Brian Eaton pops the digital card out of a wildlife camera strapped to a tree in the bush of Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton.

Every month for the last year and a half the chair of the Friends of Elk Island Society and other volunteers have been checking eight trail cameras scattered throughout the park.

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A fisher scrambles up the bait tree in April of 2015. (Friends of Elk Island Society, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures, and Alberta Parks)

They have been helping out University of Victoria PhD student Frances Stewart who has now reached the halfway mark in her three year study on the fisher.

A "fisher is a two to five kilogram weasel" like a wolverine only smaller explains the wildlife biologist. "It's a really neat species in that it's the only one we know of that has figured out how to kill porcupine without getting really badly injured."

The fisher's other claim to fame, Stewart says, is "it's almost all dark fur so it's got a really nice chocolate coloured coat" highly prized during the fur trade.

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A deer and her two fawns snapped at night in August of 2014. ( Friends of Elk Island Society, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures, and Alberta Parks)

 Trapping and deforestation are possible reasons that the area the animal can be found in now has shrunk.

The fisher was reintroduced into Elk Island National Park in 1990 and now 25 years later Stewart wants to find out how the population is doing.

That's where the wildlife photos and some DNA detective work comes in.

The animals come to investigate a stinky bag of fish guts dangling from the bait tree across from the motion detecting camera. 

When the fisher scrambles up the bait tree, its thick brown fur gets snagged in little prongs "and we can then use that hair sample to identify how related those animals are, how genetically diverse the population is and look at how those genes are flowing" between developed areas and the protection of the park, says Stewart.

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A black bear snapped by the trail cam in June of 2014. (Friends of Elk Island Society, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures, and Alberta Parks)

 Volunteers like Brian Eaton use tweezers to carefully remove the fur and delicately place tiny samples into orange envelopes to ship to a grateful Stewart on the west coast for analysis.

But this research originally intended to capture the curiosity of just one critter has instead documented dozens.  

"So we actually get pictures of wolves, foxes, coyotes, flying squirrels, birds all kinds of things it's really cool" and Eaton is surprised by the bears not just passing through the park but now calling it home.

"One actually stayed for four or five months and we've caught it on camera again this spring.

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The Chair of the Friends of Elk Island Society Brian Eaton checks on of the trail cams. (Adrienne Lamb)

"So we know it over-wintered in the park because it came out so early. He's probably got a den here somewhere."

As for Eaton, he says conservation and research in this area offers their own rewards, it's "sort of spiritual to come and reconnect with nature."

To see more from Elk Island National Park you can watch this week's edition of Our Edmonton.

Our weekly magazine show airs on Saturday at 10 a.m. Sunday at 11 a.m. and Monday at 4 p.m. on CBC TV.