Camera one of 307 that captured a year of life in Thaidene Nëné
After retrieving more than 300 SD cards from wildlife cameras spread out over Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area in the N.W.T. at the end of the summer, it was obvious to Iris Catholique which one to look at first.
The iron post that camera had been fastened to was bent at a 90-degree angle, and people involved in the biodiversity monitoring project were trying to guess what animal could have inflicted the damage.
"Once they figured out it was a grizzly bear … it kind of puts in perspective like actually how strong they are," said Catholique, the Thaidene Nëné manager for Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation. "This is iron. Angle iron. And the bear totally mangled it."
The camera is one of more than 1,000 cameras and audio recording devices installed in 2021 by the N.W.T. Biodiversity Monitoring Program in and around the territory's protected areas — and it captured photos of the act. Sort of.
Images from the camera show a grizzly bear wandering up to the device one morning in May. The animal disappears from view, and suddenly the camera's angle turns about 90 degrees. The grizzly bear ambles away.
The cameras are activated by sensors whenever animals walk by. Other images from the grizzly-damaged camera show the inquisitive nose of caribou, the blood-streaked face of a wolf, and Arctic hares hopping by in the dark — before a grizzly bear deals what appears to be a final blow in July.
Building a baseline
In Thaidene Nëné, the monitoring program was a collaborative effort between the Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation, the territorial government, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Claudia Haas, a biologist and PhD student at Wilfrid Laurier University, was part of a team that spent 31 days installing 307 sets of cameras and audio recording devices throughout the park in 2021. The team used boats, helicopters and float planes to get the job done.
"It was quite the effort, a lot of days, but worth it," said Haas.
Thaidene Nëné was established in 2019, and it consists of 26,525 square kilometres of land northeast of Łutsël K'é — including a national park and territorially protected areas.
Catholique said sights and sounds from its vast tundra, forest and wetland environments will help build an understanding of the animals that live there, and will help Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation manage the park in the years to come.
"Thaidene Nëné is brand new. We don't have any kind of baseline data with regards to many different things," she said.
The information can help the community make choices about where to carry out land-based learning, said Catholique. It can also affirm traditional knowledge of where animals live, eat and mate, or help paint a picture of how those things are being changed by climate, forest fire and industry, she said.
Haas said the data can also be used to learn about interactions between different species.
"Are there cougars coming into the N.W.T.? Are there boar? So all this information will give us an early idea of how habitats are changing with climate change and hopefully lets us adapt as well," she said.
More than a million photos
But before the monitoring team can make sense of the data — it faces an onerous task.
The team retrieved all but 42 of the camera and recorder sets at the end of the summer, and now must sift through all the pictures and sounds that were collected. Haas said there are 1.8 million photos alone to look at.
As for the cameras left in the field, Haas said decisions are still being made about how long to leave them there. One of the biggest factors it'll likely depend on, she said, is how long their batteries can last.
Haas estimates it cost nearly $350,000 to carry out the large project in Thaidene Nëné, and that's why a smaller number of cameras are being used to gather data now. She said most of the money came from a 2019 Canada Nature Fund investment into areas in the N.W.T. that were on the verge of becoming protected areas, or were candidates for protection.
The biodiversity monitoring program has also installed cameras and recording devices in Ts'udé Nilįné Tuyeta, a protected area west of Fort Good Hope, Edéhzhíe, a candidate protected area in the Dehcho, and Dınàgà Wek'èhodì, a candidate protected area in the northern portion of Great Slave Lake's north arm.
Haas said there are also cameras outside of protected areas, near Sambaa K'e, Norman Wells and Fort Smith.
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