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Improvements in camera technology are bringing to life the formerly unseen world of wild animals that populate the hills and valleys of the North Coast.

Scores of motion-activated wildlife cameras, strategically positioned to capture movement 24 hours a day, are capturing images of the elusive creatures that live on the margins of civilization, what researchers refer to as the “rural-urban interface.”

From the Mayacmas Mountains northeast of Healdsburg to the sprawling Pepperwood Preserve west of Calistoga, from a relatively narrow corridor in Sonoma Valley to the flanks of Sonoma Mountain, the fairly low-cost cameras are producing remarkable stills and videos of mountain lions, bobcats and black bears, along with more mundane shots of deer, rabbits and the occasional wood rat.

“We have a healthy community of wildlife,” said Michelle Halbur, an ecologist at the 3,120-acre Pepperwood Preserve northeast of Santa Rosa, which has 21 high-definition cameras set up. “It’s really exciting to see how much is here and how prevalent they are on the landscape.”

The cameras, most of them placed by scientists, cost around $150. They not only help document the type of animals out there and their relative numbers, but also are important in pinpointing wildlife corridors considered essential to large carnivores and smaller critters.

Some of the videos and images can be seen online at places like the Audubon Canyon Ranch’s website, which shows the furtive animals that traverse its Modini Mayacamas Preserves, totaling about 3,000 acres off Pine Flat Road. The preserves use an alternate spelling of the Indian name of the mountain range.

Recordings are posted on the organization’s website, www.egret.org/trailcam/Modini. Some of the videos show:

In the dead of night, a mountain lion prowls a trail, its eyes eerily lit by a camera’s infrared beam. The spectral apparition quickly vanishes into the dark.

In another moment caught in the morning light by the same camera, a good-sized, healthy-looking black bear lumbers down the path, flinches and pivots, apparently startled by some birds taking flight. Then it placidly continues on.

On another day, the trail transforms into a racetrack as three jackrabbits fly around the bend, one after the other, in what looks like competition, play, or perhaps escape from a potential threat.

The cameras, which are placed on public lands, preserves and private property, are “a chance to get this eye, this view in — more than you could ever see yourself. It’s a noninvasive method,” said Sherry Adams, biologist and preserve manager at the Modini Mayacamas Preserves.

She said the 20 or so cameras at the preserves provide the equivalent of “virtual access” to a hitherto unobserved world.

“People look at these pictures, and they get this visceral appreciation for what it means to have protected, wild places here in Sonoma County,” she said.

Her organization, Audubon Canyon Ranch, which also has preserves in Bolinas and Glen Ellen, has sought to connect people to wild places for more than 50 years. “With the camera technology getting so good, here’s another way to do it,” she said.

Besides Pepperwood and the Modini Mayacamas Preserves, there are other networks of wildlife cameras, including 50 operated by Sonoma Land Trust in Sonoma Valley, between Kenwood and Agua Caliente.

The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District also contracts with Pepperwood to operate more than 30 of the “critter cams” on the sides of Sonoma Mountain.

And Pepperwood has assisted with setting up about 100 wildlife cameras in neighboring Marin County on open space, water district and park lands.

Researchers are reluctant to get too specific about the location of the cameras because of occasional thefts and tampering.

A number of the devices are set up in segments over a swath of territory running from the Marin coast to the Blue Ridge Berryessa Natural Area. They’re helping to test assumptions about a wildlife corridor that some scientists and conservationists say stretches from Point Reyes over the Mayacmas Mountains and into Lake and Napa counties.

The linkage of parcels is part of a project by the Bay Area Open Space Council to ensure the animals move unimpeded through the developed North Bay. Such corridors also are now thought to be vital for wildlife that will need to adapt to climate change.

“There’s not a lot of data. We wanted to see if it’s working as a corridor. That’s why we started a camera study,” said Tony Nelson, the Sonoma Land Trust manager overseeing the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor project.

The Sonoma Land Trust is acquiring critical properties for preservation and working with private landowners to remove unnecessary fencing, as well as obtaining conservation easements and deed restrictions that include “wildlife freedom of movement” covenants.

The cameras help monitor land and creek pathways, vulnerable “pinch-points” and barriers. In Sonoma Valley, for instance, busy roads including Highway 12 and Arnold Drive can prove fatal for animals trying to cross.

Sonoma Land Trust is combining camera data with road-kill surveys to help determine whether species are successfully crossing barriers and how frequently they use culverts and underpasses to avoid vehicles.

Nelson said the initial data is encouraging for the Sonoma Valley. “It appears that they do have the ability to move through,” he said. “The valley is permeable in this area to wildlife movement.”

Mountain lions, foxes, coyotes and even golden eagles show up in the camera frames.

One area of critical habitat is the 800 acres around the Sonoma Developmental Center, which faces an uncertain future as the state moves to close such facilities. The Sonoma Land Trust is leading a coalition of organizations intent on preserving open space around the property, which it says would directly link 9,000 acres of protected land.

Pepperwood says that in 2012, it became the first organization in North America to establish the camera matrix system that’s being copied in Sonoma Valley and other areas.

The so-called Wildlife Picture Index, a grid of strategically placed cameras, allows researchers to compare sites and track populations over time, detecting changes to the rate of loss of biodiversity.

“We can assess the value of conservation efforts. Property is expensive out there. You need a way to identify these key efforts,” said Halbur, a Pepperwood Preserve ecologist. “By having cameras, it directly informs our management and use of the property.”

Twenty cameras are set up in 2-kilometer intervals covering 20 square kilometers, or approximately 12 square miles. Camera setup, maintenance and data analysis are based on methods developed by wildlife “camera trap” experts.

The system also depends on qualified volunteers to help collect and archive the field data. In a three-month stretch in the fall of 2012, Pepperwood collected more than 37,000 images. Mule deer were the most common, but bobcats, striped skunks and gray foxes also were prevalent, along with black bears, pumas and coyotes.

Rarer animals such as American badgers and porcupines also show up.

Many of the creatures are so stealthy that about the only evidence without the cameras are scat, prints and markings left on trees, for instance.

But the digital cameras positioned near game trails, water sources and along fences have opened up a window on the wilderness.

“I have probably thousands of videos from up there,” said Ginny Fifield, a volunteer at Modini Mayacamas who uses some of her own cameras.

“Because we’re getting bear and mountain lions, a whole range of wildlife in that area in quite good numbers, I’d like to say it’s kind of a healthy population,” she said.

Sometimes interesting behaviors are recorded, ranging from dueling bucks to a bear crawling into an old outside bathtub from which cattle drink.

“The bear came over and sat in the tub, got in and walked out. I couldn’t have orchestrated it better,” Adams said of some amusing images she’s seen.

“There are so many cool pictures. It’s so much fun to peek in. It’s not like we see bears every day,” she said.

For Adams and others, the pictures validate the conservation efforts of private and government organizations, as well as the voter-approved sales tax in Sonoma County that funds preservation of open space.

“These are animals that need large ranges,” she said, noting that there are about 12,000 acres of relatively contiguous preserved land with the property owned by Audubon Canyon Ranch, nearby Santa Angelina property and federal Bureau of Land Management property.

“We all know having minimal human presence is part of what makes this place special,” she said.

“In order to have a healthy population from small animals to apex predators, it’s really essential to have these large tracts of land,” Fifield said. “They also need to be connected.”

Halbur said there is a responsibility to educate landowners and protect species in the face of human encroachment.

“The more animals on the move, the more we are going to have to learn to coexist,” she said. “It’s how to share the space we all appreciate.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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