Marin Wildlife Picture Index Project
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Where the Wild Things Are…
Marin’s public parklands—whether owned and managed by local, state, or federal agencies—are some of the most ecologically diverse and unique landscapes in the world. Many serve as the last refuges and essential habitat for populations of native plants and animals. While much of our native flora and fauna thrive in our expansive open spaces, environmental and human-caused pressures can still cause harm and threaten their survival.
Marin’s public land management agencies have done an exemplary job inventorying their plant communities in order to inform land management decision making. Unfortunately, there is a lack of reliable, comprehensive wildlife data in Marin because of the challenges of wildlife data collection. With such data, land managers would be better able to understand trends in population, biodiversity, and wildlife occupancy, and could make management decisions and recommendations accordingly. Without such data, land managers are unable to assess wildlife population health or detect when wildlife populations are at risk.
Wildlife Monitoring Challenges
In the past, wildlife data collection has been difficult. Protocols involve long hours in the field, and trapping or tracking animals, which can be dangerous to both humans and wild animals. While this process is necessary for some rare and endangered species, it remains costly and provides information about only one species. Though this type of information is still valuable, what is really needed is comprehensive information from multiple levels of the food-chain. The only way to reliably measure trends in biodiversity and ecosystem health is to gather data across the diverse array of wildlife species. What makes this kind of monitoring difficult is that different groups of wildlife species require different monitoring techniques, and larger animals have huge home ranges and may wander far from sampling points, for long periods of time. Any effective attempt at monitoring the diversity of wildlife must avoid bias towards individual groups of animals, and be conducted over a large geographic area.
The Wildlife Picture Index
A solution to the difficulties surrounding wildlife monitoring has evolved over time as new technologies have emerged and sampling techniques have been refined in the world of conservation biology. The Wildlife Picture Index Project (WPI) is internationally used and recognized as a method of passively collecting reliable, accurate, and rigorous wildlife data across many levels of the food chain on the landscape scale.
The WPI utilizes motion-activated wildlife cameras that are positioned along a grid at regular intervals across a large area. The grid provides non-biased sampling locations (locations chosen with impartiality), the regular intervals provide a way to derive frequency measures, and the photographs provide easy ways to identify the species, numbers of individuals, and the date, time, and location of activities. With this data, land managers will be able to establish baseline population figures, identify wildlife “hotspots” and crucial corridors for movement, and begin to assess trends in populations. In the long run, the goal is to understand wildlife populations well enough to identify what healthy populations look like, identify early signals of distress, and avoid population declines.
The WPI Comes to California
The WPI has been used internationally in tropical areas (Indonesia) and vast grasslands (Mongolia). Nearer to home, it is being applied in the Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County, with excellent results.
Here in Marin, a partnership of four public agencies—Marin County Parks, Marin Municipal Water District, California State Parks, and the National Park Service - began collecting data as part of a One Tam initiative using the WPI. The MCOSD Board of Directors approved the Open Space District's portion of the WPI project on September 9, 2014 (see page 12, item 16f). View minutes and webcasts from meetings on the MCOSD Board of Directors agendas and minutes webpage.
Science in Our Backyards
One of the strengths of the WPI method is that it collects data passively, without interfering with the normal patterns of wildlife. Another great advantage is that the project is easy to maintain, and the data (photographs) are easy to process.
The One Tam partners are currently working with "Community Scientists" to help maintain the wildlife cameras and process photos. Trained volunteers assist staff as they hike to some of the most remote locations in Marin to replace camera batteries and download photos. We also regularly host opportunities to help categorize and process the wildlife photos acquired from the cameras.
If you think you would like to be involved as a volunteer, contact Rosa Schneider at 415-945-1495.
For any questions regarding Marin County Parks role in the project, contact Mischon Martin at (415) 473-2056.