Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Trouble With Trail Cameras

A typical trail camera in the forest
My passion for wildlife started at an early age, but really blossomed when I had the opportunity to develop and implement a trail camera program at a wilderness-based school I was teaching at. It was a non-invasive and safe way for my students to learn about Alberta’s native wildlife and discover what was moving through the woods near the camp the students briefly called home. I was able to link the cameras to Alberta Education’s curriculum and offer high school credit to those students who successfully completed the course. It was very rewarding and I learned a lot about conservation, ecosystems, and wildlife throughout the whole process. After transitioning to a new school I found that I was missing the excitement of checking the cameras and uncovering what had been captured while I was away. A trail camera was given to me as a gift and I quickly installed it near the aforementioned camp. Less than six months later when I returned to check on it I found that the whole tree had been cut down and my camera was stolen. I was crushed and upset that someone would go to such lengths to obtain a camera, but I wasn’t willing to give up that quickly. I was hesitant to install the camera in the same area as it was slowly becoming the wild west with careless individuals hell-bent on degrading the environment. I purchased a new camera and decided to set it up in Kananaskis. I figured the camera was less likely to be stolen in a provincial park where certain activities were prohibited. I scouted several areas and eventually settled on the junction of two unofficial trails, hoping there would be minimal human activity. Judging by the amount of scat nearby and the skeletal remains of a deer it appeared the area was a wildlife hotbed. Unfortunately this is when I found myself in some hot water.

A curious White-Tailed Deer inspecting the camera
A Wildlife Biologist and a Conservation Officer (CO) spotted my camera while they were closing the area in order to trap a bear. My phone number was prominently displayed so they called me to inquire about the nature of my camera and why it was located there. I was quickly informed that it’s against Alberta Parks’ regulations for private cameras to be installed within provincial park boundaries and that it needed to be taken down as soon as the area was re-opened to the public. All cameras installed in a provincial park must have a permit and permits are only awarded for scientific studies. After several conversations with CO’s I learned that personal trail cameras and drones are increasingly causing problems in provincial parks and natural areas. The technology in the aforementioned devices have drastically decreased in price, allowing those products to become available to almost everyone. Where trail cameras were once only affordable for scientific purposes, they can now be used by photographers, hunters, and wildlife enthusiasts alike. It's worth noting that trail cameras have been confiscated from different parks in the past and several warnings have been issued due to their unofficial use. The Kananaskis CO’s presented the following information to me and I thought it was a good idea to share it in order to prevent future conflicts.

A large wolf studies the camera as he trots by
Although trail cameras are considered a non-invasive way to study and photograph wildlife they can have unintended consequences. Placing cameras in sensitive areas, such as near a den or a rub tree, can negatively affect the animal and cause them to change their natural behavior. This puts undue stress on wildlife and can even result in them avoiding essential areas. For the most part the general public is unaware that their actions can cause wildlife to alter their own behaviours. I am not a trained biologist, but I feel I know a fair bit about Alberta’s wildlife. I was unaware that placing cameras near sensitive areas can disrupt wildlife behavior and I began to question whether I had a negative affect on wildlife in the past. 

This Cougar stopped to pose for the camera before continuing on
Personal trail cameras are also an easy way for poachers to determine what animals are moving through a particular area. Although poaching likely isn’t frequent in a heavily trafficked area such as Kananaskis it does happen and personal cameras have contributed to illegal wildlife killing. Prohibiting trail cameras won’t stop poaching, but it takes away one of the tools that they have at their disposal. You can also help decrease poaching by reporting any suspicious activity through the Report A Poacher hotline (1-800-642-3800).

A mother Coyote and her three pups were caught on this camera
One of the biggest problems with personal cameras are privacy concerns. When you’re in a city there’s an expectation that you’ll be caught on camera at some point (security camera, traffic camera etc.), but when you’re in the forest, a place where many go to escape technology, that expectation diminishes drastically. Cameras that are involved in scientific studies are easily monitored by the governing body and all photos of human activity are typically destroyed immediately (which is also something that I do with my camera), but with private cameras there is no way to determine if those photographs have been erased, which leads to all sorts of concerns with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP).  Wildlife Biologists typically don’t want humans on camera, as it doesn’t benefit their research, so they’ll install cameras in remote wilderness areas where human traffic is much less likely. In the cases where trail use studies are being conducted the cameras are installed low to the ground as to only capture legs and feet, as opposed to faces. It's also common to see signage, usually installed at the trailhead, indicating there are remote cameras in the area. These are a few of the ways that Alberta Parks attempts to avoid privacy concerns with the public.

A cinnamon-coloured Black Bear

It may sound like I am condemning the use of trail cameras, but that is not the case. I truly believe they are valuable research tools. They are far less invasive then other methods of studying wildlife, such as tranquilizing, radio/GPS collars, or ear tags, thus limiting the stress placed on the animals. Trail cameras have also allowed us to see into the secretive world of wildlife and view never before seen behaviours. Outside the scope of science trail cameras have allowed wildlife enthusiasts photographic opportunities that are safe for both parties. This whole scenario has really opened my eyes and I have realized there is more at stake than just capturing images of wildlife. I’ve learned a lot from this experience and I hope to share my newfound knowledge with the goal of educating and informing other camera owners. I know this entire experience has made me think about my own camera placement and the potential effects it could have on my wild subjects.

A mother Moose and her calf clearing a fence
If you have further questions about the use of trail cameras in Alberta's provincial parks please visit their Contact Us webpage or call 1-866-427-3582 (toll-free in North America). Alberta Parks has also created the Who Lives Here program at William A. Switzer Provincial Park where visitors can experience the park in a whole new way.

The cameras are equipped with night vision and infrared sensors so you're able to capture wildlife in the dark of night


  1. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me. trail cameras

    1. Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you found it helpful. I'll be sure to update my blog with any new information I gain throughout this process.

  2. Thanks for sharing. A Trail Camera can give a fascinating insight into the nocturnal habits of Wildlife cameras have grown in popularity recently due to the cost of technology becoming less, and their use on TV programs such as BBC Countryfile, Springwatch and the fantastic Lost Land of the Tigers program where researchers used a Bushnell Trophy Camera to capture footage of the elusive Bhutan cheap trail cameras

    1. Thanks for reading my post. It's such a neat technology and offers a never before seen look into the animal kingdom. Thanks for sharing!!

  3. I blog often and I genuinely thank you for your information. This article has really peaked my interest. I am going to take a note of your blog and keep checking for new information about once per week. I subscribed to your RSS feed as well.