Myths die hard in the wilds of the Klamath and Trinity mountains. Though the majority of biologists agree that the large, hominid-appearing creature known as "Bigfoot" is a flight of fancy, the cryptic creature has its diehard defenders. And a few of them just made an important contribution to California wildlife science -- though not in a way they expected.
It'd be hard to think of a better place for a large, human-shaped wild animal to remain undetected in California than the interior of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, whose steep, rugged terrain and thick forests provide unparalleled wildlife habitat. And in fact, the one mental image most North Americans have of Bigfoot comes from a film shot at Bluff Creek, a tributary of the Klamath River in Del Norte County. The so-called "Patterson-Gimlin film" is controversial, with many biologists calling it a hoax, a sentiment shared even by some Bigfoot believers.
But there's been no slam-dunk debunking of the Patterson-Gimlin film, so a group calling itself the Bluff Creek Project has been setting up camera traps along the stretch of Bluff Creek where the 1967 film was shot, in hopes of getting better, less-shaky footage of the critter... or of getting none at all, to confirm most biologists' suspicions. And those camera traps have been quite productive. They haven't caught any images of Bigfoot so far, but they have captured two images of a creature so rare it was thought extinct not too long ago.
That animal isn't a seven-foot ape with large feet: it's an adorable little member of the weasel family known as the Humboldt marten.
The marten, known to science as Martes caurina humboldtensis, once ranged through the California redwood belt from Sonoma County north to coastal Oregon. Now it's down to fewer than 200 individuals, which is no surprise given that the little weasel has lost something like 95 percent of its habitat to logging and other industry.
In fact, the Humboldt marten is so rare that for a few decades, it was thought to have gone extinct... until a few individuals were sighted in 1996. It's so rare, in fact, that very few photographs of the marten exist, as evidenced by our reusing the one Humboldt marten photo we could find in our previous coverage of the animal.
As we mention in that previous coverage, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in April not to give the marten protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. That decision prompted a perhaps predictable reaction. In early September, two wildlife protection groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) , to notify the agency they'd be taking it to court to force it to reconsider its decision.
Just a week after EPIC and the Center notified USFWS they'd be hauling them into court, the Bluff Creek Project posted new camera trap photos from the Patterson-Gimlin site on its blog. The team's camera had caught at least two images of a Humboldt marten. One showed a marten scampering in a light dusting of snow, and another, clearer image showing an animal in almost the same spot during warmer weather.
Capturing the images at all was a fluke, according to The Bluff Creek Project's Jamie Wayne. "Truth be told we have been catching glimpses of [martens] for years," writes Wayne. "Our cameras are set about two feet off of the ground and the triggers are not set to fire on small animals. The only reason we captured this one is because the camera had malfunctioned."
That malfunction caused the camera, which was pointing lower than intended, to record more than 1,200 images between October 2014 and this past June, filling 8.4 gigabytes of space on the camera's card. (For those of you who've noticed the discrepancy between this story and the timestamp on that winter photo above, it also reset the camera's clock back about 8 months.)That's a lot of images to sort through, and Wayne writes that he understandably didn't get to them right away.
I retrieved the camera in late June of 2015 and check[ed] the photos. I saw that it had taken thousands and scanned a few in the field, I never thought much of them. It's been a busy summer for me working in Redwood National Park so I hadn't gone through all the still photos. I started working on it last week and I noticed the marten.
Aside from the two clear marten photos, the camera also captured a few more marten candidates too blurry for positive ID, as well as deer, bears, a great blue heron, and -- according to Wayne -- lots of shots of running water.
It's no Bigfoot, but it's still a big deal. Regardless of what you think about the likelihood of Bigfoot's existence -- personally, I doubt they exist but I agree with primatologist Jane Goodall that it would be nice if they were real -- the fact that the Bigfoot legend has inspired people to get out and record rare California wildlife seems an undeniable Good Thing.
For the record: an earlier version of this article wrongly suggested that Jane Goodall doesn't believe Bigfoot exists. Apparently, as evidenced in a video provided by a commenter, she does. I regret the error.