September 14, 2018 6:38 pm
Updated: September 14, 2018 8:53 pm

Okotoks asks residents to help count deer using free app

WATCH ABOVE: The Town of Okotoks is using a free app so that citizens can help them with a count of the local deer population by using their smartphones. Emily Mertz explains.

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Are there too many deer in Okotoks? The town is hoping to answer that question and come up with some baseline data this weekend — and it’s asking citizens (and their smartphones) for help.

In the past, Okotoks used volunteers to walk through the town and count deer populations with a camera, clipboard and pencil, but this year, it’s using a free app instead.

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“We felt that getting about 100 volunteers together was pretty intensive for a small community,” parks manager Christa Michailuck said.

“What we really wanted to do was find a mobile app that people could report their wildlife sightings right on their phone.”

NatureLynx was launched by the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) this summer. Using it, Albertans can record wildlife sightings across the province. They’re asked to take a photo of the animal and input some basic details, like how many deer were spotted in the area at that time and what they were doing.

“They download the app to their mobile device, they can join the Okotoks group and then our deer count mission,” Michailuck said. “Once they come across deer during the deer count, they can go to the app, click the little camera button… just take a picture of what they see, fill out the little form and hit submit.”

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For 2018, Okotoks hosted two one-hour deer count windows. The first took place on Friday between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. The second will take place on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.

The town is also conducting a citizen survey about urban deer to help understand people’s attitudes and experiences.

“Our urban deer have been a little bit controversial in that we do have some human-deer conflict, with respect to damage to yards and gardens, as well as a handful of aggressive deer conflict reports,” Michailuck said.

“We felt it was important to establish baseline deer population data so that we can look at trends over the years to see if our deer population is stable or if it’s increasing or decreasing.”

The ABMI has been collecting wildlife population data for about 10 years. Usually, the province would track wildlife like deer using an aerial survey in the winter.

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“An app is a great way to get information, especially in an urban setting,” said Brett Boukall, a senior wildlife biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks.

“Urban settings are often really difficult to sample for wildlife. Either you can’t fly over an urban setting due to restrictions on air space or it’s just really difficult to get in and among people’s backyards due to private ownership concerns.

“Having an app really enables the public — interested public — to take part,” Boukall said. “In an urban setting, you have a great source of citizens available to you to help use that app and collect that information.”

As the wildlife biologist in the area, he’s very appreciative of all the efforts the Town of Okotoks is making to understand the number and location of deer, as well as how people in the municipality want to co-exist with them.

“They conducted a survey… in 2015 and that’s really informed the town as to how they’re moving forward with the deer and maintaining deer, understanding what citizens want relative to the deer.”

Those survey results suggested there 66 deer within Okotoks but the town has annexed land since 2015.

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Michailuck would like to see between 30 and 50 residents participate in the online deer count. The results should be made available fairly soon after Sunday’s event.

No decisions will be made about wildlife management based on one year’s worth of data, she said, but the count will offer some information to track.

“When you try to do something that you haven’t found others have done before, there isn’t anyone to copy and try and learn from their mistakes,” Michailuck said.

“This is our first time trying these new options but it’s been going really well and NatureLynx has been really great. They’ve managed to get this app up and running in the past few months and contacted us back and said, ‘We’re ready to go’… So we’re going to give it a try.”

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