Tuesday, June 02, 2009
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.