring conservation by capturing the grandeur of nature. In the late 1800s, Carleton Watkins’ mammoth plate images of Yosemite influenced President Lincoln to preserve that wilderness area. Years later, Ansel Adams’ landscape portraits of the southern Sierra Nevada were credited with getting national park status for Kings Canyon. These days, photos are still boosting land stewardship in the Bay Area — although perhaps not in ways those photographic pioneers could have envisioned.

Motion-triggered cameras, smartphones, and social media now make it possible to continuously monitor animals, plants, and environmental changes. The pictures generated by these new technologies provide data that can guide land management for the benefit of wildlife and people. Sometimes, they manage to be breathtaking, too.

“Cameras can show us the secret life of places,” said Monica Stafford, the community ambassador program director for One Tam, an initiative created to bolster protection of Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais.

Since 2014, more than 100 cameras have been placed around Mount Tam to gather information about the diversity of wildlife in that area. Instead of tracking animals one by one, these electronic eyes catch the bobcats, coyotes, bears, and other hard-to-follow critters (like the occasional river otter) whenever they wander by.

The project has already collected a million-plus photos. A combination of researchers and trained volunteers sift through the pictures, amassing data that helps assess biodiversity across the landscape. One Tam partners — Marin County Parks, the Marin Municipal Water District, California State Parks, the National Park Service, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy — hope the gathered knowledge can improve management of the lands.

The Mount Tam cameras are one of seven Bay Area projects, in place or in the works, using the Wildlife Picture Index. This method of taking photos with a grid-based pattern of cameras was first developed in the tropics to better account for biodiversity. In the Bay Area, this data-collecting technique was first launched by scientists at the Pepperwood Preserve, just north of Santa Rosa.

“It’s like having 21 biologists sitting there watching all the time,” said Pepperwood Foundation President Lisa Micheli about the 21-camera array sited on the 3,200 acre property.

Photos from the cameras help fill in critical gaps about the state of wildlife on the large landscape.

“We do all this work to restore critical habitats for wildlife, but we don’t have a lot of data about how the wildlife is doing,” said Micheli. “It’s hard to count animals when there are no fences on these lands,” she noted.

Who shows up in these pictures? Mule deer, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, and opossums make the expected cameos, according to Micheli, who added that people are surprised by how often black bears and pumas enter the frame. A few rare sightings include a badger (thought to be long gone from the area), a porcupine, and spotted skunks.

Eventually, Micheli hopes to create one large dataset from all the Bay Area camera grids. “That could help resolve regional questions about the important places we need to protect, such as the critical corridors that need to be kept open between fragments of open space,” she said.

Many of these open spaces are also prime spots for human recreation. To learn about how non-motorized human activities might affect wildlife, Michelle Reilly, a conservation biologist at Northern Arizona University, set up camera traps around eight Bay Area counties.

For three years, Reilly collected photos from 150 motion-activated cameras set at selected spots in 87 protected areas. She used these images to analyze how 10 species changed their land-use patterns when people were hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, or walking with dogs in the same territory. The cameras showed that most animals in the study were affected, to some degree, by human activities. In varying ways, wildlife either shifted the times they used people-populated areas, or avoided these places altogether.

In some cases, those findings could be considered good news. For instance, Reilly found that mountain lions were most likely to avoid areas where hikers were present, and that striped skunks tended to avoid people with dogs. But this can also be bad news. When animals make lifestyle adjustments to avoid people, it can interfere with their ability to find food, a place to rest, or mates.

“In no way does this mean people shouldn’t be recreating out there,” Reilly emphasized. She hopes images can help land managers make better usage plans for the properties they oversee. For instance, if a space needs to accommodate both mountain lions and hikers, then land managers should try to set aside core areas that don’t have trails for people, leaving room for mountain lions to retreat.

A camera in hand can also provide a lot of information. That’s one lesson students learn during the TeenNat Summer Internship at Pepperwood Preserve. A free point-and-shoot camera helps introduce the 13- to 17-year-old interns to the power of pictures in science and conservation.

In one project, the students make research plots and photograph the biodiversity they find. They learn how to upload scientific-grade images to, the online social network that shares photos among nature-lovers and scientists around the world.

“The students see the connections right away. When they put up data [onto] they’re interacting with the scientific community from Sonoma County all the way to the head of Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the largest repository of biodiversity information in the world,” said Sandi Funke, the education director at Pepperwood.

Digital photography and social media networks have also helped turn hikers on Mount Diablo into citizen scientists.

After the Mount Diablo Morgan Fire in 2013, the grassroots organization Nerds for Nature, in collaboration with Mount Diablo State Park and the Wildlife Society, installed a change bracket system to monitor the landscape’s recovery. At several sites along the mountain’s trails, hikers could place their smartphone or camera in an angle bracket, take a picture, and post it to Twitter, Instagram, or Flickr. Nerds for Nature harvested the pictures and posted them on the Web, creating a time-lapse slideshow of Mount Diablo’s blackened earth becoming green again.

This “monitoring change” project was based on the idea of U.S. Geological Survey scientist Sam Droege, who saw angle brackets as a way to capture images of the same height, angle, and direction in one spot over time.

“I really like using existing social networks for these projects, because someone can post a photo that 100, 200, or 1,000s of followers can see. So you get this amplifying network of awareness,” said Dan Rademacher, a Nerds for Nature cofounder. “You can’t do anything with an image locked away in a camera.”

Elizabeth Devitt covers open space for the Monitor.