Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Wildlife research

I photographed this bison tangled up in its radio-collar in Yellowstone National Park a few weeks ago. Unfortunately these sights are becoming more common.

There is no doubt that the use of radio-telemetry collars revolutionized wildlife research and its use is now rather common. We’ve learned a lot about specific wildlife populations already, and the opportunities for research seem endless. But I’ve got to admit, I sometimes grow weary of wildlife telemetry and some of our other modern methods of wildlife study.

I long for the days of old when a naturalist/ecologist/biologist simply followed along at a discrete distance and observed an animal’s natural behaviors, taking notes and writing detailed journal entries about what was observed. This sort of recording of information gave us a much more intensely personal view of the life of individual animals of a species. I long for those first-hand accounts that are too often now discounted as simply “anecdotal.” It was reading these anecdotal accounts that captured my interest in animals as a young child, and later on as a teenager. At 16 years old, I was flunking high school science (utterly bored with studying cell structure) when my teacher let me do an extra-credit project. I read “Golden Shadows, Flying Hooves” by George Schaller detailing first-hand observations of a lion pride in Africa. I followed up on the book by writing my own report about animal behavior. That’s when I finally learned that science didn’t suck, as the school had me firmly believing prior to then.

Finding accounts like those recorded by Schaller is getting more difficult, but within minutes I can download hundreds of wildlife research reports based on GPS recordings taken with the assistance of radio-collars. There have been great improvements in technology, with lighter-weight transmitters allowing tracking of smaller animals, and additional battery power available to allow longer-term tracking of larger species.

Despite its cost, it seems that satellite telemetry is a really common tool for wildlife research projects in my region. This process generally involves capturing an animal once, installing the collar and letting the animal go, tracking the animal from an office far away via satellite upload. There is no repeat contact with the study animal unless it’s to retrieve the collar at the end of its use.

Open sores and hair loss are frequent adverse effects from the use of radio-collars and other telemetry devices, as are animal entanglements in the collars themselves. Ill-fitting collars cause wounds and infections, and I’m afraid I’m seeing these effects more often.

This pronghorn was getting rubbed raw by its loose collar. It's a bad situation with the frigid temperatures we had this winter.

Behavioral effects of the use of radio-collars seem to be dismissed, but collared moose in Norway keep in groups separate from non-collared moose. Brightly-colored collars on deer have resulted in higher harvest rates by deer hunters able to see these colors from a distance. Water and ice build-up under and around collars has been an issue as well.

While we’re learning about wildlife populations with the increase in telemetry, we’re also losing a vital connection with the animals subject to the research. I see lots of collars in use these days, but my encounters with biologists in the field are now extremely rare. Somehow, I’m sure we’re losing something here.

I took these photos last month in the Star Valley area of western Wyoming. This trumpeter swan was being beat by its sliding neckband as it moved its head to feed.


Matt Mullenix said...

Hi Cat,

Right after college, I worked for three years on a radio-telemetry study of nesting Cooper's hawks in Florida. The project was year round--finding nests via foot search and satellite imagery; trapping adults at the nest and fitting them with radio backpack harness; then tracking them daily, all day, for years. The birds were re-trapped and the transmitters either replaced or removed as dictated by the study.

Mostly, the radios did no measurable harm to the hawks. One exception: one male was killed the first night on his roost by a great horned owl, and we assumed in fairness that the harness may have contributed to that (perhaps he was working it into his feathers at night instead of sleeping and sitting still int he dark).

On the positive side, there is no other way to know what a Cooper's hawk does without radio tracking.

They are too fast, too nimble, too spooky and too active to keep in visual range. However. with radios and vehicles and a fair amount of on-foot sprinting, it is possible not only to observe numerous hunts and other interactions per day, but to collect many dozens of prey items at the kill site.

We knew where they went, what habita they used, what they hunted and how often, where they took it after the catch; and with cameras on the nest and observers in blinds we knew when the prey came to the nest lot and how the females fed the young, how they ate, etc.

In short, there is no other way to know how some species live than to use invasive techniques like radio tracking.

That said, I agree with you completely that we rely too much on it and have lost something special in the naturalist model. But you should meet some of the new biology graduates---few are young Aldo Leopolds.

Anonymous said...

Back during Aldo Leopold's day, few wildlife biologists were young Aldo Leopold's. That is why he is the father of modern wildlife management and not a whole slew of people. I am a wildlife biologist currently working for Texas and definately do not feel that I fit the bill of a young Aldo Leopold. I am just trying to do my job and learn as much as I can.

