After a successful first year studying Canada lynx in Glacier National Park, Washington State University graduate student Alissa Anderson was excited to continue her research this summer. Little did she know a global pandemic would bring her an extremely unique chance to study animal behavior without human interference.
Anderson began her three-year study of the Canada lynx population in 2019, hoping to learn about their activity in the southernmost portion of their habitat and provide the park service with information to potentially protect their habitat.
“This is the second of a three-year study trying to look at Canada lynx presence and occupancy across Glacier,” Anderson said. “I think it’s a really unique cool data set that will really be able to inform the park service.”
In 2019, the park had more than 3 million visitors. Much of the park was closed for the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its entire east side, after the Blackfeet Tribe closed the area to protect Blackfeet Reservation residents.
“We weren’t sure if were were going to be able to do any field work for a time,” Anderson said.
The lynx research uses motion sensor cameras to capture animal activity on trailheads. The photos are then analyzed and sorted by Anderson and her team, who fondly calls her “A-lynx-ssa.”
With a lot of logistical planning, Anderson was able to find housing for her team of four researchers and organize transportation.
“A large portion of what we wanted to accomplish this summer was on the east side of the park,” she said. “We wanted to do it in areas where we had gotten lots of lynx in the past, and other adjacent areas where we expected to get a lot of lynx.”
With help from the park service, Anderson and her team were able to get an exception to the closures on the east side, provided they had zero contact with anyone on the reservation. The group didn’t even stop for gas, ensuring the potential COVID-19 exposure to the Blackfeet nation was “really zero,” Anderson said.
The researchers were able to place more than 100 trail cameras in the park during June and July.
The cameras took more than 800,000 photos, about 200,000 more than the previous year, when there was significant human activity in the park.
“These occupancy models, we actually can consider environmental and other variables in the models, and so we actually will be able to consider daily visitation of humans in that model,” Anderson said. “So theoretically, we might be seeing more lynx on those cameras this year than we would have, like last year, potentially, but we can also incorporate that into the models.”
An occupancy model can answer the question “In what areas of the park do lynx typically live?” The Canada lynx has been listed as a threatened species since 2000, but after scientific review of lynx in the U.S. in 2018, it will likely be removed from the endangered species list.
Anderson’s study can be used in conjunction with other research to help preserve lynx habitats in the future, she said.
In the initial study, Anderson had already planned to include a portion on how human activity impacts wildlife interactions and activity patterns, but now she can look at that in a more “experimental manner” with data showing dramatic changes in human interaction.
“Honestly, in a lot of ways COVID has actually, I think, presented our research with a cool opportunity,” Anderson said.
The lynx research is important to Glacier National Park. So important, in fact, that the Glacier National Park Conservancy, the nonprofit arm of the park, has completely funded Anderson’s research.
In total, the study will cost $275,000 and is a partnership between the park and Dr. Dan Thornton’s Mammal Spatial Ecology and Conservation Lab at WSU.
An exciting part of the project for both the conservancy and Anderson is the ability to invest in the future of both the park and conservation professionals, said Doug Mitchell, executive director of the conservancy.
“This whole idea of training the next generation of park stewards is really important,” he said. “Bringing in younger people, or people new to this national park movement, and empowering them to think about this as a career path and a passion path for them is really important.”
Anderson did seasonal field work for 10 years before starting the lynx project and was excited that the project allowed her to help other students or people early in their career gain experience, while providing her the opportunity to receive her Master’s degree.
“I’m super grateful that they turned this into a Master’s project,” Anderson said.”You can’t really get a permanent job in this field without a Master’s degree.”
More than 15 students and young professionals have worked on the project with Anderson, either doing field work or helping analyze the more than 1 million photos collected.
This year, Anderson is partnering with Microsoft, using its artificial intelligence software to make sorting through the photos easier.
Technological innovation has been a huge part of getting through the pandemic, said Mitchell, who works to fund-raise for various park projects, including Anderson’s.
While the conservancy has a “strong financial footing,” revenue from visitor center book stores was cut in half, causing the conservancy to lose more than $2 million in funds.
However, current donors have been willing to continue giving, Mitchell said.
“Lots of our public spaces have been a refuge for people who have been seeking peace and tranquility,” he said. “They’re willing to kick in to say, ‘Yes, this has been important to me, and we want it to be there for people in the future.’ “
With funding from the conservancy, Glacier Park rangers had already hosted online learning experiences, which due to COVID-19 keeping many students home have seen widespread use.
“There’s definitely an increase in demand and a spread to other areas,” Mitchell said of the program. “We put in place sort of this idea for park rangers to be able to use a digital workspace with in the park.”
Recently, Native American Speaks, the longest running Indigenous people’s speakers series in the National Park Service system, has continued online. The conservancy is releasing a podcast and now hosts an online book club, Mitchell said. All of these new online programs are aimed at bringing young people like Anderson into the park for conservation or recreation.
Anderson often speaks to donors who have helped fund her research, but this year those events have been online, reaching people from all over the country, Mitchell said.
“Her research now, this year versus last year, is going to be far more available to the general public because of what we’ve discovered of the necessity of not being able to be in person,” he said.
With donations a bit behind normal, the conservancy launched a GoFundMe campaign earlier this month where people can donate directly to Anderson’s research.
“We’re going to make sure this project is finished next year,” Mitchell said. “No doubt.”