HAMILTON — When Kate Stone began setting out deer carcasses and motion-detecting cameras in the Bitterroot Valley as part of a raptor research project, she wasn’t quite sure what she would find.
The results delighted her. It wasn’t just the data gleaned from the research that Stone, an ecologist at the MPG Ranch, found fascinating. Instead, many of the photographs show interactions among a variety of species ranging from birds to bobcats, leaving her to wonder what exactly is happening in each shot.
“Anyone can come up with a story about what is happening in the pictures,” she said. “Who knows if we’re right or wrong, but it’s something that we might not have known was happening in the wild.”
In one photograph, nine bald eagles are perched on a carcass, seemingly enjoying their dinner party. In other shots, however, eagles appear to be fighting over a carcass.
“Quite possibly there’s a little spat going on,” Stone said of the latter photo. “Meanwhile, the ravens and magpies are waiting for something to fly off the carcass.”
Another series of photographs shows a bobcat on a carcass with a coyote approaching. Initially, the cat’s back is arched and it appears alarmed. As the coyote gets closer, the bobcat moves off the prize and crouches low. The third in the series shows the coyote’s nose in the carcass while the bobcat appears to calmly sit by, staring at the camera.
“I have never seen that before,” Stone said. “We were really surprised by that series, and it happened more than once.”
She also hadn’t anticipated the number of hawks and owls that stopped by, possibly due to last year’s crusty snow that made it a bit more difficult to puncture to grab small rodents.
A couple of foxes were caught on camera, as was a moose.
The photographs are part of the Bitterroot Valley Winter Eagle Project, a research collaboration Stone is doing in conjunction with the Missoula-based Raptor View Research Institute and the Bitterroot Audubon Society. They’re banding some of the birds caught on camera and fitting them with transmitters to track their travels all the way from the Bitterroot to Alaska and back.
They put deer carcasses collected by the Montana Department of Transportation, mainly along the U.S. Highway 93 corridor, out on private property as bait. Since 2011, they’ve banded more than 100 eagles and outfitted more than 20 golden eagles with transmitters.
They work in the winter when bears are hibernating, so they don’t draw them in. It’s also at a time when the raptors typically would be feeding on roadside carrion and gut piles left over from hunters.
“We’re not changing what they’re eating, just changing where they’re eating. This way they're not on the Eastside Highway where they potentially could get hit by a car,” Stone said.
People who want to track the migration routes of golden eagles and osprey can do so online at raptortracker.mpgranch.com.
Stone hopes the public will take a more active role in the study by going online to zooniverse.org and searching for Western Montana Wildlife, and helping them classify what’s in the 5,000-plus images they’ve captured.
About 3,600 “citizen scientists” from throughout the world already have processed 13,932 images, which includes 279,941 wildlife classifications. They have amassed more than 300,000 photos from the 2016-17 season, and expect hundreds of thousands more this season, so Stone appreciates the help.
“People like to look at wildlife cameras, and this will help us complete the project,” Stone said. “This is a way people can get involved.”
Stone anticipates that they’ll begin putting out carcasses again this year in mid-November at 35 to 40 sites, up from 26 last year. They also have 15 additional cameras this year, along with 20 cameras available last year. All were donated by the MPG Ranch.