Eyes on the Wild

Re­mote wildlife cam­eras are be­com­ing es­sen­tial con­ser­va­tion re­search tools. With the right ex­per­tise, they will help Canada — and the world — meet our es­sen­tial bio­di­ver­sity tar­gets

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Niki Wil­son

Re­mote wildlife cam­eras are be­com­ing es­sen­tial con­ser­va­tion re­search tools. With the right ex­per­tise, they will help Canada — and the world — meet es­sen­tial bio­di­ver­sity tar­gets

ONE OF COLE BUR­TON’S FAVOURITE RE­MOTE WILDLIFE cam­era im­ages is a leop­ard bathed in per­fect light as its gaze pen­e­trates the lens. “Some­times you get im­ages that just take your breath away,” he says. In an­other favourite, far from that West African lo­cale, a lone wolf was cap­tured on a cam­era south­west of Fort Mc­mur­ray, Al­berta, in a spot where Bur­ton stood only min­utes later, un­aware of its fleet­ing pres­ence. “Cam­eras let you into this world that you wouldn’t nor­mally be a part of,” he says.

Bur­ton, a con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, uses re­mote cam­eras as part of his re­search on wildlife in West Africa and in Canada. Each time he slides the mem­ory card from a re­mote cam­era into his com­puter, there

is the chance an an­i­mal will re­veal some­thing of it­self. “It gives us a con­nec­tion to species that are rare and elu­sive,” he says.

Bur­ton is one of many re­searchers us­ing wildlife cam­eras to pin­point where an­i­mals are, what habi­tats they use and how many are in the area. It’s in­for­ma­tion foun­da­tional to our un­der­stand­ing of bio­di­ver­sity — the variety of life we find both lo­cally and across the globe. He’s par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in how to best conserve, man­age and re­store this bio­di­ver­sity in a world rapidly chang­ing due to cli­mate change and hu­man in­cur­sions, and he’s not alone.

As a sig­na­tory to the 1992 Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity and sub­se­quent strate­gic plans, the Cana­dian govern­ment has com­mit­ted to sev­eral in­ter­na­tion­ally es­tab­lished bio­di­ver­sity tar­gets. Whether or not Canada will make its loom­ing 2020 tar­gets is un­cer­tain, but many sci­en­tists agree that a na­tion­ally co­or­di­nated, stan­dard­ized net­work of mon­i­tor­ing tools is needed to assess and track progress. Given their ubiq­uity and ever-in­creas­ing pres­ence on the land­scape, re­mote wildlife cam­eras might have an im­por­tant role to play in this net­work and, more broadly, in the suc­cess­ful con­ser­va­tion of bio­di­ver­sity.

The use of re­mote wildlife cam­eras — called “cam­era traps” by bi­ol­o­gists — has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally over the past 10 to 15 years as the tech­nol­ogy has evolved. Across the planet, tens of thou­sands of th­ese cam­eras are now de­ployed. The en­gag­ing quality of their im­ages and videos, along with tech­ni­cal ad­vances and a re­duc­tion in cost, has helped fuel their pop­u­lar­ity. Though th­ese cam­eras are gen­er­ally lim­ited to cap­tur­ing medium to large ground­dwelling an­i­mals, many of the an­i­mals “trapped” play im­por­tant eco­log­i­cal roles.

Re­mote cam­eras are of­ten com­bined with other tech­nolo­gies like ge­netic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion us­ing hair snags, or Gps-equipped col­lars that re­lay lo­ca­tions to satel­lites. They are now be­ing used in thou­sands of stud­ies, mea­sur­ing ev­ery­thing from how well high­way cross­ing struc­tures work for wildlife, to how log­ging trop­i­cal forests af­fects the di­ver­sity of species that live there. Mon­i­tor­ing species di­ver­sity is a key ad­van­tage of re­mote-cam­era tech­nol­ogy.

