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This photo of a six-point bull elk in Northeast Oregon with several cow elk was taken by a trail cam owned by Chad Carlson of La Grande.
Many hunters may be spending less time in Northeast Oregon forests in the future.
An improving technological tool is the answer — one that is making scouting for big game animals almost as easy as slipping a memory card into a computer.Trail cams are the tool in question. These are motion-activated cameras that hunters attach to trees to record images of wildlife moving by. They have infrared flashes that most animals can not see for night shots and list the day and time each photo was taken. This makes it easy to detect wildlife movement patterns.
“It’s a great way to scout 24-7,’’ said Chad Carlson, a La Grande hunter who has used trail cams for two years.
Carlson attaches his trail cams about three or four feet off the ground so they are at eye level of many game animals.
Norm Paullus, a La Grande bow hunter, encourages people to trim all branches near their trail cams. This prevents branches from being blown in front of their trail cam and activating its sensor.
Good places to set up trail cams include routes wildlife like deer and elk travel and orchards, said Paullus.
Most animals ignore trail cams, but not bears, which sometimes rip the units from trees.
“They are curious about them,’’ Paullus said.
Paullus, who has used trail cams for 10 years, protects his from animals and people by putting them in lock boxes that leave the front of the cameras exposed.
Paullus further protects his trail cams by bolting his lock boxes to trees.
Hunters get the most out of their trail cams if they set their infrared flashes so that they provide the greatest range, Paullus said. He also encourages hunters to set their cameras so they shoot in sequences of three. Firing in sets of three allows a trail cam to provide a complete look at each animal walking by.
Wildlife activity around trail cams varies significantly. Paullus said one of his trail cams may take up to 40 photographs one day and then five days will pass before another animal triggers its sensor.
Phil Gillette, the owner of Phil’s Outdoor Surplus and More, urges hunters to consider all factors when using trail cams to study wildlife movement patterns. He said the patterns can change quickly depending on weather conditions, hours of daylight, breeding seasons, phases of the moon and more.
Paullus notes that his trail cams indicate the phase of the moon for each photo shot. This is helpful when determining wildlife movement patterns, he said. Animals including deer feed much more at night when there is substantial moonlight.
Hunters have a better chance at successfully detecting the movement patterns of game animals with trail cams if they have a good set of batteries. Paullus uses large battery packs, which work for a year. Some battery packs in trail cams last only 20 days.
The popularity of trail cams has increased significantly in recent years as they have improved and their prices have fallen.
“Five years ago I did not sell any trail cams. Now I sell about 40 a year,’’ Gillette said.
Hunters use trail cams for more than scouting, Gillette said. Many also set them up at their camps as a security measure. The cameras may deter thieves and vandals and can help catch the culprits.
Paullus also pointed out that trail cams are excellent for home security. He noted that people have used them to catch people vandalizing their homes.
The many interesting photos Paullus’s trail cam cameras have taken in the wild include one snapped of a coyote and a bird drinking from a puddle of water while only five feet apart.
“The bird did not seem to be worried about the coyote at all,’’ Paullus said.
Gillette said one hunter has told him he has noticed every time a herd passes by his trail cam a cougar walks by 5 to 20 minutes later.
“They are following their food source,’’ Gillette said.
The growing popularity of trail cams can be traced to their falling prices and improving quality. The quality of pictures provided by trail cams has improved significantly in recent years, and they now cost much less than they did several years ago. The price range for standard trail cams is now in the $200 to $300 range. Lower quality models can be purchased for as little as $69.
The most sophisticated trail cams on the market send the images they take to the owner’s computer or cellphone. These models, which cost around $500, are more popular in the East where images are more easily sent because of superior cell phone coverage, Gillette said.
He anticipates that the popularity of these more sophisticated trail cams will rise in the West as cell phone coverage improves and prices continue to drop.