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Wildlife cameras in Sooke Hills park helping researchers monitor effects of human presence

So far, more than 100,000 pictures have been taken and analyzed. So far, more than 100,000 pictures have been taken and analyzed.
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A project years in the making is under way in one of the Capital Regional District’s (CRD) largest parks, with the goal of monitoring and assessing wildlife, their movements and the impact human activity has on their behaviour.

The Sooke Hills Wilderness Project is a collaboration between the CRD, the University of Victoria and the Coexisting with Carnivores Alliance

The alliance approached UVic with the idea, and the project got underway last summer with the CRD granting the university a research permit for the park.

UVic researchers are using multiple trail cameras to track the movement of both park users and wildlife like cougars, bears, deer and wolves.

So far, more than 100,000 pictures have been taken and analyzed. Every photo is scanned by facial recognition software before researchers see it. When the software recognizes a face, it automatically blurs it, to protect people’s privacy.

Early data shows that animals are watching us as much as we’re watching them.

“These animals are really smart,” says lead researcher Chris Bone, an associate professor in the Geography Department at UVic.

”They know where we are, and so I think a lot of the time, they’re really adapting to our behaviour.”

Nitya Harris, a director with the Coexisting with Carnivores Alliance, was instrumental in bringing the idea forward after learning about a 2019 study out of the University of British Columbia that said having long-term data collection through trail cameras and analysis of data can help with information about the impact people have on wildlife.

“That’s what we are trying to do, collecting the data from the cameras in this area to find out what the impacts are,” says Harris. “Then using that information to come up with some management solutions for the authorized trails here.”

According to Harris, one study indicates that hikers can impact wildlife up to one kilometre away, and mountain bikers can have an impact up to three kilometres away.

The cameras not only capture animals and people, but also the surrounding forest and plant life, giving researchers like Bone the opportunity to see how seasonal and climate changes impact the entire ecosystem over time.

“If you think about monitoring that over 10 or 20 years, we’re actually able to see if we are getting longer growing seasons. Is plant health being compromised over years because of increasing temperatures?” says Bone “Yes, it’s about humans and wildlife, but the bigger picture with these cameras is that we’re able to capture so much more.”

The UVic geography professor has several research assistants and students helping out with the project, including Elicia Bell, who is working on her PhD at the university’s Surreal Lab. Bell is a wildlife ecologist specializing in carnivore behavioural ecology.

“The most important aspect of this research is in recognizing the inherent value in shared human-wildlife landscapes,” says Bell. “These parks, such as the Sooke Hills Wilderness Park, can serve local communities, but at the same time serve as important corridors and home to resident populations of an array of wildlife species.”

According to the CRD, data collected from the project will help inform management decisions in the regional park to better protect important wildlife habitat and support a positive visitor experience.

“I think a really important thing for the public to understand is that a lot of these research projects that are going on in these parks are really here to help us identify what the benefits are from both the human perspective and wildlife perspective of using these lands,” says Bone. “That’s what we’re really trying to do is give the CRD, other planning agencies and the scientific community as much information as possible to better understand and plan for coexistence.”

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