“Even if our project is driven by the con­ser­va­tion of one species — say, cari­bou [in North Amer­ica], or An­dean bears in Peru — we can try to use the cam­eras to get in­for­ma­tion on mul­ti­ple species and how they are in­ter­act­ing in a sys­tem,” says Bur­ton. For ex­am­ple, along with col­league Ja­son Fisher, a wildlife ecol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria and se­nior re­search sci­en­tist at In­notech Al­berta (for­merly the Al­berta Re­search Coun­cil), Bur­ton re­cently used cam­era-trap data to de­ter­mine the chang­ing com­po­si­tion of wildlife com­mu­ni­ties over a three-year span around

Al­berta’s oil­sands. The cam­eras re­vealed that as the den­sity of hu­man in­fra­struc­ture in­creased, some an­i­mals (coy­otes, for in­stance) also in­creased in num­ber, while oth­ers like cari­bou and fish­ers de­creased.

This kind of dynamic in­for­ma­tion about bio­di­ver­sity is crit­i­cal to as­sess­ing and track­ing Canada’s progress on goals out­lined in the Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity’s strate­gic plan. For ex­am­ple, Strate­gic Goal B aims to “re­duce the direct pres­sures on bio­di­ver­sity and pro­mote sustainable use,” and data col­lected in work like Fisher and Bur­ton’s oil­sands study iden­ti­fies spe­cific pres­sures re­lated to that kind of hu­man de­vel­op­ment. But there are chal­lenges in shar­ing this data to po­ten­tially un­der­stand re­gional, pro­vin­cial and na­tional trends.

At the field level, his­tor­i­cally one prob­lem has been that cam­era-trap stud­ies lacked con­sis­tency in how and where the data was col­lected. In 2015, Bur­ton and a team of col­leagues re­viewed 266 stud­ies that used cam­era sur­veys and re­ported a num­ber of method­olog­i­cal de­tails that could skew study con­clu­sions. The team con­cluded their re­view with a call for greater trans­parency in study de­sign and as­sump­tions, and for care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of eco­log­i­cal pro­cesses that af­fect what data is col­lected through the cam­eras. For ex­am­ple, de­tec­tion rates of some species do not sim­ply trans­late to an es­ti­mate of how many an­i­mals are in the area: whether or not an an­i­mal is “trapped” by a cam­era is af­fected by many fac­tors, like home range size, travel routes and in­ter­ac­tions with other species. “If we’re go­ing to start putting cam­eras out all over the place, we should be think­ing about how to max­i­mize the in­for­ma­tion we’re get­ting out of them,” says Bur­ton, adding that con­sis­tent record­ing of data has been an­other chal­lenge ex­pe­ri­enced through­out the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. The ubiq­uity of cam­eras has also raised pri­vacy is­sues in ar­eas where peo­ple share the land­scape with wildlife be­ing stud­ied. Ded­i­cated com­mu­ni­ca­tion about cam­era lo­ca­tions and care­ful han­dling of data files has be­come para­mount to en­sure the pub­lic is on board.

Th­ese re­search hur­dles are not in­sur­mount­able and find­ing ways to over­come them is worth it con­sid­er­ing the gains the tech­nol­ogy pro­vides. The big­ger chal­lenge lies in fig­ur­ing out how we can take results from re­search sci­en­tists like Bur­ton and scale them up to a multi-user, multi-ecosys­tem level where bio­di­ver­sity can be as­sessed and tracked across the coun­try.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Group on Earth Ob­ser­va­tions Bio­di­ver­sity Ob­ser­va­tion Net­work (GEO BON) are work­ing on so­lu­tions to ad­dress this ques­tion. The net­work com­prises more than 400 mem­bers from 45 coun­tries,

