Down in the basement of the Condon work center there’s a wall with paper bags tacked to it, carefully labeled, drying out.
It’s what Adam Lieberg of the Swan Valley Connections Southwestern Crown Collaborative Carnivore Project calls the “wall of scat.”
He used to have the bags in his living room, but it smelled like a very old litter box and his wife-to-be almost left him, he joked.
But those envelopes hold the key to figuring out at least some of the secrets of the small carnivores of the Swan and Mission valleys.
Since 2012, Lieberg and his team have been systematically surveying the Southwest Crown each winter for wolverines, lynx and fishers. On Monday, Lieberg presented the results of that effort to members of the Flathead Audubon Society.
The Southwest Crown covers a U-shaped swath of landscape from the lower Swan Range, the Mission Mountains and the Blackoot Valley east to Rogers Pass. Criss-crossed with logging roads, Lieberg and his crews surveyed about 1,000 miles of terrain each winter by snowmobile, snowshoes and skis, looking for the above-mentioned rare critters.
The Canada lynx is already listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List and the fisher and wolverine are both under consideration for listing.
Lieberg and his team used two main methods to track down the beasts. For one, they did track surveys in the snow. Once they hit a track, they’d often backtrack the tracks, in search of hair, scat, vomit and urine that the creature may have left behind. The animal waste and hair can be gleaned for DNA, allowing researchers to identify individual animals.
Leiberg and his team also used bait stations. A chunk of skinned road-killed deer is lashed to a tree and wire brushes are nailed around it.
When the critter tries to eat the meat, it leaves some hair behind.
The survey to date has brought a host of challenges and rewards. This winter it was copious amounts of snow and cold, some days were too cold to even go out. Other winters they dealt with a thinner snowpack and mud.
Lieberg said they’ve developed a scientifically valid method for surveying these three carnivores which can be used on other snowy, treed landscapes where the animals are known to live.
The results, have been surprising, Lieberg noted. From 2013-2016 they identified 41 individual lynx in the Southwest Crown — 24 males and 17 females. They also identified 32 individual wolverines. But what they didn’t find was fisher. Despite thousands of miles of tracking and hundreds of bait stations specifically set for fisher, they found none.
That echoes a similar study in Glacier National Park, where none were found as well.
Lieberg said they’re not sure why there are no fishers — historical records indicate they used to be in the region. Fishers are more common in Idaho, he noted.
He also said he was surprised at the relatively high number of wolverines. The study has revealed “hot spots” of habitat.
For example, the best lynx habitat is generally around Seeley Lake. Lynx key in on snowshoe hare populations — their main food source.
Wolverines, on the other hand, are more widespread, which makes sense as they’re known to travel long distances — especially males.
They also discovered some unique wolverine habits. For example, wolverines use caches to store food in snow banks to keep it from rotting. More than one wolverine — likely a family member, will share the cache.
“Wolverines are more social than a lot of other carnivores,” Lieberg noted.
Wolverines aren’t very big — about 30 pounds or so, but they can be fierce.
One wolverine tracked down a mule deer doe, jumped on its back and killed it.
Some methods were better than others at detecting the carnivores. For example, most of the lynx were detected by tracking — female lynx rarely came to bait stations.
Wolverines, by contrast, readily came to bait.
All-in-all, combining both methods raised the rate of success.