The black bear’s nose follows the elk’s vertebrae, carving through a fog of flies. Its jaws dive into the open ribcage, teeth plying through viscera. Flesh peels with a tug and rewards the bear’s hyperphagic appetite. Three cubs weave into the camera’s view through a bitterbrush maze, ready to paint their snouts crimson.
The cow elk had fallen to my bullet four days prior. Before shouldering the last game bags, I fastened a game camera to the wooden stake I hammered into the ground 10 feet away. Over the following days, the camera spotted a second bear family, prowling coyotes, a golden eagle, and a fleet of black-billed magpies.
If you hadn’t guessed it by now, hanging game cameras over carcasses has become a hobby of mine. As I’m grilling venison tenderloins at home, I wonder what type of frantic feast my camera is capturing back on the mountain. But, it’s not all entertainment. Here are the reasons I stow a game camera in my truck during hunting season.
When my neighbor John heard I had extra game cameras on hand, he tucked one into his hunting pack, saying he’d always wanted to post one on a kill. Days later, his buddy tagged a five-by-five bull elk in dark timber, where John set the camera to incubate. A winter storm buried the carcass under a thick veil of snow, but enough elk musk floated on the breeze to reach a handful of ever-searching noses. The wolf pack hoovered the remains in just a few hours.
Carrion lures scavengers like wallows attract rutting elk, offering a rare chance to spy lesser-seen wildlife. Personally, I’ve watched a mountain lion and her cubs gnaw on an elk’s spine, a bobcat lounge in the shade of a decaying mule deer, and a golden eagle chase three nosy coyotes from a gut pile.
But the presence of carnivores means you should stay vigilant and make noise when returning for your game camera. Even when only a rug of deer hair remains months later, the lingering scent of death and predator urine can lure wandering carnivores. Also, check the hunting regulations to ensure your state allows game cameras to be used during hunting season.
Help Wildlife Biologists
I’ve never bagged a banded duck, but I have photographed banded golden eagles with game cameras. Since eagles are magnetized to gut piles and carcasses, I’m always looking at their legs for bands. Although it’s tough deciphering numbers on a tiny anklet from a grainy photo, some eagles sport colored wing or leg bands, with each bird having a unique number. That information can then be submitted to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory—and hopefully—a biologist will reach out to you with details on the bird. A friend of mine who bands and tags eagles has received observations up to 12 years after the bird left his hands.
Even if you don’t spot tagged wildlife, sightings of uncommon animals can help biologists sort out the distribution of certain species. We’ve all heard stories of wandering predators, whether it be a mountain lion in Connecticut or a wolverine in North Dakota. Many biologists welcome an extra set of eyes in the woods and will often make sense of your observations should you ask.
Cultivate Your Inner Ecologist
Seeing carnivores skulk around a kill site shouldn’t come as a surprise, but what about deer, elk, and moose? Not only will deer approach dead animals, but they’ll nudge away snow for a better smell. On rare occasions, they’ll even scavenge.
Strange behaviors like these fuel an ecologist’s fascination. Are the deer curious or are they looking for protein and minerals? Could they be spreading chronic wasting disease?
Less obvious behaviors occur. Maybe a carcass attracts rodents for a bobcat to pounce upon. Perhaps an owl or hawk tears bites from a gut pile, causing me to wonder why they forwent their evening hunt. Did a snowstorm bury their prey? Are they injured? Were they simply drawn to an easy meal? With a keen eye and an SD card stuffed with photos, armchair ecologists can ponder dozens of observations as they drink their morning coffee.
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