Wildlife camera shows the NWT tundra teeming with life – including a powerful grizzly

After collecting more than 300 SD cards from wildlife cameras spread across Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area in the NWT at the end of the summer, it was clear to Iris Catholique which one to look at first.

The iron post to which the camera was attached was bent at a 90-degree angle, and people involved in the biodiversity monitoring project were trying to guess which animal could have caused the damage.

“Once they found out it was a grizzly bear … it kind of puts into perspective how strong they are,” said Catholique, the Thaidene Nëné manager for Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation. “This is iron. Corner iron. And the bear completely destroyed it.”

The camera is one of more than 1,000 cameras and audio recording devices installed by the NWT Biodiversity Monitoring Program in and around the territory’s protected areas – and it captured photos of the act. Sort of.

Footage from the camera shows a grizzly bear wandering towards the device one morning in May. The animal disappears from view, and suddenly the camera angle turns 90 degrees. The grizzly bear runs away.

The cameras are activated by sensors when animals walk past. Other images from the grizzly-damaged camera show the curious nose of caribou, the blood-streaked face of a wolf, and Arctic hares skipping past in the dark – before a grizzly bear makes a final strike in July.

A woman with blue hair is holding a large angle iron that is bent at a 90 degree angle.
Claudia Haas, a biologist and PhD candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, holds an angle iron the way it was found on the tundra – bent, near the base, at a 90-degree angle. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Build a baseline

In Thaidene Nëné, the monitoring program was a partnership 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 in the park in 2021. The team used boats, helicopters and float planes to to get the job done.

“It was quite the effort, many days, but worth it,” Haas said.

The body of a grizzly bear, walking away from the camera, fills most of the frame.
An image of the damaged camera mount shows a bear walking away just moments after the camera was tipped at a roughly 90-degree angle. (Thaidene Nné/YouTube)

Thaidene Nëné was founded in 2019and it consists of 26,525 square kilometers 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 coming years.

“Thaidene Nëné is brand new. We don’t have any kind of baseline data regarding a lot of different things,” she said.

A sunrise on a winter tundra with a caribou on the left, which seems to be basking in the sun's rays.
An image dated February 9, 2022 shows a caribou in the morning sun. (Thaidene Nné/YouTube)

The information can help the community make choices about where to conduct land-based learning, Catholique said. It can also confirm 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 NWT? Are there boars? So all this information will give us an early idea of ​​how habitats are changing with climate change and hopefully allow us to adapt as well,” she said.

A picture of mostly barren tundra in winter.  On the left, half of a wolf's face, with blood in its fur, can be seen in the camera.
A wolf with blood in its fur looks into the camera on January 18, 2022. (Thaidene Nné/YouTube)

More than a million photos

But before the monitoring team can make sense of the data – it faces a difficult task.

The team retrieved all but 42 of the camera and recorder sets by the end of the summer, and must now sift through all the pictures and sounds collected. Haas said there are only 1.8 million photos to look at.

As for the cameras in the field, Haas said decisions are still being made about how long to leave them there. One of the biggest factors it will likely depend on, she said, is how long their batteries can last.

A black and white photo, taken in the dark, of two arctic hares running past on the tundra.  The ground is grey, the background is pitch black, and the hares are slightly blurred white shapes - with bright, reflective eyes.
A pair of arctic hares walk by the camera on October 23, 2021. (Thaidene Nné/YouTube)

Haas estimates that it cost nearly $350,000 to implement the large project in Thaidene Nëné, which is why a smaller number of cameras are now being used to collect data. She said most of the money came from a 2019 Canada Nature Fund investment in areas in the NWT 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 part of the northern arm of Great Slave Lake.

Haas said there are also cameras outside protected areas, near Sambaa K’e, Norman Wells and Fort Smith.

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