Program expands effort to ‘crowdsource’ trail cam pics

By Seth Carlson
Contributing Writer

Phillips, Wis. — Landowners in six counties are eligible to be the first to participate in the citizen wildlife monitoring program called Snapshot Wisconsin that uses trail cameras to spy on wildlife species such as elk, bears, fox, bobcats, wolves, whooping cranes and more across the state.

Enrollment for Snapshot Wisconsin is now open on a county-by-county basis, with applications being accepted from Iowa, Iron, Jackson, Manitowoc, Sawyer, or Waupaca counties.

Other counties will be added at a later date as more cameras become available.

To qualify for Snapshot Wisconsin, volunteers must have access to at least 10 acres of contiguous private land and agree to maintain a trail camera on that land for at least one year. Training and supplies are provided and no prior experience with trail cameras is necessary. Training sessions will take place in each county in October and November.

“Snapshot Wisconsin is becoming the largest citizen science project in Wisconsin,” said Jennifer Stenglein, Snapshot Wisconsin program coordinator in a press release. “Volunteers will have a great opportunity to help collect and categorize photos of Wisconsin wildlife.”

The county-by-county effort has only been available in Sawyer and Iowa counties and in parts of the Clam Lake and Black River State Forest elk range until now. Volunteers in Iron, Jackson, Manitowoc and Waupaca counties are now being geared up for setting cameras in their counties.

To date, Stenglein estimates 150 volunteers and an additional 65 educators have been trained to host Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras.

According to Stenglein, the initiative arose largely out of recommendations from the Deer Trustee Report in 2012, and will help increase the DNR’s monitoring data and provide information for wildlife management decisions in the future. The DNR intends to roll out the program to every county in the next five years. Another six counties are expected to open for enrollment in the early part of 2017.

“There are two main goals of Snapshot Wisconsin,” said Stenglein. “The first is to increase our spatial and temporal resolution of wildlife monitoring data. Trail cameras that are monitored all across the state and all throughout the year will give us the most comprehensive picture to date on all types of wildlife populations.

“The second goal is to involve the public in this process. Partnering with the public for wildlife monitoring is foundational to Snapshot Wisconsin and the project would not work without the willing volunteers who sign up to host trail cameras on their own properties and those who classify photos on our crowdsourcing site at snapshotwisconsin.org.”

As cameras continue to roll out and the number of trained volunteers continues to grow, data gathered may prove especially useful for the ever-changing deer herd and small, but growing, elk numbers. Fawn-to-doe and calf-to-cow ratios of these two species will help biologists track the growth of the herds, and deer information will be shared with County Deer Advisory Councils as it becomes available, according to Stenglein.

“Over time this index will be useful to understand whether the deer herd is generally increasing, decreasing or remaining stable in a county,” she said.

Stenglein also said that as more cameras are disbursed in southern counties, they will help track increasing numbers of bobcats in that region.

Participant feedback has been very positive so far, she said.

“In general people seem to be very curious about the wildlife that is on their land and are interesting in contributing to wildlife monitoring. An email from one of our educators highlighted something that she was excited about: ‘I wanted to get a coyote and we finally got one! I have never seen one here so that was very exciting for me personally.’ ”

Snapshot Wisconsin uses the power of “crowdsourcing,” not only as volunteers collect visual data, but also classify it. Photos from cameras are uploaded to the program website, where they await other users to look through them and label them according to what species are visible.

Visitors to the site are prompted to run through a tutorial before beginning. By following the on-screen instructions, a user is introduced to the 44 options available for identifying wildlife, from amphibians to woodcock (as well as options for humans and dogs), before starting the identification process on real images.

It takes several clicks to get through the ID process for a single photo, and many of the images appear to be void of wildlife altogether, possibly due to the camera misfiring because of moving grass or shadows. A wildlife photo must be identified the same way by several individual users before it is considered accurately labeled.

Although Snapshot Wisconsin is now active in only a handful of counties, anyone is able to participate in the online classification process. Stenglein also suggested that if a landowner is outside of one of the six currently eligible counties, they can still fill out an application for future consideration.

“We will hold onto their application and be back in touch when we enroll their county,” she said.

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