Appreciating & Protecting Biodiversity

By Dr. Morgan Gray, Conservation Analyst

Did you know that the gray fox – a member of the dog family – can climb a tree like a cat? And I mean a vertical tree, not a sloped trunk that an acrobatic dog can clamber onto. Thanks to a set of strong, hooked claws, a gray fox can scurry into the treetops…and is the only canid in the western hemisphere with this ability.

I find animals fascinating. There is an astonishing amount of diversity in how animals look and behave, from the microscopic stories embedded in an individual genome to the population dynamics that take place among groups. I’m fortunate to live and work in California, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. A California without wildlife is a terrible thought. Unfortunately, our wildlife species have a less than certain future, with more than 300 animal species at or near the brink of extinction. We are taking action to reduce extinction hazards posed by habitat loss, climate change, drought, and catastrophic wildfire.

But how will we know if our efforts are working? One way to ensure our conservation actions are effective is to monitor wildlife over time. Pepperwood’s Mayacamas Wildlife Picture Index (WPI) collects about 500,000 photos every year (!!!) at 40 long-term “camera traps” located at Pepperwood and Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Modini Preserve. These photos are a source of near real-time observations of puma, bear, gray fox, and other wild denizens of our nature preserves. Pepperwood has been monitoring animals in the Mayacamas Mountains since 2012. As a result, we have a priceless resource that is growing every day – a long-term data set to understand how wildlife respond to change.

I extract population trends from terabytes of image files by drawing from my training in wildlife ecology and statistics. My analysis has translated 3 million photos into a collection of insights about how each species uses the preserve over time. We’ve seen that gray foxes frequent the forest, which makes sense since they climb trees. We also know how many jackrabbits zoom through our native grasslands, which months bears bumble around, what time of day pumas walk in the woods.

Understanding what to expect from wildlife allows us to see how environmental events, like wildfire, impact animals on the preserve. Today I’m using data from before and after the 2017 Tubbs fire to explore how the wildfire affected Pepperwood’s animal community. This research not only advances our scientific understanding of how wildfire impacts wildlife, it can inform on-site stewardship to maintain and protect our beloved wild neighbors. Stay tuned for an upcoming publication on the impacts of wildfire on wildlife using this incredible WPI wildlife data!

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