Over the past decade, more and more trail cameras have tracked the movement of animals in wild areas throughout North America. Just for starters, you can see live-streaming online video of eagles’ nests, sandhill cranes, condors, bears catching
salmon, and ocean fish (courtesy of the Channel Islands “kelp-cam”). Wildlife cams are even putting extra eyes on the ground here in the Patagonia area, though these
are generally lower-tech than the live-streaming ones: when triggered by motion sensors, they save images on a computer chip for later analysis. The locations of the cameras are closely guarded secrets to prevent vandalism and theft.
Who’s using trail cams? Some state agencies; the Border Patrol; many conservation groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and Sky Island Alliance; the University of Arizona; mining companies; hunters; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is especially concerned about endangered species.
Most trail cams, aside from those used by hunters of game and human traffic, are used to track wildlife, and the data they provide – as still photos or video – help wildlife biologists and conservation groups learn about the range, numbers, and behavior of many species. Some trail cams have increased our knowledge about species, telling us that javelinas may live above 5,000 feet, or that mountain lion numbers are declining, which is of concern because high-level predators are essential for a healthy ecosystem.
Although small rodents, birds, bats, and even butterflies sometimes trip the motion sensors and show up on camera, most “captures” are medium and large mammals. Locally these include white-tail and mule deer, bears, grey foxes, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, javelinas, rabbits, and, rarely, jaguars, a species which is endangered, nocturnal and reclusive. In the sky island areas of New Mexico and Arizona, four jaguars have been
identified, via unique coat markings, and named.
The Borderlands Restoration Network, says director Ron Pulliam, has used cams to identify at least 35 vertebrate species in the Santa Rita-Patagonia Wildlife Corridor, leading to greater understanding of biodiversity and how it’s affected by human actions. This
research has made it clear why a solid border wall would cause ecological havoc.
Wildlife cams do present challenges. First, it takes a fair bit of time and training to place and maintain the devices (batteries and chips have to be changed) and to analyze the images gathered on a chip. (Some of the work is funded; other work is performed by volunteers.) Second, people sometimes steal or vandalize wildlife cams. Third, private companies and individuals who see endangered species may not share sightings with the scientific community, so some species go under-reported.
Despite the challenges, the wildlife cams’ extra eyes on the ground greatly contribute to understanding and appreciating the profound biological specialness of the mountains, forests, and grasslands where we live, work, and play.