One semester of data doesn’t make a trend, but a trail camera study conducted this spring by wildlife students at Bemidji State University showed an early correlation between the times when deer and predators such as wolves and coyotes were most active.

Based on the findings from six trail cameras set in the university’s 240-acre Hobson Forest from early February through mid-April, wolves and coyotes were most active about midnight and again shortly after sunrise.

Whitetails, by comparison, were most active in the middle of the day, perhaps as a survival strategy to avoid being eaten, said Jacob Haus, an assistant professor of Wildlife Biology at BSU.

“It runs counter to what we think of as the time (deer) should be out and about, but the other thing is that property is used for recreation quite a bit so there are a lot of people out there hiking,” Haus said. “So, I think it might be something where the deer are less concerned with that than the wolves and the coyotes are, so there’s this kind of gap in the middle of the day when the canids weren’t very active, and it seemed like the deer were really taking advantage of that.”

Haus, along with students Taylor Parker-Greene, a senior Wildlife Biology major from Lino Lakes, Minn., and Megan Howard, a junior Wildlife Biology major from Golden Valley, Minn., shared some highlights from the trail camera study Wednesday morning during a Zoom chat, which is the way many discussions are happening these days.

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The university-owned Hobson Forest is about 7 miles northeast of Lake Bemidji and features a mix of upland and lowland woodland habitat, along with hiking trails and an obstacle course. With its mix of wildlife species ranging from deer and wolves to ruffed grouse and rodents, the forest is a fertile ground for student learning.

“A lot of universities have little research woods, but to have 240 acres of wilderness where we’ve got all these cool species, that’s really unique,” Haus said.

About the study

As part of his Wildlife Management Techniques course, a class designed for upper-level BSU wildlife students, Haus set up the trail camera study by drawing a grid dividing the forest into six 40-acre sections and placing a dot in the center of each.

Working in small groups, the 11 students in the class set a trail camera near the center in each of the six sections.

“That’s one thing BSU does a really good job of – as these students move into these more upper-level courses, they do shrink down a bit,” Haus said. “We couldn’t do this class with 30 or 40 students. There’s just no way you could run a trail camera survey where students got anything out of it if you had more than just a handful of students.”

Setting the cameras meant trudging through 2½ feet of snow coated with a layer of ice from rain that had fallen earlier in February, Parker-Greene said.

“It was kind of difficult to find a good place to put them,” she said.

Initially, the trail cam study was only going to be a small part of the Wildlife Management Techniques course, which Haus describes as “hands-on and outdoorsy.” But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the campus and forced instructors and students to switch from classrooms to computer screens after spring break, the trail camera project took on an increased importance.

“Typically, we’re out in the woods, we’re helping the DNR put out transmitters or (band) wood ducks,” Haus said. “Obviously, with the shutdown, that plan had to get thrown out the window. I know the students weren’t very happy about that, but one thing we did still have going for us is we’d put out these trail cameras right before spring break so we still could kind of lean on that.

“So the role of these trail cameras kind of grew as part of the course.”

Because of the shutdown, Haus retrieved the trail cameras instead of the students, as originally planned. That took him several hours on Easter Sunday, he said, but downloading the cameras’ SD cards yielded some memorable images, including a picture-perfect gray wolf that showed up on the camera Parker-Greene had set.

All told, the cards yielded about 2,000 images of Hobson Forest wildlife. Haus then uploaded the images to a shared folder and walked the students through statistical analysis software that allowed them to delve into the number of species that showed up at different sites, the time of day each species was most active and how those species interacted with each other.

The students then used the findings to write a research paper that will be a big part of their final grade. They could take the research any direction they wanted, Haus said, as long as it was pertinent to the trail cam findings.

“The students really took the initiative on this,” he said. “When I went out to pull the camera cards, I had no idea if we were going to have any pictures at all so it was fun to see that we got some cool species, got a number of pictures from them and then actually saw some cool patterns in the data. That was interesting.”

Student perspectives

Howard and Parker-Greene both had participated in a December “track and sign” survey to determine the abundance and types of animals in the Hobson Forest. That survey yielded about 20 different species, Howard said, compared with the nine species that showed up on her trail camera.

“It wasn’t quite as many as with the track and sign (survey), but I like to go hiking there, and so I thought it was just awesome to see the time of day that different animals were active,” Howard said. “Like maybe I’ll see a fisher if I’m there at 9:30 in the morning or a wolf at 11, which is a little unsettling but also kind of cool to know that when you’re out there, it’s not just humans.”

Ultimately, Howard said she’d like to incorporate additional track and sign surveys to complement the trail cam data and perhaps learn more about the relationship between fox and the larger coyotes and wolves that live in the forest.

“It is clear that the fox were active at a very different time,” Howard said.

Looking through the trail camera images, Haus said he was especially excited about the number of fishers that showed up on the cameras.

“They are kind of an indicator species that the habitat is doing well,” he said. “It was good to see those.”

Online challenge

Haus and both of his students said having to shift the Wildlife Management Techniques class to online study was both challenging and disappointing because the course is so extensively fieldwork-driven.

“It was definitely a struggle to try to convert some of that material to an online format,” Haus said. “This is kind of our flagship course, and it was really unfortunate that we weren’t able to get out and do the kind of things that really draw our students to this program.”

At the same time, though, the findings from the trail cam study will serve as a springboard for additional research in years to come that will provide a long-term perspective on the critters in the forest, how they interact and when they’re most active.

An undergraduate survey planned for this summer will utilize trail cameras to measure fawn recruitment and survival in the forest, Haus said. Eventually, the findings could shed light on the impact of coyotes and wolves on deer populations in the forest.

Coupled with the spring surveys, the long-term data from the trail camera research could help in managing the forest for certain types of habitats that support a higher diversity of species, Haus said.

“This is the first year we’ve done this so the plan is this will be something we do year after year after year and track how the changes occur over time,” he said. “But for the first year, we did get some cool patterns – and we really didn’t know what to expect.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

Megan Howard, a junior Wildlife Biology major at Bemidji State University, holds a turtle while gaining real world fieldwork experience in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of Megan Howard)
Megan Howard, a junior Wildlife Biology major at Bemidji State University, holds a turtle while gaining real world fieldwork experience in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of Megan Howard)