Wildlife cameras below the Southwest Ring Road examine how the animals travel after construction

In the loose dirt, it’s easy to spot the footprints—deer, wolf, and occasional yolk—all pointing to the same path along the meandering Elbow River, between the Tsuut’ina Preserve and Weaselhead Flats.

Researchers at the Miistakis Institute consider this to be an important Calgary wildlife corridor that they keep a close eye on as the Southwest Ring Road crosses the Elbow River.

The group wants to know, with Highway 201 now crossing the river, will the animals continue to use this trail? They began building wildlife cameras last year to capture images of any creature that moves through it and will analyze the data after collecting images for at least two years.

A bobcat explores falling leaves in a weasel’s head. (Provided by Mystakis Institute)

It’s a case study that the institute’s conservation analyst, Nicole Cahal, hopes to pitch to government officials and planners — delivering a message.

“We hope to eventually make decisions about where we evolve differently, and to think about ecological connectivity before we start evolving,” Cahal said.

The bridge connection became controversial in 2017 when residents glimpsed the initial design and submitted letters to the county Environmental Appeals Board. People argued that the bridge was too narrow and posed a danger to wildlife and homes in the event of a flood rushing across the area.

By the time the Southwest Ring Road opened to traffic in 2021, the bridge’s design had changed to an open bridge. The county added some mitigation measures below in an effort to coax animals through the important corridor.

The Southwest Ring Road opened to traffic in 2021. The crossing’s original design was changed to an open bridge, and the county added some mitigation measures underneath in an effort to coax animals across the important passage. (Provided by Mystakis Institute)

These actions are part of what Cahal studies: the wildlife fencing that keeps animals from heading into the trail (known as the Tsuut’ina Trail for this section), the use of vegetation animals for cover and the bridge’s wider role in keeping that road to Weaselhead open.

Cahal wants to know what works and what doesn’t, to better understand where investments are needed or worthwhile.

Even now, the animals are still roaming under the bridge, Cahal said, despite the noise of the traffic now louder.

“A lot of black bears have been seen,” Cahal said. “Moose, bobcat, deer and wolf are definitely the most common we see.”

Finding the best location for wildlife cameras, swapping memory cards, and monitoring them usually falls to Sara Jordan-McLachlan. She’s the project coordinator with Calgary Captured. It is a citizen science wildlife monitoring project in which Mystakis and the City of Calgary are involved.

“If you find a good game trail or if you see trails like we did at the bottom, that’s a good opportunity to put a camera, for sure,” she said.

A beaver photographed by a wildlife camera near the Tsutina Trail Bridge. (Provided by Mystakis Institute)

This week, she’s down the Tsuut’ina Trail looking for a missing camera.

“We put one of them on a newly planted poplar tree that was put there by the county,” said Jordan MacLachlan. “Unfortunately, when I went back to check it out, it was taken down by a beaver.”

Losing the equipment is painful, said Jordan MacLachlan, but beavers love poplars and willows, and they planted those trees without a wire shroud to prevent dam-building rodents from gnawing at them.

“It’s the first time beavers have escaped with our camera, so it’s kind of fun and I hope we find the camera to watch the footage,” said Jordan MacLachlan.

This is a view from the southbound bridge over the Elbow River, overlooking the Weaselhead Flats. (Google Maps)

The incident is also an interesting indicator: there are beavers under the bridge. Maybe it became a new home.

Jordan MacLachlan said beavers tend to pick trees near their levees, so this may be a sign that a number of them have moved to Elbow from nearby Beaver Pond, which Jordan MacLachlan said has recently dried up.

“There have been a lot of changes in their habitat within the park with the construction of the road,” said Jordan MacLachlan. “It could be either that their population is increasing and they are moving into new areas or they are moving in response to changes in the park as well – unknown at this point.”

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