Backcountry Cameras
Credit: Dreamstime.com

The hike to Verdant Pass is one of the best in Jasper National Park. It sneaks behind the imposing limestone walls of Mount Edith Cavell into a vast alpine meadow surrounded by craggy summits.

A long time Jasper local, Karen made sure she hiked it every year—until a wildlife camera caught her breaking the law. (Karen requested we not publish her surname.) 

Dogs aren’t allowed in Verdant Pass in order to protect endangered mountain caribou, which the park monitors via hidden motion-activated cameras. Karen knew all of this when she let her dog off-leash part way into the hike. 

“My dog was not perfect, but caribou would usually be out in the open and higher up where you can see them,” she says. “I was more worried about bears.”

During the hike, while looking for a place to pee, she tripped a wildlife camera. It caught her dog off-leash. A few weeks later, a warden came to her Jasper home and handed her a summons for violating two national park regulations. 

While Parks Canada won’t say how often wildlife cameras supply evidence in criminal cases in Jasper or elsewhere, Karen’s wasn’t the first. Or the last. There’s no doubt the cameras provide useful data about wildlife. Few would argue the legality of busting a poacher via camera. But capturing images of people hiking, without their knowledge and in a place many go to escape technology, rubs some residents the wrong way. And even as wildlife cameras become more ubiquitous in the backcountry, Parks Canada doesn’t have clear guidelines for what to do with pictures of humans—be they hiking a trail, going for a pee, skinny dipping, or breaking the law. That raises a host of privacy concerns.

“Expectation is a key factor,” says David Christopher, communications manager at Open Media, a privacy advocacy group. “If you’re at a shopping mall or on a busy street, there’s a reasonable expectation there are surveillance cameras. But in the backcountry, there’s next-to-zero expectation.”

None of the provincial park organizations we contacted use wildlife cameras for crime fighting. Ontario Provincial Parks said, “It would not be an appropriate use of the cameras.” When we asked various levels of Parks Canada about the number of cameras deployed in parks and specifics of when wardens had used them in law enforcement, we received vague answers or none at all. 

That doesn’t surprise Dave Carnell. He was a warden in Jasper for 23 years until he retired in 1996, just as biologists began using the motion-activated cameras. 

“I thought they were a pretty good thing,” he says. “They could show us where the animals are and what they’re doing, without us bothering them.”

Back then, wardens rarely handed out warnings for off-leash dogs, unless one was chasing wildlife. How the camera was used in Karen’s case bothered Carnell. “Unless it’s for a specific investigation, I don’t think they should be able to use these cameras to troll for whatever crime they can find,” Carnell says. “It’s right out of George Orwell.” 

Parks says staff sift through the images—from at least 250 wildlife cameras in Alberta alone, according to a Global News story—destroying most photos of people. “Unless the images show unlawful activities... in which case they may be used for law enforcement purposes,” wrote Eric Magnan, a media relations officer with Parks Canada. Jasper has now installed signs at some trailheads warning of the presence of cameras, he says. The signs state the park may use the cameras to track visitor numbers. No mention of crime fighting. 

That doesn’t go far enough for Carnell. He approached several branches of Parks Canada about his privacy concerns, including the Access to Information and Privacy Office.

“Concrete actions are being taken to ensure Parks Canada is respecting the provisions of the Privacy Act,” wrote Diane Maloley, manager of the ATIP. She went on to say the guidelines for using remote cameras for crime fighting is now under review.  

Until then, Carnell thinks every camera should be signed so people know where they are. “The bears and cougars can’t read,” he notes.

As for Karen, she pleaded guilty to the charges and asked for a fine—up to $10,000. Instead, the judge gave her community service. Disheartened with what had become of the Jasper backcountry, Karen moved away shortly after.

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2015 issue.

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