All summer, bikers and joggers coast down Game Creek trails. Little do they know they might be watched by a cougar.
“You really get to know what lives in your neighborhood when you can watch wildlife without being there,” said Summit High School science teacher Brian Hager.
For seven years Hager has been taking students out in the field to set up game cameras and learn about the valley’s wildlife biology and predators near popular recreation trails.
“People don’t really realize how populated this area is with predators like cougars,” he said.
Hager said wolves have pushed the cougars south from their original habitat in Yellowstone closer to town in search of prey.
On a damp fall day Hager and his students trooped into Game Creek for their first trip of the school year to monitor and service the cameras. Before they left the trailhead Hager gave them binoculars and a pep talk.
“Our scent is wafting up the canyon right now,” he said. “And it’s clearing every large animal out of here before they even see us.”
Hager said that once winter settles in animals are less likely to flee.
“It’s such a fine line between life and death in the winter,” he said. “They won’t want to expend any more energy than they have to.”
Hager is a natural educator, making concepts easy to understand with a dash of humor and a lot of knowledge. Spending time as an outdoor educator is when he “fell in love with teaching.”
He had felt something was missing when he looked around his class.
“I noticed that kids were antsy and they were dying to be outside,” he said. “It seemed obvious, and that’s how this idea came to be.”
Sometimes Hager will take his entire environmental science class — 16 students — out on a school bus for similar trips. Last week he was out with three students he directly advises.
“It feels good to be outside and to get out of class,” Corey Stewart said.
As Hager walked with his students farther back into the river canyon he pointed out large clusters of rocks high up on the hillside.
“Those are ideal observation points for a cat,” he said. “They’re aware of you; you’re not aware of them. That’s the way they like to keep it.”
Setting up the game cameras to catch such elusive creatures requires a strategy.
“During our first year we never saw a cat,” Hager said. “Once we started refining where we were looking, considering the habitat and how far we were willing to hike, we started having more success.”
Hager said he and students “just started exploring” and stumbled across” an amazing game trail network.”
In addition to strategy they need balance and coordination. The trails and hillsides were muddy and slick. Patches of snow from the last storm remained down low in the shade.
“We look for deer trails and game trails that you can tell animals use habitually,” Hager said.
First things first. When the students found a camera they set up, Hager had instructions.
“The first thing you do when you find a camera is smile,” he joked.
They obliged, mugging and joking around. Hager taught them how to set up the cameras with the correct trigger sensitivity — so they don’t end up with “10,000 photos of wavy branches” — and how to change the batteries.
In the past the game camera photos have shown a plethora of wildlife.
“We’ve seen five different cougars over the past five years,” Hager said. “Black bears, pine martens, birds, coyotes, foxes, you name it,” Hager said. “We’ve seen hilarious pictures of pine marten play.”
Hager waits until a nasty day to show the footage to kids. But he’s not so patient himself.
“I can’t wait to see what we’ve captured,” he said.
When the game cameras were checked for the first time this year there was no cougar sighting. But that didn’t mean a lack of footage. After looking through the 174 photos that the motion-activated camera captured, Hager saw mule deer, a flying squirrel, a red fox … and a jogger.
“We saw one excited trail runner who danced in front of it,” Hager said. “There’s always some sort of Hager’s cougar project isn’t just about monitoring wildlife. It’s about getting students outside and reaping the benefits. On their recent outing he pointed out which berries were edible, or not, and sprinkled other survival tips into the conversation.
He always encourages students to “ask why.” Cody Boyce obliged, piping up with a question about why the tall grasses had become flattened with the change of season.
“I want them to turn loose their unbridled curiosity,” Hager said. “Learning like this isn’t just good for their bodies but their minds, too.”
His student Jon Perez agreed.
“It’s fun for me,” Perez said. “I like going outside and exploring a lot.”
Perez came on the cougar project expeditions last year and found objects like old bones along the trails. This year he spotted a frozen dragonfly hidden in the tall grass.
Knowledge can come from that kind of fun.
“Wandering and wondering, that’s how we know what we know about the world,” Hager said.