Camera Traps and Lynx in the Age of Humans

The attractant made me gag.

We had just finished setting up the motion-activated camera in the snowy Montana woods. We were putting the finishing touches to a site that we hoped might lure in an elusive lynx or fisher.  The final task was to suspend from nearby trees a couple of small sponges soaked in a foul-smelling liquid containing delicate aromas including skunk and muskrat musk.  These would serve as an attractant to passing animals. Delicious. How could any self-respecting mid-level carnivore resist?

As the two sponges sat untouched in a Ziploc bag on a small log in the snow, the small group of us who had worked for the last ninety minutes to set up the station somehow all managed to find other important things to do. Just when it was starting to get awkward, the most experienced of our group gamely volunteered to complete the unpleasant task.

IMG_1530By the time we left, this small section of the woods hosted a number of interesting new features. These included a set of ribs from a road-killed deer securely wired seven feet up an Englemann spruce tree, a dozen wire-bristled brushes stapled in below the ribs (to pull hair from a climbing scavenger), a small square of carpet doused in scent with two short strands of barbed wire attached to the same tree at shoulder-height for a lynx, a flashy CD spinning in the breeze from a nearby limb, and the two musk-scented sponges.  Positioned about ten feet away on another spruce trunk was the motion-sensitive camera that would record any visitors to our site, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Already, we could not wait to return in three weeks to see which characters from the four-legged world might have been tempted to investigate.

The likelihood of us recording one of the primary target species, Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) and fisher (Pekani pennanti) were slim.  (We already knew that this particular site was not at the right elevation for wolverine (Gulo gulo)). In the four years this citizen science program had been running, only one fisher had been photographed and no lynx. Since the last lynx were caught in nearby traps in the nineteen seventies and nineteen eighties, the Bitterroot Mountains had revealed little sign of the rare carnivore. Although the US Fish and Wildlife Service – who list the lynx as “threatened” in this region under the Endangered Species Act – say that the lynx occupies this area, the animal remains highly elusive.  Even though tracks left in the snow suggest the animal is present, reliable visual confirmation remains extremely rare.

We needed to be realistic about what our cameras were likely to reveal.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  The version of this that interests environmental ethicists is ‘if a lynx walks through the forest and no one is there to experience it, does the animal have value?’  The answer now generally agreed upon is “Yes, of course the unseen lynx has value.” This is not just the value it has for its role in the health of the forest ecosystem. It is the value it has simply for being there as a remarkable product of evolutionary time and forest history. A lynx is a striking animal, one that should rightly be thought of as having its own moral significance. The language of intrinsic value developed by environmental ethicists speaks to this significance. Economists, always looking to stick their dollar signs on the most intangible of things, have called it “existence value,” a measure of how much one would be willing to pay for something’s existence even if it never gets used or experienced.

These questions are mostly settled for people of good conscience but our current time turns another couple of clicks of the ratchet on this old puzzle.  We now occupy the so-called “Anthropocene Epoch” or “age of humans.” This is the epoch in which nothing is said to remain on Earth that is free from the human imprint.  There is simply too much pollution, too many fragmented habitats, too much climate change, and too many disrupted ecosystems to think of anything as remaining untouched anymore. Our species’ astonishing reach has stolen the last bit of nature’s independence from us. This condition has been called ‘the end of nature.’ It is a time that some will rightfully lament just as others will beg that we move on and get used to it.


So what does this have to do with the fisher, the lynx, and a motion-sensitive camera hidden in the Montana forest?

On the one hand, the placing of the camera made me feel like a bit of a child of the Anthropocene Epoch. We were, after all, using the camera to expand our reach. Is it really necessary for us to barge into the forest, to set these lures, and to try to record what is going on in this quiet corner of the winter world? Do the animals not deserve some privacy and some respite from our constant probing?

On the other hand, it also felt like we were acting in defense of the idea of an untouched world. A digital image would not corrupt the animal with the human touch. If anything, it would confirm its elusiveness and independence from us. Knowing a bit more about animals like fishers and lynx is the only hope of getting them the recognition that will save them. In Montana, there still remains quite a bit of forest in which there are no cameras.  Lots of space in which carnivores can be carnivores and wild animals can continue to live their lives outside of the human sphere.

So, as both an environmental philosopher and a lover of wildlife, it will be with mixed feelings that I will scroll through the memory card of that hidden camera on our return to the forest a few weeks from now. I may feel a little intrusive if we do end up capturing a moment in the life of a lynx. But at the same time I will be reassured that such beautiful creatures remain out there, living their lives independently of us, and getting on with their finely-tuned behaviors in the forbidding winter woods.

In so doing, I might also get the sense that they are sticking their middle claw up at our grandiose ideas about “a human age.”



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