In 2008, Slate reported that "at any given time, there may be about 10,000 [camera traps] deployed in research projects." And as Slate notes, "that's just the tip of the iceberg" because as many as 300,000 trap cameras are sold every year, "mostly to hunters."
Even assuming that not all cameras end up being deployed (I'm sure at least some end up still in the box, gathering dust at the bottom of a closet), and that some cameras are destroyed every year (mechanical malfunction, being dropped, being trampled by a rhino, etc) that's still an awful lot of cameras.
Assuming that every year there is 100% turnover in trap cameras, that's 300,000 trap cameras set up across America. If they are evenly distributed, that's 6,000 cameras per state. To put it another way, it's one trap camera for every 12 square miles of American soil. At a bare minimum!
Who is setting out these cameras? Who's watching you when you're in the woods, if only accidentally?
Trap cameras began as tools of the scientific trade. They have been invaluable tools for studying the behavior and distribution of animals in the wild. A trap camera can run for months undisturbed, providing solid data on animals which can be difficult, if not impossible to study.
Trap cameras have also greatly reduced the overhead for scientific studies. Instead of putting someone in the field, sitting in a blind day after day, you can simply set up a string of trap cameras.
Hunters use trap cameras in exactly the same way, albeit for entirely different reasons. If you want to bag a trophy buck, you have to find it first. What better way to locate the best game than to set out trap cameras at hunting areas across the state? When hunting season approaches, simply gather all your cameras and pick the area with the best buck pictured.
Trap cameras also help hunters determine which game trails are popular, and with what kind of animal. If you're hunting black bear, you don't want to waste time staking out a trail that's only ever used by deer and squirrels. And vice versa.
It's an open secret that as part of the drug war, the DEA monitors who spends time where in our nation's wilderness areas. A huge amount of pot is being secretly grown in public forests. If you snap pictures of the same dude walking the same trail every day for a month, chances are he's someone you want to watch a little more closely.
Similar to the DEA, the Border Patrol has trap cameras placed throughout the woods along our border with Canada, and across the deserts bordering Mexico. These trap cameras don't necessarily help them catch the bad guys (who are long gone by the time the Border Patrol retrieves the cameras). But they do help determine which routes are popular, and thus where the Border Patrol should be concentrating their resources.
Photo credit: Flickr/J.N.Stuart