Citizen science project puts Calgary biodiversity in focus

MRU students contribute to Calgary Captured through Miistakis Institute

Peter GlennMount Royal University | Posted: March 29, 2022

A coyote in a Calgary park.

We know they’re out there: coyotes, deer, moose, even bobcats, sharing our parks and natural areas (and sometimes our backyards), but results from a citizen science project released in January have created a buzz with photo evidence of Calgary’s rich and varied biodiversity.

The Calgary Captured program is a wildlife monitoring partnership with the Miistakis Institute, a not-for-profit, charitable, applied research institute affiliated with Mount Royal University, the City of Calgary, Friends of Fish Creek Provincial Park Society, and Weaselhead/Glenmore Park Preservation Society. Its goal is to improve Calgarians’ understanding of how medium to large terrestrial mammals are using natural areas and moving around the urban landscape.

Calgary Captured used 97 motion-activated camera traps placed in 19 key natural environment  parks and movement corridors, which were monitored between May 2017 and May 2020. With a resulting 125,765 images to go through, the project looked to volunteers for help with image classification using Zooniverse — an online citizen science  platform. Calgary Captured was funded through The Calgary Foundation, Alberta Ecotrust and TD Friends of the Environment Foundation.

“Citizen science not only supports the generation of important scientific data, but also helps to build scientific literacy and improves civic engagement in and uptake of science-based solutions,” says Tracy Lee, project manager for Calgary Captured. “In order to garner support for protection and maintenance of these important natural areas to support biodiversity, we need Calgarians to engage in this important issue.”

Most often caught on camera were deer and coyotes, but moose, red foxes, bobcats, cougars, black bears, raccoons and porcupines also make an appearance.

Pet dogs also appear, often running free where they shouldn't be. ​​Of the more than 20,000 photos collected of dogs off-leash, 89 per cent were in areas where they should have been leashed rather than in one of the city’s 150 off-leash areas. Lee says animals have shifted their behaviour in parks as a result, coming out at night when dogs and their owners aren’t there. The City of Calgary is urging pet owners to consider the effect off-leash dogs have on wildlife sharing our city.

Student research opportunities

Calgary Captured provided ample opportunities for students to participate in research, a hallmark of MRU and Miistakis. For Kaitlyn Squires, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Science — General Science, a summer research internship at Miistakis Institute brought to her attention by biology professor Dr. Dorothy Hill, PhD, had her setting up cameras and collecting data in various parks; classifying thousands of images using the Wildtrax platform; developing social media posts to raise awareness; and co-authoring the project’s three-year analysis. 

Squires also analyzed data collected from the project for the separate research analysis on uncontrolled dog activity in Calgary’s parks, which included developing recommendations for the City. The research manuscript was submitted at the end of her internship and will be published in the Canadian Undergraduate Research Journal in the Spring 2022 edition.

a lynx perched on a stone.

“I learned so much while working with the project and the Miistakis Institute. The largest learning experience was how to take the classroom knowledge I have developed over my university career and develop it to be able to adapt to the working world.

“The hands-on knowledge I gained is often hard to come by in a classroom setting. It was a wonderful supplement to my degree and education journey,” Squires says. “Had I not had this experience, I may have never realized my passion for research, which I plan to pursue with the conclusion of my degree. As well, I would not have had the opportunity to publish my own research in an academic journal.”

The City of Calgary contains 100 square kilometres of parkland and natural areas. Calgarians can also head to Fish Creek Provincial Park, a 13 square-kilometre area extending east from the city limits to the confluence of Fish Creek and the Bow River.

“The Friends of Fish Creek are grateful for the opportunity to engage volunteers in the meaningful, behind-the-scenes tasks of camera stewardship and photo classification through the Calgary Captured program,” says Shana Barbour with the Friends of Fish Creek Provincial Park Society.

“Our volunteers are happy to contribute their time in support of helping us learn more about how urban wildlife move through Fish Creek, and the city as a whole. It's a great thing to be involved in such an important partnership, helping to create awareness about the need for coexistence, sharing of parks and green spaces, and actions that we can all take to ensure that wildlife can move and thrive in this busy, urban setting.”


Key research findings

The most common wildlife caught on camera were deer (77 per cent) and coyote (19 per cent). Other species included moose, red foxes, bobcats, cougars, black bears, raccoons and porcupines.

Parks located within Calgary’s riparian corridors such as the Bow River, Fish Creek and Elbow River, had higher diversity of mammals documented, highlighting the importance of these areas.

Calgarians really love spending time in their parks — although cameras were set up off the beaten path — 75 per cent of images were of people and pets (all images with people are deleted).

How does our activity impact wildlife?

Wildlife adjust their behaviour and park use in response to the presence of people and pets.

Wildlife tend to be more active at night in parks with high daily numbers of people and pets. In general, mule deer and coyotes do not alter their behaviour around people and pets.

In general, bear, cougar and red fox activity in parks is almost exclusively in the night as a reflection of the daily human and pet activity.

Cameras recorded approximately 20,000 images of off-leash dogs – 89 per cent of these images were in on-leash dog areas.


Informing habitat management

Results from Calgary Captured are currently being organized so they can be used to facilitate better urban development and management decisions that protect and enhance Calgary’s ecological network.

“Data from Calgary Captured is already informing Calgary Parks’ habitat management decisions. An understanding of how wildlife species make use of our parks and move across the urban landscape gives us insight into how the City can better plan for a healthy, connected park system,” says Vanessa Carney, landscape analysis supervisor with the City of Calgary.

MRU biology student Charles Blanchard is volunteering on remote image identification after attending a training session held by Lee. This involves looking through large folders of images captured by one of the cameras and tagging them with what animals are captured. These tags can range from humans and domestic dogs to skunks and black bears. Part of the experience has been learning about the inner workings of these kinds of urban biodiversity programs.

“It is interesting to learn just how much work can go into simply identifying and tagging images,” Blanchard says. “Additionally, we never really appreciate just how diverse the environments we live in are until we are presented with the kind of first-hand evidence this experience has provided. The combination of seeing the work put in, gaining a greater appreciation for the biodiversity around me and gaining experience to help tie my courses to real work has been very valuable and I would encourage others to try similar things.”