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Environment

Cameras key to understanding the North’s changing wildlife


Frances Stewart has been named the Canada Research Chair in northern wildlife biology, a title that will help her continue researching changes among species across the North. 

Stewart, a wildlife ecologist and assistant professor in the department of biology at Wilfrid Laurier University, said her research focuses on “quantifying the current distribution and abundance of wildlife across northern Canada.”

Last week, Wilfrid Laurier said the position will fund Stewart and student researchers for a five-year term.

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Stewart will also receive almost $75,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation for research equipment. She specializes in the use of remote cameras and has also used techniques like genetics to understand more about species like caribou and muskox.

“The NWT, specifically, is vast,” said Stewart.

“Having the capabilities to look – to find where animals are, and then get a sense of how many there are, and whether that number is changing through time – is a huge effort all on its own. 

“Some of the technology I use is addressing that gap. But there are a lot of gaps that we’re really just coming to grapple with in the last decade or two, statistically, of ‘how many are there?'”

To find out more about Stewart’s work, read a full transcript of Cabin Radio’s interview about her plans as a Canada Research Chair. You can listen to the interview in the Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast for January 14, 2022.

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This interview was recorded on January 14, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: How will becoming a Canada Research Chair change what you do?

Frances Stewart: It provides a really nice platform for research in Canada to be conducted, to be brought together from different sectors, with the focus on Canada’s North – an area changing very rapidly and, rightly so, needing a lot of attention.

It changes what I do in that I now have a secured position at a university where we can really start to launch and bring together research programs to address changing species in Canada’s North, and hopefully do so over a good chunk of time to really make a lot of progress on those initiatives. 

It’s a very exciting time, and we’re really literally just getting started on this new adventure that builds upon other work that I’ve done, but it’s really the next step in bringing this together in the North.

How would you explain to people what the Canada Research Program chair means, and what it does?

The Canada Research Chair program provides a lot of funding support to academics and their students. It guarantees you five to 10 years of funding to really expand your research horizon and the objectives that you’re able to achieve.

It provides consistent support for students. The graduate students are really the ones who get the opportunity to go and do the majority of this research. That’s a big component of this research program, making sure that students of northern descent and students interested in aspects of Canada’s North get the opportunity to indulge those interests and learn a lot more.

You are quoted as saying your research “focuses on quantifying the current distribution and abundance of wildlife across northern Canada.” I suspect there’s a feeling that if something is big enough for us to see it, we have a general idea about how many of it there are and where they live and how they’re doing.

But then last week, I was reading a study about the yellow rail, a marsh bird that lives up here, suggesting that the range and the population of yellow rail are much larger than we thought. What are the gaps like in what we actually know about the wildlife that we’ve got in northern Canada?

On the world stage we’re viewed as this phenomenal, biodiverse area with all these polar bears and caribou and charismatic megafauna that just roam around. So why do we need to even worry about them? I’m glad you brought up the yellow rail example because that’s a case where there are more than we expect but, in many cases, there are fewer animals than we expect. And they’re showing up in places that we don’t think they necessarily have been recently – maybe not ever, but definitely not recently.

One of the big gaps in all of that is, first, just looking. We live in such a big country and, as you know, the North and the NWT specifically is vast. Having the capabilities to look – to find where animals are, and then get a sense of how many there are, and whether that number is changing through time – is a huge effort all on its own. 

Some of the technology I use is addressing that gap. But there are a lot of gaps that we’re really just coming to grapple with in the last decade or two, statistically, of “how many are there?”

If you’re studying cougar, you may know where they might be, roughly, but you’re not able to see every single one that’s around because they live on their own. They’re solitary, they roam these vast territories. So how many are there? Those are important questions to answer to understand how wildlife are changing. We know that some populations are changing very quickly, whether it’s increasing or decreasing. These are some of the questions that my research program, and the research programs of many collaborators, are trying to get at.

You mentioned the use of technology. You’ve been able to invest in dozens of remote cameras to do this.

It’s an exciting time to be in the wildlife field, and to be in my position, because we’re really just advancing the technologies in many ways. We strap these cameras to trees and leave them out for up to a year at a time, taking pictures as wildlife go by. They provide us with this unique view of what’s happening when we’re not there. We don’t need to be the ones out watching them – or in many cases, for birds and bats, listening to them. We can have recording units out that do that for us now, so we’re able to see what goes on when we’re not there.

There have been huge results from those sorts of things. Even things related to the pandemic: the activity and abundance of different wildlife species, we know from using these types of remote technologies, increased when there were less people around.

So that’s one aspect. The other one is that telemetry collars have been used for many decades on animals, but we’re able to replace – in some cases – the telemetry collars, an invasive method, with non-invasive methods such as the wildlife cameras and even now many genetic methods, where we’re able to take samples of snow and then remove the DNA from the snow and identify what species has walked there, which is pretty phenomenal.

I don’t do too much genetics at the moment, but I have in the past. It’s just a neat time to be bringing these different technologies together to help us understand: how many animals are there? Where are they? And how are those aspects changing Canada’s North?

Caribou captured by trail camera in the Parker Caribou Range in northern British Columbia. Contributed by Jonah Keim
A grizzly bear captured on a remote camera near the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway. Photo: ENR

What are you working on right now?

I’m teaching a fourth-year vertebrate biodiversity and conservation course here at Laurier. That is a component of my job as well, it’s a component I love doing. I have one graduate student, she’s working on muskox in the Sahtu region. She’s been involved with estimating their density – so how many are there – and their distribution in that region. Again, a phenomenal opportunity for young scientists to be going out with government and Indigenous partners to do the boots-on-the-ground work, and then also obtain the computer and statistical skills, with me, to bring it all together. 

The next few projects I have lined up, there’s a lot of the remote camera work. It’s taking off globally in terms of this eye, of how we view nature if we’re able to link together projects, which is a key goal for my research. I have projects in collaboration with the Government of the Northwest Territories and a few Indigenous communities across protected areas in the Northwest Territories, and similar projects going into northern Ontario, where we’re putting out camera traps to understand how wolves and caribou and moose are using remote landscapes. And then potentially some work in the Yukon that might be upcoming too.

The position is largely tied to the Northwest Territories – and I really look forward to making stronger connections up there and bringing together, I hope, some exciting work – but it’s for northern Canada generally. So essentially, in the northern half of our country, I am instigating projects and receiving a lot of people reaching out in terms of interests in moving forward on work.

Thinking of issues we often discuss here like the decline of caribou, what kind of impact do you hope your Canada Research Chair position has — the practical applications and implications of doing this work?

Caribou is, of course, a hot topic across Canada, My experience is mostly looking at caribou in the boreal region, in the forests of Canada. I’m not as familiar with the tundra caribou in the Northwest Territories, but I hope to get more familiar with them.

My position has a lot of benefits in terms of it being an academic position, it’s not politically tied one way or another. Because of that, it’s great to be bringing people together, right? There are a lot of diverse perspectives on how we should be managing caribou in different areas of Canada. Being a bit more of a neutral body, I’m able to facilitate those collaborations and hopefully advance bringing different perspectives together on how to move forward in a way that’s specific to the region, because it changes across Canada.

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