Faces & Places: Cam Gillies

In the Columbia Valley, Cam Gillies’ name is synonymous with birds. With a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Alberta, Cam co-owns Canada’s largest birding tour company with his wife Renee Franken, which they run out of their home in Windermere. It’s fitting that a renowned ornithologist lives so close to the Columbia Wetlands, home to over 260 recorded bird species. What’s even more fitting is that Cam grew up in Windermere and always had it in mind to return to the Columbia Valley – and Windermere in particular – after grad school.

In July, Cam was awarded the Area F Volunteer of the Year award by the Regional District of East Kootenay for his dedicated community work, which includes Vice President of the Wildsight Invermere branch, and long-standing Chair of the Columbia Valley Local Conservation Fund (CVLCF) Technical Review Committee.

“Growing up I was fortunate enough to have some mentors who got me out looking at birds,” said Cam. “I didn’t get too serious until after my undergrad, but I think the foundation was laid when I was a youngster.”

Following his undergrad in Ecology, Cam worked as a consultant for a number of years on a wide range of field projects, ranging from snow trailing wolverines in the Revelstoke area, to an inventory of Lewis’s woodpeckers around Invermere, to assisting with auditory and visual surveys of Northern Leopard Frogs in the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area. This lengthy list also includes waterfowl surveys in the Columbia Wetlands for the Canadian Wildlife Service, Limber Pine monitoring in Waterton Lakes National Park, and a spilled grain analysis in Banff National Park with the goal of reducing animal mortality on the railway.

Returning to school to complete his doctorate, Cam narrowed his focus down to the movement of forest birds through Costa Rica. When the opportunity presented itself to take over Eagle-Eye Tours from its previous owner several years later, Cam jumped at the chance. Though the business is full-time, he continues to be involved in a long-term songbird monitoring project for the Mountain Parks.

“One of the other key opportunities and influences early on was working for the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program as a summer student. Way back in ‘93 I started and had 4 summers working for them, and that was critical because it just gave me a really diverse range of experience as a student and exposed me to all kinds of people and projects. I’m still connected to some of those people from back then.”

Given the breadth of his experience, Cam’s perspective on conservation challenges is a valuable one.

“I do see lots of parallels running through different conservation issues where you can see that heavy human pressure or invasive species or motorized backcountry recreation are themes that are affecting the species we are most concerned about. It’s a big problem with complex, but achievable, solutions in many cases. The overarching challenge that I see that’s going to throw a big wrench in the works is climate change, and a lot of the conservation work that I’m most interested in now and passionate about is addressing climate change.”

With a business that brings him to areas in the world where the effects of climate change are dramatic and undeniable, like the Arctic where unpredictable sea ice is wreaking havoc on the lifestyles and mental health of the Inuit people, Cam takes corporate responsibility seriously, which means investing in worthwhile projects to offset his carbon footprint.

“You start to see some of the projections people are making about what kind of ecosystem can we expect in the Trench and in the low elevations of the Kootenays. It’s going to be dramatically different than what we see right now.”

Cam just recently picked up the new Chevrolet BOLT EV that the Wildsight Invermere branch purchased to kick off their Invermere electric vehicle share program branded as Spark!, which the District of Invermere is supporting with a dedicated charging stall at the District office building.

He’s also excited about the Local Conservation Fund concept gaining traction across the Kootenays and beyond. He was on the first committee helping evaluate projects when the CVLCF launched and has been involved ever since.

“It’s still a super innovative way to achieve conservation goals with a parcel tax; it’s done so much great work over the last 12 years. It’s been so interesting to see all these exciting different projects that have come from the community and learn more about them and try to support the ones that are really worthwhile. It’s got to keep moving forward so soon everyone has one.”

To learn more about Wildsight Invermere’s Spark! Program, visit their website at https://wildsight.ca/branches/invermere/spark/.