Local biologists are defending remote camera monitoring practices as crucial to protecting grizzly bears and other threatened species.
While admitting that efforts to make members of the hiking public aware that wildlife monitoring cameras are on local trails could have been more robust, biologists insist established processes are in place to ensure individuals’ privacy is protected.
“For us it’s protocol we’ve had in place since we started,” said Brenda Shepherd, conservation biologist and project lead for Jasper National Park’s remote camera wildlife monitoring project.
Jasper National Park’s remote camera program began in 2009 as a new way to monitor grizzly bears. The wide-ranging animal is an indicator species—its survival or mortality rates give scientists important information about the entire mountain ecosystem. But until the idea of remote cameras came along, it was very difficult to get an accurate understanding of grizzly bears’ occupancy in JNP.
“It was important to find ways to monitor grizzly bears on a large scale, for the long term,” Shepherd said. “That led us down the path of remote cameras.”
Five years later, the technology seems to be working. A total of 92 cameras have been deployed all across Jasper National Park, and grizzly bears—not to mention wolves, wolverines, cougars and other fauna—are being recorded. Massive matriarchs, shaggy yearlings and entire families of bears populate the data sets of Shepherd’s spread sheets. Flicking through images of bears scratching themselves on rub trees, Shepherd’s computer screen displayed a minute-long series of plus-sized pole dancers from all corners of the park.
“It’s an amazing view to see what wildlife do when we’re not looking,” Shepherd said. “Especially with grizzlies, which are an elusive species.”
Of course another species has been showing up on digital memory cards too: humans.
Hikers, bikers and horse riders abound on Jasper’s extensive trail networks; although they’re not biologists’ “target species,” humans’ warm bodies trigger the click of any remote camera they pass by just as a bear’s does. While human images provide some valuable information on how popular certain trails are, to Shepherd, almost all hiker shots are irrelevant data—as valuable to wildlife research as a snowflake-tripped image of an empty meadow. As such, benign images are subsequently deleted.
Sometimes, however, an image is not benign. Occasionally, scientists see pictures of humans breaking the law. When they do, they have to make a decision: which is more important, a person’s privacy or other visitors’ safety? An individual’s freedom or the ecology of the park?
“The only exception [to the policy of deleting images of humans] is when we see a person committing a serious offense,” Shepherd said.
A person carrying a firearm through the forest would qualify as an exception. Someone lighting a wildfire would probably count, too. A hiker walking their dog without a leash would not. Littering? No.
So what about a hiker walking their dog off leash in an area closed for caribou protection?
“It’s an illegal activity that may have a serious impact on wildlife,” Shepherd says.
Put another way: yes.
While that distinction may be clear to project personnel, it’s not as discernible to the general public, argues retired Jasper warden, Dave Carnell. Carnell has been asking questions about privacy protection in national parks ever since he got wind of a story wherein a Jasperite who’d been caught on camera in a closed area was prosecuted by law enforcement officials. Carnell didn’t think that the trail user was blameless, but the idea that she could be arraigned using evidence gained from camouflaged lenses strapped to trees deeply troubled him.
“I just think it’s so wrong to do that,” he said.
As someone whose duty it was to stop poachers on the edge of the park boundary 30 years ago, Carnell understands if law enforcement officials set up cameras for specific investigations. What he takes exception to is the use of concealed cameras, ostensibly placed in the park for wildlife management purposes, being used to provide evidence in the prosecution of offenses against the National Parks Act.
“We're talking about summary conviction offenses here, not treason or terrorism,” he says.
Moreover, Carnell thinks the fact that the cameras are potentially clicking away is not advertised well enough and that privacy protection should carry more weight than the recent court proceedings indicate it does.
“To my way of thinking, this is so Orwellian that it makes me wonder where I am—certainly not a place to get away from the stress of modern life or enjoy the peace of simple solitude,” he wrote to the ATIP (Access to Information and Privacy) office of Parks Canada in Ottawa.
Shepherd believes in finding solitude—but she believes in protecting bears, too. She contends that details about the program have been distributed at the Information Centre, at local trailheads and via local media channels, but concedes that there is more work to do.
While that work involves being more forthright with their communication, her main focus will be making sure the program stays alive—two actions which are inextricably linked.
“We’re concerned about privacy because we’re concerned about the project,” Shepherd said.