MORE PRI­MARY RE­SEARCH, LIKE THE KIND CAR­RIED

OUT WITH CAM­ERA TRAPS, IS NEEDED TO FILL IN DATA GAPS ACROSS THE GLOBE

in­clud­ing sci­en­tists, man­agers and oth­ers ac­tive in bio­di­ver­sity stud­ies. To­gether, they are creat­ing a frame­work of “es­sen­tial bio­di­ver­sity vari­ables” com­bin­ing data from cam­era traps and other re­search that al­lows coun­tries and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions to com­pare “apples to apples” to get a sense of na­tional and global trends. Net­work co-chair Mike Gill says that with th­ese frame­works in place, “Cam­era traps are a huge op­por­tu­nity to use emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy to bet­ter cover the Earth in a more ef­fi­cient and in­ter­op­er­a­ble man­ner.” More pri­mary re­search — like the kind car­ried out with cam­era traps — is needed to fill in data gaps across the globe, Gill ar­gues.

Bur­ton con­curs. Even though the num­ber of cam­eras in use is grow­ing rapidly, re­mote cam­era stud­ies aren’t nec­es­sar­ily be­ing done con­sis­tently across di­verse re­gions and biomes in Canada. “You get pock­ets where cer­tain species have been stud­ied and other pock­ets where noth­ing has been done,” says Bur­ton.

Fill­ing th­ese gaps will take time. Un­til then, re­mote cam­eras can help meet bio­di­ver­sity tar­gets in an­other, very tan­gi­ble if non-sci­en­tific way: the im­ages and video they cap­ture can play a cru­cial role in cap­tur­ing the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion, en­gage­ment and imag­i­na­tion. Re­mote cam­era footage has brought us “pole-danc­ing” griz­zly bears slith­er­ing up and down “rub trees” on which they leave their scent. We’ve had sur­pris­ing in­sight into the di­verse be­hav­iour of wolver­ines ap­proach­ing rot­ting beaver bait. Some take their time to wan­der around and gen­tly have a nib­ble, while oth­ers run in and mount a smash and grab op­er­a­tion. We’ve also wit­nessed the thrill of the chase — a se­ries of snaps in which a deer ap­pears mo­men­tar­ily, eyes bulging, fol­lowed by the three wolves hunt­ing it down. Many of th­ese mo­ments have cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia with hun­dreds of thou­sands of views.

In a pa­per pub­lished last year with sev­eral col­leagues, in­clud­ing Bur­ton, Govern­ment of Al­berta wildlife bi­ol­o­gist Robin Steen­weg ar­gues that, in this way, re­mote cam­eras are help­ing meet the first strate­gic goal of the Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity tar­gets: “ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing causes of bio­di­ver­sity loss by main­stream­ing bio­di­ver­sity across govern­ment and so­ci­ety.” “Pub­lic buy-in is key,” he says, adding that the cam­eras not only give glimpses into the world of wildlife from around the coun­try and the globe, but that peo­ple are of­ten sur­prised to learn that their land­scape is a shared one.

“A lot of wildlife cam­eras are on trails,” says Steen­weg. “You don’t have to spend much time look­ing at cam­era-trap pho­tos to see an an­i­mal on the trail, and the next photo is a bunch of peo­ple walk­ing by, and then an­other an­i­mal [af­ter them]. The time be­tween can be sec­onds or min­utes.” Peo­ple are of­ten obliv­i­ous to the an­i­mals around them. One of his favourite ex­am­ples is a se­ries of pho­tos in which a griz­zly bear is vis­i­ble just off the trail. A whole pack train of horses and rid­ers come by while the bear watches. Once

RE­MOTE CAM­ERA IM­AGES, LIKE THIS BEAR ON

A “RUB TREE,” CAN PLAY A CRU­CIAL ROLE IN CAP­TUR­ING THE PUB­LIC’S AT­TEN­TION

the horses and rid­ers have passed, the griz­zly bear moves on. “That kind of typ­i­fies most com­mon in­ter­ac­tions with hu­mans and wildlife,” he says. “Hu­mans have no idea the wildlife is there, and the wildlife don’t care.” The pho­tos, then, al­low for the pub­lic to un­der­stand that shar­ing na­ture har­mo­niously with wildlife is not only pos­si­ble — in some places it’s al­ready hap­pen­ing.

