New color camera systems bring caribou counting into the digital age

Digital photo of Alaska caribou herd. ADF&G photo.
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Researchers and biologists in Alaska have something to celebrate after images captured by new camera systems managed to shave painstaking hours off the process of counting caribou.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, before this year, planes were still using mounted film cameras, described by the department as "World War II-era black-and-white film cameras."

Now, new camera systems are all-digital, and the department says it's already a necessity when it comes to mapping and counting caribou herds, namely the Porcupine, Fortymile, Central Arctic, Teshekpuk, and Western Arctic herds.

According to biologists, at least three out of those five caribou herds would not have been counted this year if not for the new digital camera system, as the new cameras can capture caribou in low light conditions, something that the previous black and white cameras could not.

As for the new camera systems themselves, each feature three "medium-format 100-megapixel cameras in gyro-stabilized mounts with GPS and inertial measurement units to record position, pitch, roll, and yaw."

The department said this technology allows biologists to conduct photocensus work under low light conditions. Additionally, it cuts down on the overall time that researchers spend arranging the photos.

Work that the department said used to take weeks to accomplish by researchers arranging the photos by hand, is now done instantaneously by the digital system.

"New software enables individual images to be stitched together and georeferenced so that each caribou group can be viewed as a single image mosaic. In the past, staff had to manually lay out 9-inch by 9-inch printed photographs, [...] a tedious process that sometimes took weeks to accomplish," the department wrote in a news release.

As for who picked up the bill for the new cameras, the department said it was a taxation effort, with the funds primarily coming from hunters and "shooting sports enthusiasts" in the form of taxes on firearms, ammunition, and hunting licenses and tag fees. The department did not say how much exactly the camera systems cost.

The data gathered by researchers will be available soon to the public, DF&G said, while the counting phase is completed based on the photographs taken this summer.

The data will be used to help determine regulations in line with hunting, such as bag limits and the timing of hunting seasons.