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CONDON – A compact disc dangling from the branch of a lodgepole pine catches the morning sunlight and mimics the flash of a snowshoe hare, while the hindquarters of a road-kill deer wired to a nearby bear-rub tree will lure in a suite of small, elusive carnivores that range in the Swan Valley.

Wolverine, lynx and fisher will visit the “bait station,” which bristles with gun bore brushes that collect clumps of the critters’ fur. Subsequent DNA testing, to be completed this summer, will identify the individual animals and help establish a baseline for population and distribution of the three target species, as well as other small carnivores that sniff out the carrion – bobcat, coyote, fox, pine martens, and weasel.

This bait station near Condon is one of about 120 in a 1.5 million-acre area known as the southwest Crown of the Continent ecosystem. Researchers and land managers are working together to learn what critters are pawing their way through the snow-covered forests, and, in addition to the DNA samples, they are using tracking methods to identify hotspots that the animals frequent as prime habitat or migration corridors.

Through the collaboration of public land managers, non-profit outfits, private landowners and wildlife biologists comes a sprawling study into rare and threatened carnivores in western Montana, which will help inform land management decisions when planning for forest thinning, timber sales, fuel reduction and restoration.

“We want to be able to identify how these carnivores behave across this large landscape so that we know what changes are occurring 15 and 20 years down the road,” Melanie Parker, executive director of Northwest Connections, said.

Funding for the carnivore monitoring project, and numerous others, has come through the federal Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. It’s one of 10 projects selected for funding nationwide under a federal initiative focused on collaborative projects that restore overworked ecosystems. In fiscal year 2012, total funding amounted to nearly $7.5 million, with more than half of that coming from CFLR.

The carnivore monitoring study is a small component of the program, but wildlife managers say it is critical to understanding how these rare species interact with Montana’s public lands, now and into the future. There has been no long-term monitoring of wolverine, lynx and fisher in the region, and the CFLR funding will keep the project running for the next decade.

“A lot of these critters that we’re responsible for are still very mysterious to us,” Carly Lewis, of the Lolo National Forest, said. “There has been very little survey work done in these wilderness areas, and this will help tell us whether we’re still seeing the same critters in 2025 that we are seeing now, and whether they are in the same distribution areas. These species are part of our coexistence in this ecosystem.”

Adam Lieberg, conservation program coordinator at Northwest Connections, has become intimately familiar with the southwest Crown of the Continent region as he spends his days tracking animals over a five-by-five mile grid system, covering a minimum of 10 kilometers a day, amounting to more than 1,200 miles in a season.

He has also gathered rare footage of wolverine and lynx by installing and monitoring remote cameras. The cameras have recorded multiple wolverines feeding at a single bait station, which tells researchers that they are installed in high-quality habitat.

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While tracking, Lieberg says he’ll collect scat and hair along the trail for genetic testing and identification.

“When in doubt, track it out,” he says of the sometimes difficult tracking conditions. “There’s an art and a method to it, but it’s not some mystical spirit tracking. We are trying to build a case and understand what areas these animals are frequenting and why.”

The purpose of the CFLR program is to encourage collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration, and the southwest Crown of the Continent fits the bill, said Seeley Lake Ranger District wildlife biologist Scott Tomson.

The southwest Crown of the Continent forms the southern boundary of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and includes the forests and communities of the Blackfoot, Clearwater and Swan River valleys, while crossing three ranger districts on three national forests.

“It is a challenging but exciting task,” Tomson said. “It’s a huge opportunity to pull our ongoing monitoring together with our partners and make it more standardized.”

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Reach Tristan Scott at @tristanscott, at tristan.scott@missoulian.com or at (406) 531-9745.

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