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Earth Notes: Trail Cameras

A black-and-white photo shows a bobcat at night, walking calmly with a snake captured between its teeth
Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection
A bobcat with a late-night snack captured on a trail camera

All over the country, cameras are snapping photos of wildlife in what’s become a fairly common practice.

Researchers, wildlife managers, conservationists, community scientists, and property owners install cameras on trees, near water sources, or at places where animals may gather or pass through.

An animal’s movement trips the camera, and digital images can be viewed remotely. We get candid closeups of hungry eaglets in the nest, the eyeshine of a bobcat at night, or a bear posing for a selfie.

But the photographs provide more than entertainment. They return real-time information about which species are present, movements and behavior, habitats, and when they’re out, day or night.

One effort, Snapshot USA, produces a yearly nationwide census of mammals to reveal long-term trends.

In Arizona, the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection tracks wildlife along important corridors. It’s documented both common and uncommon species—from coyotes and mule deer, to gila monsters and tortoises.

Hunters use camera traps, too. But several states, including Arizona and Utah, have banned or restricted that use during hunting seasons. In the Southwest, there’s concern that animals may be disturbed at water sources, and give hunters unfair advantage.

Yet trail cameras are a powerful tool. The images yield captivating insights into the lives of animals—ideally, for their protection.

This Earth Note was written by Rose Houk and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Rose Houk is a Flagstaff-based writer and editor, specializing in natural history and environmental topics.  Rose was a founding contributor of KNAU's Earth Notes and has written nearly 200 scripts for the series. She is also the author of many publications about national park and monuments, along with audio productions.