SANDPOINT, Idaho — Researchers are putting the spotlight on reclusive creatures in the Inland Northwest, ranging from slugs and frogs to lynx and wolverines.
How climate change and other modern threats will impact these critters is the million-dollar question the Idaho Fish and Game Department and other scientists are studying with the help of a federal grant and hundreds of citizen scientists.
The Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, for example, organized 149 volunteers last year to ski or snowshoe into the backcountry on both sides of the Idaho-Montana border for the project. The teams set up and monitored numerous stations baited with beaver carcasses in an attempt to get photos and hair for DNA samples of wolverines and their cousins, the fishers.
While only a few wolverines have been documented, a suite of other critters mugging for the cameras adds to the fascination of volunteers and the data for researchers.
"We have six flying squirrels in one photo," said Phil Hough, spokesman for the Scotchman group. "Even a red fox climbed a tree in the Cabinets."
This spring and summer, groups will be needed for field work, such as surveying salamanders. Other helpers are needed for indoor work, such as sorting through leaf matter to census small snails.
The Multi-Species Baseline Initiative, under way since 2010, is kicking into high gear this year with the help of a $950,000 grant from the federal Land and Conservation Fund. Researchers are zeroing in on 20 species across the Idaho Panhandle and northeastern Washington that have been largely overlooked by wildlife management.
Each state has a similar effort to assess wildlife, said Michael Lucid, IFG's wildlife biologist in charge of the region's wildlife diversity program.
The plan seeks baseline data for an early warning system "so we can prevent fish and wildlife from becoming endangered," he said.
As they search for the creatures, the researchers also are collecting climate information to determine the shades of difference that might mean life or death to certain species.
"As everyone who grows tomatoes knows, a single property can have different microclimates," Lucid said. "The subtle differences in various habitats can make a big difference."
Conservation measures can be taken to give critters the habitat they need once those habitats are defined, he said.
So far, help has been coming from more than 20 organizations, ranging from schools and conservation groups to the Forest Service and two Indian tribes.
The Scotchmans group, established in 2005 to promote wilderness status for the mountains northeast of Lake Pend Oreille, has been involved with the biodiversity study for three years. The Sandpoint-based group gave a big boost last year by securing a $29,000 grant from Zoo Boise to purchase motion-activated cameras and hire a volunteer coordinator.
"We helped them double their area of research," said Hough, also the group's director. The friends group trained nearly 150 volunteers, including 39 students who joined in teams that logged 2,000 hours to monitor and process information from 40 stations.
"Volunteers came from as far as Pullman and Whitefish to help because wildlife is fascinating," he said. "Our members like the thought that they're using their backcountry skills to help wildlife research."
Indeed, one group this winter set up a station that required a one-day, 24-mile round-trip backcountry ski trek with 5,000 feet of elevation gain.
Six volunteers made the initial analysis of 225,000 images collected last season from 94 remote cameras, Hough said. Then the biologists go through them again.
So far, the stations have recorded wolverine activity only in the northern Idaho Selkirk Mountains. No wolverines have been detected in the west end of the Cabinet Mountains. However, the Cabinets appear to harbor numerous fishers while none has been found at the stations in the Selkirk or Purcell mountains.
Fishers were captured elsewhere and released in the Cabinets in the 1980s and the boost apparently worked, Lucid said. "They're interesting creatures. Fishers and mountain lions are the only predator known to prey consistently on porcupines."
Lynx have been documented as residents of the Purcells. Researchers can confirm individuals returning to an area through the year by fur markings captured in the photos and DNA snagged by brass gun-cleaning brushes fixed to the trees below the beaver bait.
An Oregon trapper provides the neatly skinned and cut beaver carcasses as a byproduct of his legal trapping operation, Lucid said. "We get a few at a time and stockpile them in freezers for the next (research) season," he said.
The wolverine research is done in the winter because carnivores are more desperate for food and easier to lure with bait. "There are other practical reasons," Hough said. "Beaver bait is more pleasant to handle when it's frozen and volunteers don't have to worry about running into a bear."
That's also one of the reasons the teams are heading out this week to take down the last of the stations. "Bears start coming out of their dens in March."
By April, Lucid hopes to have more volunteers scheduled for projects involving five amphibians, and 11 slug and snail species.
Last year's field work found good numbers of fir pinwheel snails that had previously been documented at only one site in Idaho. Better yet, 17 sites where found to have magnum mantleslugs, a species that had not been documented in Idaho since 1942.
The researchers will more than double their efforts in 2013. This summer the project will ramp up to stations at about 900 wetlands for amphibians, 500 sites for gastropods and beetles, and by next winter, 250 sites for wolverines and other forest carnivores.
"Getting citizen scientists involved is one of the coolest parts of this research," Lucid said. "I get a lot of energy from seeing people excited and learning about wildlife.
"When I put on the first volunteer training clinic I was surprised at how many people had never heard of a fisher. Now they know everything about the fisher and they want to know more about other species."