Radio telemetry and GPS collars are used A LOT in wildlife research these days. I agree they are unsightly and there may be some behavioural changes due to collars. However, there is no better way to answer a lot of the questions we ask about different wildlife species. Granted several behavioural questions cannot be answered without visual contact by a researcher, but population paramaters and habitat preference and use cannot be measured by following a wild animal at a "discrete" distance either.

All the tools in a wildlife researchers tool box have a place and I feel the best biologists know of and use all them.

Matt Reidy

Anonymous said...

Boy, you hit a sensitive nerve here with me!Although I agree with the indispensability of radiotelemetry in modern research, along with both the Matts, I also despair, like Cat, of the more impersonal approach and dependence on modern technology in research these days--there is room for both, and too little of the latter. Take it from someone who was considered an anecdotal, anthropormiphic dolt by the graduate students I was thrown in with during my college years. My stories of experiences with real animals in the real woods would have them rolling their eyes, and yet I found them so devoid of basic understanding and animal savvy, that I would not have allowed any of these "scientists" to look after a gerbil of mine over a long weekend! The experiments done callously and coldly with animals in labs by this type(including on higher primates)sickened me, and not to go all "PETA" on you guys or anything, as I have no problem with responsible hunting or responsible eating of other critters! I was ridiculed and pressured right out of this department, then skipped exam week to go meet an idol of mine, Dr. Jane Goodall, lecturing out of town. Flunked all my classes that semester, but hit it off really good with Jane, and to make a long, long story short, got an expense-paid trip to Africa to help out one summer running around with wild chimpanzees and baboons! Can't say as I regret the choice, and highly preferred getting to know the chimps on a natural, personal basis, rather than in a horrific laboratory! I don't even remember the names of my professors, co-workers, or the classes I flunked, but I bet I remember the chimps by name(instead of numbers), and behaviourally better than any of them, and Jane and I are still pals. I highly prefer being the anecdotal fool, thank you......L.B.

Matt Mullenix said...

Matt R., actually I had YOU mind for one of the new crop of biologists who DO fit the Leopold mold. You are a hunter, writer, outdoorsman and scientist.

I think you have to agree you are not the norm. But you're right, maybe the great ones are never in the majority.

Anonymous said...


Thank you VERY MUCH for the gracious compliment. Though I am not sure I deserve it. . .

My first comment actually almost went into a frustrated tangent about some of the wildlife biologists I have worked with and how there seems to be a difference between a wildlife biologist and a naturalist. Some wildlife biologists I have worked with only care about an individual species or maybe a group of species (i.e. big game, upland birds, songbirds, etc.). They do not want to deal with or care about other species or the rest of the natural world. It surprised me at first, because I see a wildlife biologist as a naturalist that tries to learn about and from all aspects of wildlife including plants, game, non-game, reptiles, insects, etc.

Not to say I do a great job myself of learning about everything, but I am definately interested in most anything that has to do with the natural world and wildlife.

Possibly that is the issue other commenters and Cat have stumbled into.


Anonymous said...

And I meant to add a great big "thank-you" to Cat for all your posts--I have not often commented, but the posts rather speak for themselves and I simply enjoy reading about and seeing the subjects of Wyoming wildlife, ranch life, and the exotic Mongolian adventures with eagles!....L.B.

Matt Mullenix said...

Matt R. -- first, you deserve the compliment and have my full confidence in your career. I'm glad you're on "our side!"

Second point: I think maybe the naturalist/biologist schism has something to do with the quest for empirical truths.

One of my sociology professors dubbed me "the Empiricist" after I gave an ill-considered speech on "what love means," couching it in terms of physiological response.

Puh-leaze! Well, I was a sophomore. :-)

The irony for me is that I've become almost everything BUT an empiricist in later years, often going out of my way to insert the possibility of mystery and fundamental "unknowability" in my conceptions.

So I can rale against operant conditioning even when it makes sense, and I know it. Likewise I can smirk at statistical data when I know very well how valuable it can be.

On the flip side, I feel more open now to seeing connections, or to at least imagining their possibility in a sea of superficial differences. I have become a "lumper" of vast scope.

Although I may be way beyond the outfield fence, I think there are more naturalists out here than biologists. But there is probably a cline in effect as you move toward home plate. :-)

Steve Bodio said...

"Way beyond the outfield fence", there ARE more naturalists than biologists!

Anonymous said...

