Monitoring wildlife movement along I-5 in the Chehalis Basin

Monitoring wildlife movement along I-5 in the Chehalis Basin

Conservation Northwest / Dec 07, 2021 / Cascades to Olympics, Wildlife Monitoring

A veteran’s perspective on the habitat connectivity internship in the Cascades to Olympics landscape

By Cory Mounts, Cascades to Olympics intern

Across the nation population growth and the associated development has continued to expand, as it has in Western Washington for the last several decades. This growth has forced conservationists to ask a fundamental question: “How can landscapes accommodate more people and still have room for native wildlife and the habitats they depend on?” That question was at the center of my graduate research, as well as my work as a Tenino City Planning Commissioner. Moreover, it’s a driving question for my internship with Conservation Northwest.

This map shows approximately where camera trapping occurs through the VETC
Figure 1 VETCs Farm; Least-Cost Corridor “naturalness” blue permeable, green-yellow semi-permeable; camera locations colored points, and I-5 in red (Gallo et al. 2019).

Through an extraordinary partnership between Conservation Northwest (CNW), The Washington State Dept. of Veterans Affairs Veterans Conservation Corps (VCC), and the Veterans Ecological Trade Collective (VETC), I’ve had the amazing opportunity to gain conservation experience as an intern helping conduct an ongoing wildlife monitoring project. The project takes place on farmland amid residential development, and at the intersection of a major interstate (I-5) which is a barrier to wildlife movement (Figure 1). It is also a major route of wildlife migration and species gene flow between the Cascade Mountains to the East and the Olympic Peninsula to the Northwest. What better place to ask such questions?

I’m interested in conservation in the context of landscape-level land-use decisions. My graduate research focused on measuring and categorizing conservation actions and partnerships on farms in Thurston County, Washington. As conservation of habitat and preservation of farmland are both important in a county experiencing development pressures, I wanted to know what farms were doing on their properties to create and maintain habitat between our “wild” spaces. Suitable habitats within developed landscapes are important for many species to maintain healthy populations, migrate between other more suitable designated wilderness spaces and facilitate gene flow throughout isolated populations. Farmland can be a natural space for partnerships to create and maintain suitable environments for animals to live in or move through landscapes fragmented and disconnected by anthropocentric activity.

With my background and research interests it’s been exciting working with CNW to monitor wildlife on a farm run by the VETCan organization whose mission is to train and support military veterans who want to work in conservation, agriculture, forestry, or ecological design. The 120-acre VETC farm sits within a modeled migration route adjacent to I-5, which is a major impediment to wildlife movement (Figure 1). The data collected on this project may inform wildlife crossing infrastructure decisions in the future. This wildlife presence data collection effort helps support the Cascades to Olympics program.

Elk have been frequently been captured by camera traps near the VETC property, which is located near I-5. Photo: VETC

I was lucky enough to come into the project after most of the logistical details were already finalized by Garrett Brummel and Brian Stewart. Motion activated trail cameras are situated in various locations around the VETC property. My job is to regularly check the cameras to ensure proper functionality, sufficient battery levels, correct date/time stamps, and swapping out memory cards. In short, I ensure that data collection is ongoing and accurate.

I also process the collected data for storage in the CNW database for later analysis by conservation scientists. This involves looking through thousands of pictures, many of them with nothing but waiving grass, and properly coding them for species and number of individuals present. If I never have to see another picture of waving grass again, it will be too soon!

Camera trapping is such an interesting way to experience wildlife, and new to me. I’ve watched coyote pups grow up over the last 5 months, even though I’ve never glimpsed them in person. I’ve watched a bull elk grow impressive antlers, and then shed the velvet to reveal their final form, ready to battle for supremacy of the herd. And every now and again, a bobcat slinks by one of the cameras, and that’s a picture that always stops me in my tracks. What a breathtaking animal!

As my internship nears its completion, I’m working with Garrett and Brian to summarize our findings in a report. We’re looking forward to pulling together the data and seeing any trends we observe and conclusions we can make.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to help study wildlife in this space amid human development. I’m encouraged by what’s present here, and the consistency with which these animals utilize this land. I’m hopeful the data we’ve collected here contributes to future land use or infrastructure decisions that may facilitate ease of wildlife movement and continued presence in this landscape. It’s been so much fun to watch the wild animals here grow and change, from the coyote pups to the bull elk’s antlers, and the occasional bobcat sighting. The VETC farm is their home, long may it remain so.

For this internship, I’ve learned to operate motion-sensor trail cameras, identify wildlife species, and accurately label and categorize photos for storage in the CNW databases for later analysis. I’ve learned to collaborate with several organizations around a single project and help coordinate the different moving pieces along the way. And too, I’m so grateful for the people I’ve met who’ve helped me succeed in this role. There are some truly great people involved in these organizations and they’re doing fantastic work. This internship has proved challenging at times while also working full-time in another job, with some car and computer problems thrown in for good measure, but it’s been so rewarding as well. My experience here will certainly help me as I soon look to complete a career change into the environmental field.

Gallo, J.A., E. Butts, T. Miewald, K. Foster. 2019. Comparing and Combining Omniscape and Linkage Mapper Connectivity Analyses in Western Washington. Conservation Biology Institute. Corvallis, OR,

Read more about this project IN THIS BLOG from a previous Cascades to Olympics intern or visit our Cascades to Olympics webpage to learn more.
Wildlife including bears, fishers, elk, cougars and amphibians move between the Olympic Peninsula, Willapa Hills and Cascade Mountains. Promoting habitat connectivity within the Chehalis Basin helps keep these species viable. Photo: WA Department of Ecology