Animals Exposed: What Remote Cameras Might Tell Us

NIKI WILSON – On Science, Jasper Fitzhugh
February 14, 2013

According  to her GPS, field assistant Laura Machial was standing in the exact location where, months earlier, her team had attached a remote wildlife camera to a burnt tree snag. But as she shuffled her skis back and forth along the snowy trail, she saw no sign of it. Still in cell range, she called her boss, University of Montana PhD student Robin Steenweg. After a brief video-conference that included a scan of the area, he confirmed she was in the right place. They decided she should start digging.

Eventually she located the camera, but not exactly as the team had left it. “She found that the big tree, which was 20 centimetres across, had fallen over. She wasn’t really expecting that! We learned not to put [cameras] on a burned snag”, laughed Steenweg. He also describes camera theft and vandalism by grizzly bears among the challenges of doing this kind of research.

wolf Fairholme    2011-07-27  17_57 IMG_1175

Steenweg is analyzing the photographs from roughly 250 cameras spread across the landscape in Waterton Lakes, Banff and Jasper national parks. His goal is to develop a non-invasive approach to study carnivores and their prey in a way that can be applied throughout the Canadian Rockies, and across the globe.

Steenweg’s study is part of an effort between national parks and other land managers to co-ordinate remote camera programs. Originally, his team used remote camera photos to establish the presence  of grizzly bears. But with thousands of photos of multiple species recorded every year, Steenweg wondered what else the cameras could tell us. Could they give us a better understanding of how different species interact with each other and their environment across large areas? The study was expanded in an attempt to answer these questions.

Already, his work points to interesting trends in species interaction. For example, he says the data may challenge what many people have assumed about black bear and grizzly bear interaction. “You would think that if there are a lot of grizzly bears in the area, there might be fewer black bears present. But the preliminary analysis I did suggests that’s not quite true. [Black bears] are just not using the trail as much.”

Steenweg also says he’s learning about “interference competition,” between wild canids. “If wolves tend to be in a certain area, often coyotes tend not to be. But if coyotes are in a certain area, foxes tend not to be.”


cougar Tyrrell Cr   2011-04-21  19_23 IMG_0046

As thousands of remote camera pictures confirm, medium to large mammals cover a lot of ground and require adequate tracts of land to feed and breed successfully. National parks and other protected areas play an important role in allowing animals this kind of space. However, parks are increasingly isolated as human development continues to gnaw at their edges, and are certainly not immune to forces like climate change. Ecologists like Steenweg wonder how animals will respond to these pressures in the future.

Numerous studies already support the fact that the ranges of many species are slowly creeping northward as the climate warms. In Steenweg’s study, cameras collect photos across a gradient of four degrees latitude from Waterton Lakes to Jasper, potentially enough to detect climate change effects.

“Species like swift fox are extending their range, coming north. Red fox and white tail deer are also benefiting from climate warming”, says Steenweg. “We have a species like wolverine that’s very dependent on summer snow pack.” Warming temperatures may diminish these snow packs over time.

Climate change might also affect interactions between species. Warmer temperatures could promote earlier green up in some areas, encouraging bears or other large mammals to arrive in green areas earlier in the year, and possibly interact with other animals in a way they haven’t before.

The study’s novel approach to the use of camera data is being watched closely by other organizations. Steenweg says groups like the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, Panthera, and Yellowstone to Yukon want to know what the potential is for using cameras for monitoring multiple-species over big areas.

Steenweg points to Tshering Tempa, a PhD-mate that shares his lab at the University of Montana. Tempa is interested in applying what Steenweg learns to his work on Bengal tigers in Bhutan. As is the case in the Rockies, Tempa’s remote cameras are also photographing a host of other species. How could these techniques be used to better manage other animals like clouded leopard, and barking deer?

Not only would the right remote camera study design give all those interested better data, but it might limit the need for invasive capture techniques like collaring.

Steenweg will tweak his study design and continue his analysis for another two years.  He wants to “really test it and see if it holds up to the statistical rigour that we want for monitoring all the species we have in the national parks.” He hopes that by the time he defends his PhD, he will have created a tool that makes a difference for wildlife managers. “It’s much more rewarding when research has multiple avenues for applications.”

In the meantime, he enjoys sharing his work, particularly the photos, with others. “Remote cameras allow for a lot of public engagement. People are really interested in the stories.” This is an important part of the work for Steenweg who believes that “as a scientist there’s a certain responsibility to make sure that what you’re doing has relevance, and hopefully is interesting to more that just a bunch of eggheads in Ivory Towers.”

There’s something eerily engaging about sorting through file after file of animals caught on a remote camera. It is more than a snapshot of their daily life – it is a photo of a cougar on your favourite running trail, or a wolverine travelling through the pass you hiked last summer. The photos confirm with wondrous, and at times unnerving clarity, that we share the parks with wild things – a fact easily forgotten when a bear slips from view before we encounter it, or a lynx lies quietly hidden as we walk by.