Pub­lic en­gage­ment comes from more than view­ing the pho­tos too. Some ci­ti­zen sci­en­tists ac­tively par­tic­i­pate in wildlife stud­ies, help­ing to set up cam­eras, change bat­ter­ies or clas­sify im­ages. Zo­ol­o­gist Roland Kays, a pro­fes­sor at North Carolina State Univer­sity, leads the emam­mal project, a data man­age­ment sys­tem and ar­chive for cam­era-trap re­search pro­jects. In a 2016 study, he re­ported that through the process of par­tic­i­pat­ing in emam­mal pro­jects, vol­un­teer knowl­edge of wildlife was in­creased, and vol­un­teers be­came ad­vo­cates for mam­mal con­ser­va­tion through shar­ing what they’d learned. When asked if this kind of aware­ness about con­ser­va­tion and bio­di­ver­sity helps cre­ate po­lit­i­cal will that helps push gov­ern­ments to meet bio­di­ver­sity tar­gets, Kays says, “It def­i­nitely does.”

Vol­un­teer par­tic­i­pa­tion has not only helped build bio­di­ver­sity aware­ness but has led to some im­por­tant dis­cov­er­ies. Kays’ ci­ti­zen sci­ence work has led to a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of which an­i­mals use back­yard habi­tat in North Carolina, and how coy­otes help keep feral cats out of pro­tected ar­eas in six eastern U.S. states. Cam­era-trap work by vol­un­teers also helps to iden­tify the eco­log­i­cal im­pacts of hu­mans and dogs in pro­tected ar­eas.

While Kays sug­gests there will al­ways be a need for pro­fes­sional re­searchers to do re­mote cam­era re­search, he be­lieves the role of ci­ti­zen sci­en­tists will con­tinue to grow and be an im­por­tant com­po­nent of fu­ture re­search pro­jects, es­pe­cially as it be­comes eas­ier to par­tic­i­pate. For ex­am­ple, he points to the de­vel­op­ment of au­to­matic species iden­ti­fi­ca­tion through ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that will save a lot of time and make it “more fun and less work.”

In fact, Kays will be in­cor­po­rat­ing this kind of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence into Wildlife In­sights, a new wildlife-mon­i­tor­ing plat­form he is co-de­vel­op­ing that is a “stepped up” ver­sion of the cam­era-trap data man­age­ment sys­tem in emam­mal. The goal of Wildlife In­sights is to help con­nect data providers with de­ci­sion-mak­ers in a way that makes the data highly ac­ces­si­ble and easy to vi­su­al­ize. The team hopes that, among other things, the plat­form will al­low wildlife data col­lec­tion in places where it is needed most and will re­veal how large-scale analy­ses of wildlife data can help mon­i­tor the health of wildlife pop­u­la­tions from lo­cal to global scales.

It’s an am­bi­tious, big data project, one that could pro­vide a crit­i­cal bench­mark for in­form­ing progress on whether or not na­tions are meet­ing their bio­di­ver­sity tar­gets. Data shar­ing at such a scale might seem an over­whelm­ing task, but with the world’s bio­di­ver­sity in de­cline as tech­nol­ogy con­tin­ues to evolve, sci­en­tists need all the tools they can get in their con­ser­va­tion tool­boxes. Knowl­edge from cam­era traps, weav­ing to­gether a net­work of in­for­ma­tion-gather­ing on a grand scale, is pro­vid­ing an in­creas­ingly clear pic­ture.a

WITH BIO­DI­VER­SITY IN DE­CLINE AND TECH­NOL­OGY CON­TIN­U­ING TO EVOLVE, CON­SER­VA­TION­ISTS NEED

TO USE EVERY TOOL AVAIL­ABLE

ACROSS CANADA, AN­I­MALS SAY CHEESE FOR RE­SEARCHERS With dozens of sites al­ready up and shooting across the coun­try — and more on the way — the Cana­dian re­mote cam­era sys­tem is be­gin­ning to show results

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