Wildlife scientists from two provinces are using motion-activated cameras to try to discern why a caribou population in northern Manitoba appears stable while herds are declining almost everywhere in Canada.
Since 2022, researchers from Parks Canada, the University of Saskatchewan and the Manitoba Métis Federation have been collecting images from 92 motion-activated wildlife cameras located in and around Wapusk National Park, a protected area in northern Manitoba through along the coast of Hudson Bay.
The park protects about 99 percent of the summer breeding area of the Cape Churchill caribou herd, whose population has been estimated at between 1,000 and 3,000 animals for decades.
Wapusk also protects part of the herd’s spring and fall migratory routes, while their wintering grounds are outside the park, in relatively pristine woodland.
Russell Turner, the park’s ecosystem scientist, said Parks Canada and its research partners hope to collect enough data to establish a link between habitat protection and population health.
“Almost all other caribou populations in Canada are declining, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t know why these caribou are stable, but it could be because of the national park as they are protected,” Russell said in an interview outside Churchill. . , Man., earlier this month.
While the connection between protection and population may seem logical, Turner said the Corporal Churchill herd is unusual. It spends the winter in the boreal forest and the summer in the tundra, instead of spending the whole year in one ecological zone or another.
“We have a unique type that uses both forest and barren soil,” Turner said. “It’s a relatively small herd in Manitoba and relatively understudied, so we know very little information about it.”
Gathering that information is not easy. Trail cameras are not easy to install in and around Wapusk, which is extremely cold and snowy in the winter, soggy in the summer, and has no road access at any time of the year.
Parks Canada and its partners at the Métis Federation and the University of Saskatchewan collect footage from 92 pole-mounted cameras, walking around to change batteries and memory cards at locations near a Wapusk research camp called Nester One.
Maintenance of other cameras is done by helicopter. These include locations near Cape Churchill, which is home to a sandbar called “the Hall” where some of the park’s largest male polar bears congregate.
Polar bears destroyed six of the cameras in 2022. Turner knows this because the criminal bears were caught on camera.
The cameras have also captured images of brown bears, arctic foxes, 25 species of birds and wandering scientists walking in front of the motion sensors. But the vast majority of the roughly 68,000 images collected during the project’s first year involved caribou.
“One of the interesting patterns we can see is that the park really doesn’t get much use or movement in the winter. You see all the species showing up in May and June, and really just some wolves and foxes in the winter.” Turner said.
The cameras also end with close-ups of animals inspecting the cameras, as well as rear views,
“We definitely get a lot of butt shots, a lot of caribou walking away from the camera,” Turner joked.
The researchers also hope to use the cameras to demonstrate what traditional knowledge has held for years: that caribou prefer to migrate along dry beach ridges rather than fight in soggy swamps.
“We’re trying to use these cameras to learn when they’re in different places, what habitat they’re using, and hopefully also be able to learn about their predators and some of their activities in the environment,” Turner said.
Ryan Brook, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Saskatchewan, said it’s interesting to see where gray wolves stand in relation to their caribou prey.
“They mainly hide in the wooded areas at the southern end of the park, but make daily or longer trips further north, where the caribou are,” he told Nester One.
Riley Bartel, conservation coordinator for the Manitoba Métis Federation, said his organization hopes to use the camera data to support the creation of an indigenous protected area for the Cape Churchill caribou herd southwest of Wapusk.
Such a move would require provincial cooperation, but Parks Canada is already on board.
“Their summer areas are protected, but if the wintering areas could be protected as well, that would help preserve this species even more,” said Bartel, also speaking on Nester One.
Ultimately, Turner hopes to show that habitat protection is directly related to the health of the caribou population, a seemingly obvious link that has yet to be proven by science, however.
“I think that would be a great benefit for potentially new protected parks,” he said.