Granite Geek: 'Critter Cams' Track Animals in North Country

Oct 4, 2016

Motion-activated cameras installed on Route 3 in New Hampshire’s North Country are trying to get confirmation that the animals biologists think are in that neck of the woods actually are. For more on why scientists are seeking this level of certainty, we turn to David Brooks. He writes the Granite Geek column for The Concord Monitor. He spoke with NHPR's All Things Considered host Peter Biello. 

The Nature Conservancy put up these cameras on a portion of Route 3 near the Connecticut River, from Lancaster north to Stratford. Why did they do this?

This is where I have that joke about the chicken crossing the road. No, it’s not a chicken of course, but they do want to see where animals cross the road. Specifically, they’re looking at what they’re calling “wide-ranging, forest-dwelling animals.” That’s not including the large ones like moose and deer. They’re looking at bears, lynx, bobcat, porcupines and the like.

They want to know where they’re crossing the road, what conditions leads them to be likely to cross a road in this spot as compared to that spot. There’s theories and various information about the topography and the ground cover and where development is. But at some point in biology you actually have to go out into the field and see and that’s what these cameras are doing.

But if a porcupine crosses the road and no human is there to observe it, then why does it matter?

It does cross the road, even if we’re not—

Deep philosophical questions about porcupines crossing roads!

The underlying reason for this project, which has been going on for the last year, is that they’re finished up and now starting to do analysis. The underlying thinking is what’s called “connectivity for wildlands.”

We preserve a lot of lands, particularly in the North Country, for wildlife, because it’s good to have, but it’s not just enough to have x-amount of square miles preserved. If you have 1,000 square miles preserved, terrific. But it’s vastly better than 999 square miles preserved with roads cutting through it, even if those roads take up only one square mile. The fact that the roads are cutting it through will stop many animals from moving around. If they can’t move around, they are less likely to be able to find food, escape predators, find places to live and, of course, to adapt to climate change. So you want to know how your roads are affecting wildlife movement in order to help plan how to save them.

So if you know where the animals are crossing and at what frequency, it’s possible that human beings can take steps to make it easier and safer for them to cross?

That’s certainly the idea. So, best of all, is you’d like to build a bridge or a tunnel under the road so animals can move safely. But that’s unlikely to happen on Route 3.

And those animals never follow the signs!

They have trouble reading them. But signs are a part of it!

If you’ve ever driven along and you see “Deer Crossing” up ahead, and as far as you’re concerned, the road is the same as it has been, you may think, “What put that sign there?”

It’s there because maybe someone has hit a deer there in the past. Studies with “critter cams” like this are a way to do a better census of what’s going on.

For example, if they find a place where a lot of wildlife move, viable wildlife like lynx. Lynx do not like roads. But if one of these cameras where a comparatively large number of lynx move across the road, that might be a reason to lower the speed limit there or to put up barriers perhaps so that the lynx don’t cross there because they keep getting hit or something along those lines. But you’ve got to know where things actually happen before you can decide what action to take.

So what might happen in the North Country once the Nature Conservancy has gathered more information?

That will be a discussion with the Department of Transportation, which oversees the roads with local communities, and private landowners. If there’s private land along the road where a bunch of animals are crossing, they may go talk to the landowner about putting up a barrier so the animals won’t go there, or something else at that point. It depends on circumstances like the budget and what people want.

It’s worth noting that these cameras are not photographing cars.

No, and many of them are still up. They’re continuing to gather data , partly for safety reasons, because you want to know where they are. If people hit them, that’s bad for the animal (obviously) but it could be bad for the driver. But they’re not interested in every passing car, so they’ve pointed the cameras away from the road. So they will not catch you as you are speeding to your fishing hole.