Researching elk, black-tailed deer, and other species in need of wildlife crossings in the Chehalis Basin

Researching elk, black-tailed deer, and other species in need of wildlife crossings in the Chehalis Basin

Conservation Northwest / Feb 05, 2021 / Cascades to Olympics, Wildlife Monitoring

Garrett Brummel shares his experience working with the Veterans Ecological Trades Collective to monitor wildlife along I-5 during his Cascades to Olympics internship.

By Garrett Brummel, Cascades to Olympics Intern

As a first-year graduate student in Evergreen State College’s Masters of Environmental Studies program, I have been focusing most of my research on treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD) on local Roosevelt Elk. And since September 2020, I have been an intern with Conservation Northwest’s Cascades to Olympics connectivity program working on a very special piece of land, with a conservation and sustainability minded landowner.

Garrett checking a camera during a training session.

Veterans Ecological Trades Collective (VETC) is a nonprofit organization that exists to support veterans and allies in acquiring skills that launch or refine careers in conservation, agriculture, forestry and ecological design. VETC property occupies about 120 acres bordering I-5, within a known wildlife corridor that is one of our priority linkages in the Cascades to Olympics program. It is home to an abundance of wildlife while also providing several different types of habitat such as wetlands, ponds, coniferous and deciduous forest, native Garry Oak savannah, and South Salish prairie.

In this landscape the I-5 corridor produces, at a minimum, a four-lane barrier disrupting free migration between the Cascades and Olympic Mountains. Scatter Creek Wildlife Area and Capitol State Forest lie to the west of the property, with private timberlands, undeveloped parts of Joint Base Lewis-McCord and Washington State Department of Natural Resources lands to the east. Satellite imagery of the area shows a structurally connected “natural” corridor through the landscape, fragmented only by I-5.

Cow Roosevelt elk ready for her close up.

To document wildlife presence in this area, I was given the opportunity to participate in Conservation Northwest’s Community Wildlife Monitoring Project (CWMP), joining a statewide community science effort focused on capturing wildlife images through volunteer camera monitoring. Through this program I learned how to capture wildlife images and sort data so that I was able to place motion-triggered cameras on the VETC property and record information including location, sex, age, time and species for the CWMP’s database.

I found much more wildlife than I was expecting to see using the land so close to I-5. A local herd of elk passes through the property regularly and a healthy population of black-tailed deer can be observed. I’ve also captured coyotes, raccoons, rabbit, ring-necked pheasants, and in one instance of substantial flooding, a mallard duck was able to swim by one of my cameras I had mounted on a tree. Neighbors of the property captured a photo of a black bear with cubs the previous spring, and I remain hopeful that we will pick one of them up this coming spring.

In December 2020, I taught a trail camera and tracking class to an audience of veterans on the property. Despite the class being limited in size due to COVID-19 restrictions, we had a safe and fun time hiking the property and learning together.

Ringed-necked pheasant, a nonative yet iconic bird species commonly found near the edges of agricultural areas.

There is currently not a single wildlife overpass across all of I-5, but the presence of elk, deer and other species so close to I-5 shows that building one in the area would be greatly beneficial. A bull elk was hit on I-5 last year near the VETC property when the herd was trying to cross I-5 through heavy traffic. In addition, there are many game trails leading directly to the Interstate that black-tailed deer have been known to use. If the possibility of a wildlife overpass ever becomes feasible, the data collected from our project will be helpful in identifying the best location to install it.

Although my internship is now over, this experience was quite impactful for me and I will continue to volunteer as a Community Wildlife Monitoring Project lead. In this role, I will still check cameras and record data, but I will also help shape the project and answer bigger questions about the nature of wildlife and habitat connectivity in the Cascades to Olympics landscape, while contributing to the partnership between Conservation Northwest and the Veterans Ecological Trades Collective.

Read more about this partnership IN THIS BLOG from our Cascades to Olympics Coordinator Brian Stewart, or visit our Cascades to Olympics webpage to learn more.