Updated: Aug 18
Author: Emily Courtney
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about how popular trail cameras have become. He commented that he wondered what his Grandpa would think about today’s technologically advanced cameras and the fact that many hunters consider them an indispensable tool. He guessed that gramps wouldn’t think it was too sporting, and that it would spoil the surprise and take all the fun out of it. I’ve heard this opinion before, and not just from grandpas. Many whippersnappers I’ve encountered have expressed the same views. From strictly a hunting angle, I can definitely see their point. Most hunters I know who use cameras just hope to catch some shots of the bucks in the herd to give them some motivation going into the season, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Unfortunately some hunters put a little too much stock in it, to the point where they base all of their opinions on what they see in the photos. Just because you leave cameras out for three weeks and don’t get a shot of a shooter buck, that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t one there. Personally, I love to see a mature buck that I had no idea existed until he stepped into my shooting lane. To me, it’s just more fun that way. However, as a wildlife biologist, I have to recognize that the widespread use of trail cameras is one of the best things that has ever happened for wild game populations. When I think about it, it seems a bit sci-fi to resort to high-tech reconnaissance on deer, and I’m sure it seems a little intense or over-the-top to non-hunters. But this kind of surveillance allows us to monitor wildlife numbers in a much more intimate way than was ever before possible.
If you’re serious about wildlife management, take a step up from just trying to catch a trophy rack on screen, and use your cameras to conduct a planned camera survey. This is one of our most requested services, and it is a critical component to overall management. Each survey is structured with a certain number of cameras for a certain number of days, based on property acreage, land types, and other factors. After the survey period is complete, we sort through all of the photos and analyze them based on an accepted research technique. We don’t just analyze them for data though. We also take a subjective approach and read between the lines (or between the camera flashes) to gain insight into the inner workings of your property’s ecosystem. Both what we see and what we don’t see gives us clues, which we interpret through nature’s eye. If half of the shots are of hogs or coyotes, you have a predator problem. If we see raccoons raiding the bait sites more than anything else, your deer population may be dwindling. When we see hundreds and hundreds of shots of groups of does with no fawns, there is a recruitment issue that needs to be addressed. Besides general health and dynamics of the herd, these surveys can give us an idea of buck age class structure, which is crucial if having mature bucks is one of your goals.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but it can be worth so much more if you use it to gather data about wildlife populations on your property. Trail cameras have revolutionized the way we monitor game populations, and greatly increased the accuracy of such measurements. A properly run camera survey can produce statistics on population size, population dynamics, fawn recruitment, and age class structure. All of these statistics guide us in making habitat and herd management recommendations. While surveys are most commonly focused on deer populations, they can also be useful to monitor many other game species. If you want to get to know the wildlife on your property better and make more informed decisions, give trail camera surveys a try.