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Pandemic provided scientists with rare wildlife sighting opportunity

Courtesy Mammal Spatial Ecology and Conservation Lab at Washington State University
A camera at Glacier catches a moose having a snack.

WSU scientists installed cameras in Glacier National Park to monitor lynx and learned more than they expected about how animals react to people in the wild.

When hiker access was restricted in the eastern half of Glacier National Park in 2020, WSU researchers used the opportunity to set up 40 cameras to monitor lynx populations. They began to notice changes that occurred with other animals when no human visitors were around.

“The thing that sort of surprised us about the results was that so many of those 22 species responded in sort of a negative manner in that they either reduced their use of the landscape or how frequently they were using it or they shifted their activity time," said researcher Dan Thornton. "We sort of expected a more mixed response, but that's not what we ended up finding.”

They expected to see “human shielding,” when apex predators like wolves are scared off by the presence of people, and that affects other animals behavior.

“Certain species, like those predators would prey on, like deer and other herbivores, sort of take advantage of that movement away from people that the predators are doing so they may use the landscape more frequently," Thornton said.

Courtesy Mammal Spatial Ecology and Conservation Lab at Washington State University
The red fox was one of many animal species whose images were captured by WSU cameras at Glacier.

But he says that generally did not turn out to be the case, and those prey animals also tended to avoid the areas people were hiking in. One exception: the red fox which was seen on or near trails when people were around, possibly because an animal that does prey on them, the coyote, were less present.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.