Tuesday, May 1, 2012

At the MPG Ranch, a watchful eye on the wild

Posted By on Tue, May 1, 2012 at 4:23 PM

Late last year, Alan Ramsey was combing through videos taken at night by one of his remote cameras on the MPG Ranch, east of Florence, when he saw a skunk. It was small and spotted, with a wispy white-tipped tail—conspicuously different from the common striped skunk. Ramsey checked a field guide and realized he had captured a western spotted skunk, Spilogale gracilis, which is seldom observed in the region. The Montana Natural Heritage Program has recorded only 19 other sightings of the skunk in the state, where it’s classified as a “species of concern.” Ramsey’s was the first in the Bitterroot Valley in more than 20 years.

Then, a few weeks ago, another one of Ramsey’s cameras, located a couple drainages away from the first, recorded a second spotted skunk rummaging around the brush. The sightings are enough to convince Ramsey that western spotted skunks call the MPG Ranch’s arid hillsides home. Perhaps the solitary, nocturnal critters always have. “Maybe they’re not that rare,” he says. “It’s just that nobody’s ever going to see it.” Unless, like Ramsey, you have about 100 cameras spread out over an 8,600-acre mountainside ranch, recording or photographing the movements of all kinds of animals, from mountain lions to wild horses, all about 10 miles south of Missoula as the crow flies.

The diversity helps explain why the rare skunk doesn’t rank very high among Ramsey’s favorite finds. “We’ve gotten lions with deer hanging out of their mouths,” he says. “We found a wolf with a decapitated mule deer head hanging out of its mouth. Usually death is more exciting than other things.” One of his cameras recently recorded nesting geese chasing off a coyote, and a squirrel carrying a pine cone to the creek to wash it. “I never heard of a squirrel having any reason to wash their pine cones in the creek,” he says.

Ramsey is the MPG Ranch’s wildlife videographer. It’s an unlikely position for the lanky, laid-back 37-year-old who used to work as a portrait painter. But he’s found a niche curating videos of wildlife roaming the ranch below Baldy Mountain. That is, in fact, largely why the ranch exists—for wildlife. Since there are no cattle, MPG doesn’t meet the traditional definition of a “working” ranch. But it employs more than 20 people, including several University of Montana-trained ecologists who are working to rid the ranch of invasive species and improve native habitat.

A BuckEye camera catches a poacher in the act
  • MPG Ranch
  • A BuckEye camera catches a poacher in the act
MPG Holdings, LLC, based in the Chicago area but originally formed in Wyoming, acquired the ranch in 2009. Ranch manager Philip Ramsey, Alan’s brother, declines to name its owners. He calls them “very private and generous people.” The company also owns property in the Swan Valley, near Condon, that is also managed for restoration and conservation.

On a recent cool and overcast day, inside a house on the MPG Ranch, Alan Ramsey and Nick Franczyk, the ranch’s technology director, are in front of the computer that collects video and images, including those sent from the 30 BuckEye cameras, which are motion-activated and transmit wirelessly. Those images are automatically uploaded to www.mpgranch.com. They hope the site will eventually host real-time video. Franczyk displays a thermal image of grazing deer taken by an infrared camera and a BuckEye photo of a bounding wolverine. They have shots of mountain lion cubs and bobcat kittens.

Mark Hebblewhite, an ungulate habitat ecologist at UM, says MPG Ranch’s monitoring network is “unprecedented, as far as I know, in this part of the world,” offering researchers a new way to estimate wildlife populations.

That’s the primary purpose of the ranch’s elaborate imaging system (the ranch counted more than 400 elk last fall), but it’s also, Franczyk says, so the owner of the land “can keep an eye on it and keep connected with the property and see what’s happening, and what’s changing.”

It isn’t always wildlife that’s captured. Last October, two hunters who didn’t have permission to be on the ranch winched a dead elk with a four-wheeler, dragged it right in front of a camera and proceeded to field dress it. When they noticed the camera, one of the hunters threw his coat over it. It wasn’t enough to prevent state wildlife officials from busting them.

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A BuckEye camera snaps me, and a mountain lion three hours later
  • MPG Ranch
  • A BuckEye camera snaps me, and a mountain lion three hours later

Alan Ramsey pulls up a Suburban and we head out for a tour of the ranch. We’re specifically looking for wild horses; there are about 25 in four herds that live in these hills. Locals say the horses have been around here for at least a century, gone feral when ranchers left to fight in World War I. Some neighbors apparently don’t like the horses and consider them pests, because they can damage fences and compete with elk for forage. We drive a two-track road around ridges and up into the trees, glassing the sagebrush hills. When the truck can’t make it up a muddy incline, we continue on foot. We stop and scan the ridges between us and the Miller Creek drainage, just south of Missoula. We don’t spot any horses, and turn back.

That night, Philip Ramsey, the ranch manager, emails me photos taken that day by a BuckEye camera affixed to a tree in the area where we walked. At 12:28 p.m., it photographed me. At 3:41 p.m., a massive mountain lion slunk by in the same spot.

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