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How NWT communities are using tech to monitor wildlife

A wolverine captured by a camera in Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area. Photo courtesy of Ashley Menicoche/Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area


The Sambaa K’e First Nation and Fort Smith Métis Council have shared how they are using cameras and audio recorders to study the wildlife around them.

Jessica Jumbo, Sambaa K’e First Nation’s environmental and lands coordinator, and Jon McDonald, field worker and environmental coordinator for Fort Smith Métis Council, spoke about their experiences in a webinar last week.

The webinar served as both a demonstration of the technology available and a chance to gauge interest in training opportunities for people interested in learning more.



Including the organizers, 128 people tuned in to watch the event. A recording is due to be posted to the Aurora Research Institute’s YouTube channel.

The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute’s David Evans showed a video of images captured over a full year in the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area to demonstrate wildlife cameras’ capabilities.

Wildlife cameras can photograph a variety of species, while audio recorders – also known as autonomous recording units, or ARUs – can monitor anything that produces sound, including birds, frogs, bats, wolves, insects and human activity. The video and audio allow researchers and communities to monitor the likes of migratory, invasive or protected species, population sizes and climate change.

“Really, it’s open to you,” Evans said. “What you can think of, you can probably monitor with sensors.”



Some examples of animals photographed with a wildlife camera. Photos courtesy of Ashley Menicoche/Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area

In Sambaa K’e, “ARU and camera monitoring are our eyes and ears on the land when we can’t be physically present,” Jumbo said in her presentation.

Drastic changes in the environment have concerned community members and triggered a search for ways of monitoring that align with Dene laws and protocols, she said.  

In 2018, the community started working with three staff from Environment and Climate Change Canada, deploying audio recorders along 126 km of the winter road to and from Sambaa K’e. Residents led a second round of monitoring last winter, adding wildlife cameras.

Jumbo said the community’s approach involves seeking Elders’ knowledge, determining researchers’ outcome needs, then having a coordinator merge the two. Youth tackle the fieldwork, Jumbo said, and harvesters act as their mentors.

In 2018, data from 175 locations identified 91 species, Jumbo said, including species at risk.

Jumbo told Cabin Radio the recorders and cameras helped provide numbers, details and consistent monitoring to reinforce the observations residents had already made about changes on the land. That information can help to track change over time and predict what a season may bring.

“We do everything by cycles,” she said. “Everything signals the next thing to happen, whether it be an animal, a weather change, the way the clouds are forming in the sky.”

A change in the seasons may mean people have to adjust their hunting and harvesting seasons, she said.



While there were concerns about sharing photos of certain sacred animals, Jumbo said the project has been a source of comfort to the community.

Seeing pictures of healthy cranes with their young, she said, was intriguing to Elders and harvesters who might not get to see that during the summer, when the boggy landscape can make it hard to travel.

“It gave them a lot of comfort as to the health of the animals during the seasons they can’t actually see them,” she said.

A hare in Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area. Photo courtesy of Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area/Land of the Ancestors
A grizzly in Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area. Photo courtesy of Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area/Land of the Ancestors

While Sambaa K’e has now worked with recorders and cameras for years, Fort Smith Métis Council’s work is just starting.

Last fall, the Métis council worked with the NWT government to deploy 50 cameras in different habitats, McDonald said. Its team used 50 audio recorders for birds and amphibians, 10 recording units for bats and 10 weather monitors.

The project is part of an NWT biodiversity monitoring program and aims to record a continuous stream of baseline data.

“None of this monitoring has ever been done around our area in the South Slave,” McDonald said. “We’re a little bit behind, but we want to still establish a baseline.”

McDonald hopes to use the information to inform the community of Fort Smith about the health and sustainability of the environment, as well as to detect changes on the land.



Being downstream of the oil sands and other industries, one of the goals is to “really keep industry in check,” he said.

Like Jumbo, McDonald is combining Western science with knowledge from Elders and land users. He said he has been trying to get Elders and land users to come out during deployment, to point out good areas for setting up cameras.

“They know the land, so they know the wildlife trails,” he said.

The team has brought youth along to pass on knowledge and provide training for a potential future career.

“I didn’t know this could be a career when I was in high school,” McDonald said. “We want those youth to know that this could be something valuable for them in the future.”

McDonald said the project has run into some communication issues with land users, which served as a lesson in the importance of involving them from the start.

Although McDonald and his colleagues have yet to retrieve any of the recording units, he said Fort Smith hopes to put together a newsletter to update the community on their findings and ongoing monitoring projects.

He said he hopes to convey that “the fish are safe to eat, the water is safe to drink and the animals are healthy populations to hunt.”

This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.