What do wildlife do when no one is watching?

Remote cameras have provided researchers in the Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab at UVic with a tool to study the secret lives of coastal species.

Remote cameras are assisting researchers at the Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab to answer pressing conservation questions along the coast of British Columbia. These cameras, deployed and managed in collaboration with First Nations partners, create unique possibilities for non-invasive wildlife monitoring. Triggered by movement, our remote cameras have provided insight into the lives of many mammal species that call the Central Coast home.

To meet objectives determined by our researchers and partners, we deploy remote cameras throughout large sampling areas to collect data on wildlife movement and behaviour. Throughout the field season, team members visit sites to collect data from the remote cameras before the fun really begins. Graduate students, research assistants, and volunteers begin the work of reviewing thousands of images and videos that capture the secret lives of coastal wildlife.

By looking at these images we can determine the species that are present in an area, estimate demographic information such as the age or sex of an animal, and sometimes, if unique markings are present, we can track the same individual across a network of remote cameras. This technology affords researchers the opportunity to non-invasively collect data over a 24-hour time period, which can also glean insight into how animals behave throughout the day and night.

For Kate Field, a PhD candidate and Raincoast Fellow, video footage from remote cameras serves as one of three datasets to investigate potential effects of human activity on grizzly bears on the Atnarko River in Nuxalk Territory. The Atnarko River is critical spawning habitat for Pacific salmon, and therefore an important feeding ground for bears in the summer and fall. It is also accessible to curious humans. “It’s a hotspot for both bear and human activity,” explains Field, making it an ideal study site.

Man rowing a boat on a sunny day.
Ron Anuk’itsm Schooner, Nuxalk Fisheries and Wildlife, works on several science projects run by the Nuxalk Nation, including the Atnarko bear study.

Remote camera data, genetic data collected via hair snags, and direct behavioural observations of bears assist Field and her partners at Nuxalk Fisheries & Wildlife and BC Parks in answering questions about energetic trade-offs associated with when and where bears feed on salmon, and how those decisions are affected by human activity and food availability. For example, videos taken by remote cameras deployed on the banks of the Atnarko River can capture what periods of day bears are most active. As another example, observations of foraging behavior by recording bear-salmon interactions gives Field and her team a measure of fish capture efficiency. And it’s not just about observations of wildlife – Field and her team also collect data on salmon and berry availability. Salmon counts and berry transects provide information on the time at which food is most available to bears, and how food availability varies within and across field seasons.

The project is a collaborative effort among Nuxalk Stewardship, BC Parks, and the Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab. Throughout the field season, remote cameras are checked and maintained by Nuxalk Fisheries and Wildlife research assistants, as well as Raincoast employees. Nuxalk youth also engage in camera servicing through the Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) program, a community initiative to empower Indigenous youth.

Woman looking at a remote camera with a river in the background.
Shanti Tallio-Milton, SEAS Student alum, now works full time as a research assistant with Nuxalk Fisheries and Wildlife. Here, she ensures camera settings are correct before replacing an SD card.

Similar to Field, Monica Short, an MSc student and Raincoast Fellow, is also analyzing the potential effects of ecotourism on grizzly, black, and spirit bears in Kitasoo/Xai’xais Territory. This project arose from within the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation, as community members were concerned that increased bear viewing within the territory could be affecting wildlife. In collaboration with the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Stewardship Authority and the Spirit Bear Lodge, an Indigenous-owned ecotourism destination in Klemtu, this work hopes to assess whether there is evidence of displacement for both grizzly and black bear populations. This information can then assist the Nation in developing evidence-based management plans for bear viewing within their territory. Similar to Kate Field’s work, this research is a product of collaboration, with much of the remote camera deployment, servicing, and classifying of images taking place from within the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Stewardship Authority.

Photo by Jack Plant (@jackjeplant).

“This project wouldn’t exist without cameras,” remarks Short, who uses over ninety remote cameras deployed across multiple watersheds to address pressing conservation questions. Allowing for sampling over longer time periods and greater areas, remote cameras also enabled the research the opportunity to go forward when she wasn’t in Klemtu, and to collect data in the absence of humans (including researchers). During last summer’s field season while the territory was on lockdown to prevent CoVid-19 transmission, members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Stewardship Authority saw a unique opportunity for data collection – how would bears in an area exposed to ecotourism react when human visitation dropped dramatically? 

Beyond data collection, remote cameras have created the opportunity to see into the study systems we love so much from afar. For researchers Field and Short, and for the many staff, students, and volunteers that assist in the effort of classifying and analyzing camera data along the way, the images and videos from this research are viewed through eyes of admiration. Short recalls a particular mom with a cub of the year who she got to know over the course of her field experience, who made appearances on cameras across a watershed, allowing researchers to watch the cub grow throughout the season.

Remote cameras have advanced much of the ongoing research in the Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab and will continue to facilitate data collection by graduate students, Coastal First Nation partners, and field technicians. We are grateful to the Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Nuxalk Nations, as well as BC Parks, for their on-going leadership in conservation science projects with Raincoast. Such leadership, ranging from boots on the ground, boats on the water, round-table discussions and core project decision-making, and everything in between, is what makes these projects possible.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.