I have another peeve about radio telemetry(neato and indispensable as it seems these days) as it involves hunting with trail hounds. Gone are the days(from my observations over the last couple of decades)where houndsmen actually got out on foot and followed their hounds, and hunted in areas near where they lived, which the hounds know every inch of and are therefore in no danger of being lost. Hunters no longer learn the terrain and animals' habits(including even individual animals!), but just tune into that little box and antennae, hardly paying any attention to the voices of their dogs. Hunters that drive everywhere they travel, on ATV or jeep, or truck, and if the hounds tree something a mile or more from any road, its purty safe from those hunters! This is the trend that I see in the Southern Appalachians where I lived for many years, involving both bear and coon hunting. And it seemed to me that MORE hounds get lost(or stolen--all a thief has to do is REMOVE that collar!)than with the old timers who never used all those fancy modern doo-dads!....L.B.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: I know what you mean about the hounds issue. I spent two months in the sierra nevadas this fall working on a wildlife research project (using telemetry). There were bear hound guys standing on the side of the road several times a week trying to find their hound with telemetry. Several times other staff members found trios of collared hounds wandering in the woods. Either the dogs get lost too easily or the owners are rubbish with telemetry. I am not sure which.

Cat Urbigkit said...

Thanks everyone, for your thoughtful comments. I certainly don’t have a problem with all use of telemetry, but wanted to prompt some discussion about some of the issues surrounding its use.

Matt, of course telemetry in falconry/raptor research has proven very valuable. And of course, the telemetry technology used in these cases is leaps and bounds ahead of others. If only such design and concern was evident in the large-mammal realm. No falconer would place a neck-collar radio on a bird and release it. The collars placed on bison, elk, deer and pronghorn here are placed for two or three years, not short-term use. Placed on the animals and not checked again, which is part of the problem.

Reidy, I enjoyed your comments as well. It’s unfortunate, but I know state wildlife biologists who know little about animal husbandry and behavior, but can give me all kinds of statistics about population movements. (I also know just what you mean about one-species biologists – a certain bighorn sheep biologist immediately comes to mind.) It’s just that the dependence on telemetry/GPS collars seems to have warped our knowledge base. We can see the forest, but not the trees. I agree with you that all the tools in the tool box have a place, I’m just afraid we’re using this one without full consideration.

L.B., good to hear from you, and thanks for the kind words about my posts. But I have to put in a good word for my hound hunter buddies. Of course, there are slobs in any group, but my hound hunter friends are complete addicts who have valuable hounds that are highly valued as individual hunting partners. They buy the collars as a just in case the dog gets lost (which happens, and is why you’ll see them hanging out on roads, trying to pick up a signal – hell, I chartered an airplane once in order to find a lost dog). I’ve hunted with a houndsman and his radio-collared dogs, and it was a fast, furious, make your chest-feel-like-it’s-going-to-explode adventure. He, and my other houndsmen friends (and uncles) hunt because the sound of a hound has entered their souls, and they’ll follow that sound until they can no longer.

Again, thanks everyone, for exploring this issue with me. Best to all.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong Cat, I have nothing against hunting with hounds--I'd be quite a hypocrite, as I have an old Black-And-Tan, and a firy young Bluetick myself that I take out on moonlit nights just to hear that "hound music" rolling over the dark hills. It's just sad to me how mechanized and technological even activities in Nature are getting these days(useful as that can be)and the skills, knowledge, and perceptions lost with that dependency on gadgets. I even trained my hounds to come to a traditional hunting horn, and I am probably the only living human anywhere near where I live that still does that, and actually accompanies his hounds on foot--no gas-powered vehicle use at all! It is sad too, how little respect a good hound gets these days-- historically, and when I was growing up(in the 60's and 70's), it was an unwritten law all across the South that one NEVER shot someone's hound, probably developed from pioneer days through the Great Depression, when people fed themselves on the abilities of their trail hounds(as some of my own relatives did). No more. Modern, urbanized deer hunters around here shoot every dog they see, especially hounds, and between them and roads and automobiles everywhere, it is getting very hard to find safe places to cast your hounds these days, radio collars or no......On a different note, a sinister use of radio telemetry in the Southern Appalachians has been bear hunters/poachers,who have telemetry equipment for their hounds, learning to tune in on the frequencies of radio-collared bears being studied, and poaching them. This has caused studies to have to be abandoned and collars removed for the safety of the bears. This type of poaching has been especially bad since the oriental market in bear gall bladders became so lucrative. I haven't heard of any real recent incidents of this sort; let's hope that kind of crap stops!.....L.B.

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