One of the biggest trail camera projects to be undertaken launched today in the Midwest.

Snapshot Wisconsin, a collaboration between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), NASA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, aims to strategically deploy 4,000 to 5,000 motion-sensor cameras across the state.

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By combining the images gathered with remote sensing satellites and a crowd-sourced database, resource managers as well as ecologists will be able to determine what kinds of animals populate certain areas, how many, and when.

“We're really being ambitious with this," Phil Townsend, a UW-Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology told DNews.

The results will not only improve the kind of information gathered about wildlife in the state but should reduce the cost normally associated with tracking animals.

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To date, ecologists like Townsend as well as employees of the Wisconsin DNR typically gather information about wildlife in a variety of expensive and labor-intense ways, including using radio collars, conducting aerial surveys, manning observation stations, combing through hunting records and other labor-intensive means.

But cameras traps offer a cheaper alternative, while collecting more comprehensive data.

Another variable with conventional methods, said Townsend, is that different animals might get observed in different ways at different times and in different locations.

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“With a network of trail cams, you're observing all animals in the same way and in the same places," Townsend told DNews. That makes the data more robust.

In a press release, Jennifer Stenglein, the DNR project leader, said, “The consistent monitoring will allow for comparisons among wildlife populations and enable us to better track population changes at larger spatial and temporal scales."

Ideally, the trail cameras will be positioned across most of the state (excluding urban areas) in a grid, each one nine square miles big. “There are 6,200 grids that could potentially be filled," said Townsend.

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DNR personnel will manage cameras placed in public forests and nature preserves, but private landowners will be encouraged to participate in the program.

So far, about 560 camera traps have been set up to test the system. Citizen scientists as well as DNR personnel upload photos to a website, where other people from around the world can help identify the animal, as well as provide other details such as how many animals are in the photo, whether any young animals show up, and what behaviors the animals are exhibiting.

To maintain privacy rights, the location of individual camera traps will not be published.

For any Wisconsinite interested in installing a camera trap on his or her property, visit SnapShotWiSignup.org. For citizen scientists anywhere in the world who want to help identify animals in images, visit the Snapshot Wisconsin page hosted by Zooniverse.