Roughing it 

The photo is alarming to say the least. A man framed by a den entrance, hand poised over a sleeping black bear, all cast in black and white. The snapshot is one of more than 9,000 taken of the den from a remote camera this spring.

Think that’s impressive? Try live birdsong with real-time species identification beamed from the woods to your iPod.

“I build it, I walk away, they do the rest of the stuff,” says Ryan Alter, the man in the black bear photo and founder of two-year-old Alter Enterprise.
Friends nickname him the “Gizmo-logist.” Alter tinkers with remote camera equipment to capture photos of wildlife for, among others, Paul Gurinas, a wealthy hedge fund partner who visits his 200 acres in the Swan Valley just a couple times a year.

“He’s a bit of a wizard about it, works behind a curtain,” says Missoula businessman Mark Vander Meer about Alter.

About two years ago, Vander Meer contracted with Gurinas to restore land ravaged by logging and de-stumping. When Gurinas said he’d like to install a camera to keep an eye on the place while away, Vander Meer put him in touch with Alter. The rest, as he says, is history.

Alter drew national attention when he and a volunteer group built an artificial bear den from hardwood scraps and canvassed it with surveillance cameras and infrared lights. The project called for 700 feet of fiber optic cable, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) supplied the black bear for relocation in the area.

“The FWP was joking that the den was nicer than some of their kitchens,” Alter says.

The bear den, fishcam and dozens of birdbox cameras are just the tip of a massive techno iceberg. Alter’s future plans for Gurinas’ property include the birdsong recording and a wireless Internet “mesh,” or network of wireless antennae, that will link the whole property to the Web.

Business is on the rise. Alter has had several e-mails and phone calls from private landowners wanting similar remote viewing capabilities, and the FWP is considering repeating the bear den project next spring.

And the job comes with a lighter side. Like the photo of a lady in a moo-moo and slippers snapped by one of Alter’s tree-mounted, motion-sensitive “Buckeye” cams in the woods.

“It was the bedroom attire that surprised me,” Alter says.
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