Hidden cameras valuable wildlife tool

By: Cathy Ellis

  |  Posted: Thursday, Feb 21, 2013 06:00 am

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A member of a wolf pack travels along a backcountry trail in Banff National Park and is clearly a little anxious – there’s a large grizzly bear ambling along the same trail just a few seconds behind.

This incredible interaction was captured on a motion-activated camera last summer – and is just one of thousands of never-before-seen photographs of wildlife taken every year throughout the mountain parks.

Researcher Robin Steenweg is analysing images taken from about 250 cameras as part of his work to develop a non-invasive approach to monitoring carnivores and their prey in the Rockies, and perhaps around the world.

“Carnivores are typically rare, elusive and that means they are very expensive to do research on,” said Steenweg, a PhD student from the University of Montana, during a recent talk in Banff hosted by the Bow Valley Naturalists.

“We want to know how we can use remote cameras to do non-invasive research and perhaps scale back on some of the more invasive methods, like radio-collaring.”

Steenweg’s work is part of a large project across a 22,000 square kilometre study area, including the five national parks of Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Jasper and Waterton Lakes, and three provincial parks. There are more than 250 cameras across the study area.

With perhaps the exception of wolverines, most carnivores in the Canadian Rockies, such as wolves, cougars and bears, are difficult to uniquely identify because they lack spots like leopards and stripes like tigers.

“Most species here are not individually identifiable so we can’t directly estimate abundance,” said Steenweg. “But we can estimate distribution – or occupancy – as a metric of population status.”

Scientists have long been saying the planet is facing a “biodiversity crisis” from the bottom of the oceans to the tops of mountains, and are warning that carnivores are in decline across the globe.

Ongoing threats are diverse, from habitat loss and destruction as a result of human development, to deforestation and agriculture, to climate change, poaching and over-hunting.

“Carnivores play a role of indicator species and their decline flags concerns for the larger ecosystem,” said Steenweg. “They are an ecologically important group of species.”

The primary goal of the remote camera project is to develop a unified multi-species monitoring protocol for carnivores and their prey that can be applied throughout the Canadian Rockies, and beyond.

It aims to improve the ability to monitor trends of carnivores and also hopes to provide insight into how climate change and human activity may affect the distribution of large animals across the landscape.

Researchers want to know how species interact with each other, how they react to human activity and development and even how animals will respond to a warming climate into the future. “If we are thinking about saving biodiversity, it can’t be focused on a single species,” said Steenweg.

Steenweg said the province of Alberta – which he said spends approximately $500,000 a year on DNA work – is keenly interested in the potential for monitoring populations through the use of cameras.

“We know there are 691 grizzly bears in the province and it cost $2.1 million to find that out through DNA analysis,” he said.

“And if we want to know how grizzly bears are doing now, we have to do it all over again. It’s a very good method, but it costs a lot.”

The price tag for remote cameras currently on the market can run from as low as $100 to as high as $2,000. The ones Parks Canada is using are in the $600 range.


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