How One Trail Runner Helps the NPS Study Wildlife

Now more than ever, efficiency plays a vital role in conservation efforts.

Keith Boden suits up in a lightweight long sleeve shirt, pants, and hiking boots. In his pack, he carries food and water and camera equipment, which can sometimes weigh up to 40 pounds. It is not typical trail running gear, but Boden is not an ordinary runner. The former special agent for the IRS quickly became the most productive volunteer in California’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area by trail running.

“I’m type A, high energy, can’t sit still, can’t stand being indoors,” Boden says. “This [project] just screamed to me—it was everything I wanted.”

Boden was looking for a change when he retired from the government agency at 52. He was eating a veggie burger at the Habit near his home in Thousand Oaks, California, when he met a National Park Service (NPS) employee who was the park’s volunteer coordinator. Shortly after their meeting, Boden resigned to retire and signed up for a part-time volunteer position.

He runs through poison oak and thick brush. The burned regions offer no shade cover and temperatures often reach 100-degrees in the heat of summer.

The Springs Fire Wildlife Project uses motion sensor cameras to monitor how wildlife uses the landscape after a notable 2013 wildfire burned 24,238 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles. With the images gathered, the Park Service hopes to better understand the response of wildlife in the burn areas compared to areas that were not affected by the fire.

Three of nine camera trap sites are operational at a time, and every 28 days cameras are rotated to a different site. That’s where Boden comes in. Memory cards are replaced regularly and data is downloaded for analysis. “Keith has taken this project to the next level because he can get so much done when he’s out there running,” says NPS ecologist Justin Brown. “Without him, this project would not still be going.”

Even before the new administration’s federal hiring freeze, the Springs Wildlife Project was almost entirely volunteer-based. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area has other funded projects like studying coyote habitat in downtown Los Angeles. “In terms of the new administration, I have not felt much impact yet,” Brown says, “but we will see how things change over the next year or two.”

 

For now, the project continues with Boden single-handedly taking on the bulk of the work. Before he joined the Springs Fire Wildlife Project, volunteers hiked to as many as five camera locations per day. To replace all of the camera cards and rotate 10 cameras to a new site, groups of volunteers were split up over a few weekends. On Boden’s first day in October 2013, Brown jokingly challenged him to install all 10 cameras at one time, a feat that no other volunteer had come close to accomplishing.

“I loved that challenge,” Boden said. “I’m the only person that has been able to do ten cameras. That is a neat distinction for me. Now when I go out it’s always ten cameras in one outing.”

A runner most of his life, Boden found that running was the quickest and most efficient way to reach each of the camera locations—even if the mountainous terrain was difficult for running. To get to each location, the route is often a combination of fire roads, singletrack, and a lot of off-trail cross-country travel, which is why he does not dress like a conventional runner. After the bottom of his running shoe was punctured with a burnt piece of wood, he switched to running in lightweight Hoka One One hiking boots for added protection. Still, he sprained his ankle and had to take a few days off from the project.

It’s no wonder he can’t find many people to join him. The undulating terrain is not what most trail runners find enjoyable. He runs through poison oak and thick brush. The burned regions offer no shade cover and temperatures often reach 100-degrees in the heat of summer. Depending on the camera locations, he runs 8 to 16 miles per outing and often climbs and descends 2,000 feet. Boden’s become so efficient that he is now the only volunteer on the project.

Volunteers covered 25 miles per day over rough terrain to replace camera cards that recorded 3,000 nights of footage.

Even though Boden has not found any regular volunteer partners to run with him, trail running volunteerism has grown in popularity around the country. The Montana-based Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation recruited ultrarunners for a project searching for wolverines deep in Utah’s Uinta Mountains. The volunteers covered 25 miles per day over rough terrain to replace camera cards that recorded 3,000 nights of footage.

 

The Spring Fire Wildlife Project study is ongoing and there is not enough data to draw comprehensive conclusions yet, but through the images, Brown has been able to identify a few behavioral patterns. Mule deer don’t seem to be affected by the burned landscape. There is a high detection rate of coyotes in the burn, while bobcats and rabbits have few to no detections in burned areas. “It is interesting because rabbits are bobcats’ preferred prey here,” Brown explains. “They could be affected because there is no cover out there, but also because their prey source is affected.”

Brown says the goal is to keep the study going for at least another year until the region gets a decent vegetative cover. Until then, Boden will keep running through the steep brushy hillsides, changing memory cards, and installing 10 cameras at a time.