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News for Southeastern Arizona, provided by the University of Arizona School of Journalism

New weapon in war against climate change: Surprise! It’s a camera

A Sonoran Desert Network employee instructs volunteers how to find a location for wildlife camera placement. (Isaac Andrews/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Last June, a jaguar named “Sombra” wandered in front of an isolated wildlife camera in the Chiricahua Mountains. Detecting motion, the camera began recording an infrared video. Sombra stopped in front of the camera. Crickets clicked in the darkness while the big cat looked around before wandering off.

These wildlife cameras, often used by hunters to track game, change the way conservationists and biologists discover, monitor and view wildlife. The data collected over years of the National Park Service’s Inventory and Monitoring programs will provide substantial data for scientists to better understand the future effects of climate change.

Data and footage from the cameras have been used in climate-change arguments, litigation and even spurred solutions such as the Oracle Road wildlife-crossing bridge in Oro Valley.

Randy Serraglio, southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, oversees the wildlife cameras placed by the center. Sombra is one of the seven different jaguars photographed in the U.S. in the past 20 years.

“These cameras have completely revolutionized jaguar science, really in a lot of ways,” Serraglio said.

The Center for Biological Diversity released the video on Sept. 14. Biologists believe this jaguar to be the same one photographed by the Bureau of Land Management in the Dos Cabezas Mountains in November 2016.

Without the camera footage, scientists may have never known that Sombra’s range is getting larger and larger, said Matt Christensen, biological sciences technician for the Sonoran Desert Network, a National Park Service affiliate.

Jaguars are “so elusive, there’s no way that any human or rancher or biologist could just sit out there and hope to ever see one,” Christensen said.

Historically, scientists would set fur traps for DNA collection, or place a scientist out in the field for multiple days to observe wildlife and collect data. Now, cameras running 24/7 provide scientists a larger data set, without interfering with wildlife.

“For us it’s not a research project; it’s just collecting wildlife videos that we know our members love to watch,” Serraglio said. “It’s important that people know that we have jaguars in our backyard. They belong here.”

Christensen said that wildlife camera users who hope to collect charismatic photos and videos are also inadvertently collecting usable data, such as date, time and location, as long as they log it correctly.

Wildlife cameras have caught footage of animals using the Oracle Road wildlife-crossing bridge in Oro Valley. The bridge connects the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountains, allowing wildlife to cross over State Route 77 without contacting motorists, and vice versa.

Volunteers play a huge role in wildlife camera studies and photography. Many cameras are deployed, maintained and collected by volunteers.

Members from the University of Arizona Environmental Awareness Society learn how to place wildlife cameras. They hiked to study locations, recorded bearings and placed five cameras in two days. (Isaac Andrews/Arizona Sonora News Service)

On Sept. 9 and 10, a team of two park service employees and six volunteers trekked through the rugged, steep and exposed terrain of Chiricahua National Monument to set up five wildlife cameras.

Thick, brambly and spiny bushes, neighbored by the occasional pine, oak and juniper trees, stood their ground firmly while the crew carefully weaved their way through the backcountry.

Each hour of the hike was a roller coaster of ups and downs as the team dodged sharp yucca, agave, prickly pear and other cacti before stopping briefly at each study location to set up cameras.

A hard plastic exterior encases each CuddeBack trail camera. Team members place each on a wooden stake, about knee height, and hammer it into the ground. Some ground proves impermeable, so workers stack rocks around the stake for extra support.

Hikers make their way to the next camera location in Chiricahua National Monument on Friday, September 9. (Isaac Andrews/Arizona Sonora News Service)

The GPS location and bearing is then recorded, describing the camera’s location. Visual cues, a particular tree or large rock’s location, relative to the camera, are noted.

The camera is then left for 30 days, isolated by miles of wilderness, awoken only by motion detection. If triggered, the camera snaps a photo, using infrared sensing at night.

Jessica McGarey, the trip leader for this weekend’s deployment, is a wildlife biologist working for the Sonoran Desert Network. She said the point of this occupancy study is to determine which species are inhabiting specific parts of the monument.

McGarey said the data “can be used in the future to monitor how the ecosystem is doing, like if there’s a keystone species that suddenly goes missing, or doesn’t show up on the cameras that kind of indicates that there’s something wrong.”

The Sonoran Desert Network deployed wildlife cameras in the Chiricahua National Monument throughout September. In all, 41 cameras now stand armed, collecting ammunition for future scientific study.

Isaac Andrews is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service for the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at isaacand1@email.arizona.edu

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