Backyard Wilderness: Lethbridge Backyard Trail Camera Project

*Editors Note: Leila Armstrong is a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge and has signed on to the Southern Alberta Watershed Charter and will be using her wildlife camera project as her action. Tracking of urban wildlife populations will be an important contribution helping the community to better understand our watershed. If you want to learn more about the Southern Alberta Watershed Charter please follow the link. The public signing event for the Water Charter will be at City Hall on April 7th, 2017 and we encourage all to attend.*

It was pre-dawn and, for some reason I have subsequently forgotten, I was driving down an East Vancouver side street. The light had that amazing quality it has just before the sun crests the horizon and everything was eerily still and quiet. Just as I was turning left onto Renfrew Street, a dog trotted across the road. No, not a dog at all. It was skulking, head down. That’s how I recognized it was a coyote.

I have such a vivid recollection of that moment. It seems both dreamlike and hyper-real because of the lack of all other movement and the super saturated quality of the light. It was an encounter with something unexpected. Had it been a dog, I wouldn’t remember it so vividly two and a half decades later.

 One of the critters caught by Leila's game cameras

One of the critters caught by Leila's game cameras

I have romanticized stumbling upon what many would describe as nuisance wildlife: a non-domesticated animal that annoys and even threatens. We idealize wild animals as majestic and stately, examples of what it means to be unhindered by societal conventions, until we encounter them regularly within the limits of our domain: barnyards, pastures, city parks, school grounds, and our backyards.

Nowadays, as a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge, my fascination with urban wildlife continues. Specifically, I’m interested in synanthropes: animals, like the coyote mentioned above, that thrive in close proximity to humans. This led me to initiating a project to capture images of wild animals visiting Lethbridge backyards. Using 8 trail cameras I am currently documenting wildlife within city limits in the hopes of tracking nocturnal explorers such as deer, rabbits, raccoons, coyotes, porcupines and skunks.

 Example of one of the Trail Cameras

Example of one of the Trail Cameras

One of the goals of this project is to turn Lethbridgians into “citizen scientists” involved in mapping the various species with which we share our city. What animals are thriving in close proximity to us? Where are the densest populations of these urban dwellers? And what do their movements through our backyards, parks, and alleyways tell us about not only them, but also ourselves?

I am worried there is a disconnect between people’s everyday lived experience and their conception of nature as something external and removed. For example, a century ago, nature was seen as unpredictable, dangerous, and chaotic and our shared goal was to tame it, map it, and exploit it for its resources. However, over the past fifty years, this campaign has been replaced by the need to protect and preserve. Nature is now seen as a pristine retreat, a virgin wilderness in need of our stewardship. In both cases, however, there is a shared perception that we exist outside of nature and act upon it. This belief that we are somehow separate from nature generates a concern that we will have no inclination to protect the biodiversity with which we engage everyday. Given that 81% of Canadians reside it urban centres, I believe it is important to understand how we, as city dwellers, define and interact with urban wildlife and wilderness.

I invite Lethbridgians to join Backyard Wilderness. The process involves the placement a trail camera on your property for a period of approximately 14 days. If you are willing, I also ask a series of questions regarding how you feel about the animals that come into your yard and whether or not there are any aspects to your property that act as attractants. I protect your identity by giving you a pseudonym and shield the location of your property by assigning it to 1 of 12 areas in Lethbridge.

If you suspect there may be critters visiting your yard during the day and/or night, and would like to participate, please contact me, Leila Armstrong, at backyardwilderness@shaw.ca or check out the project website: http://backyardwilderness.info.

Leila Armstrong