Brave New Wildlife Biology: Wired World

Part 1: Tracking advances in wildlife research, from days in the woods to days behind a computer screen

Editor's Note: This is the first part of a four-part story on how new technologies—gene sequencing, GPS tracking, remote monitoring and the like—are revolutionizing wildlife biology for better and, in some ways, for worse. Click here for Part 2, here for Part 3 and here for Part 4.

In 1978, I was researching one of my first wildlife stories, working along the North Fork of the Flathead River in northwestern Montana, one of the wildest places in the Lower 48. A wolf was believed to be prowling into Montana from British Columbia—an important discovery if true, because wolves had been absent from the American West for half a century and this might indicate their possible resurgence in the region. Researchers had found scat and tracks—tantalizing evidence of at least one animal. The question was: Were wolves living there or just passing through?

Locating wolves at the time was a laborious and primitive process. I hiked trails with researchers, hands cupped to our mouths, doing our best to imitate wolf howls and hoping for a reply.

In 1979, the Border Wolf Project researchers captured their first wolf—a female they named Kishneana, honoring the creek where she was trapped. They radio-collared her, and later that year I flew with project head Robert Ream above the purling North Fork, watching as he used a radio receiver with a handheld antenna to zero in on the faint rhythmic ticking of the collar's transmissions. Every 10 days or so, for a brief window of time, biologists flew above the North Fork to get a general idea of Kishneana's whereabouts. But that was all they could determine with the available technology; the rest of her life was a mystery.

These days, wolves have few secrets. Some are monitored constantly through GPS collars that link to orbiting satellites, reporting their locations with such high-tech precision that the animals are jokingly referred to as "robo-wolves." If an un-collared pack gets into trouble, killing cattle or llamas, federal wildlife-control agents may create a "Judas wolf": They trap and collar one of the pack's members and follow it, then kill the whole pack when the wolves reunite.

The type of radio collar that was strapped onto Kishneana in '79 is as old-fashioned now as a wall phone. It's been surpassed by far more powerful technologies that would have seemed like science fiction a few decades ago. Today, some researchers can map wildlife 24 hours a day from the comfort of their offices, instead of, say, doing it once a week by driving dirt roads, hiking or flying.

Remote, automatically operated camera traps are ubiquitous, snapping pictures of wildlife in remote locations that can't otherwise be monitored. Just as cops use facial recognition software to help track down possible criminals, biologists now use software and cameras to identify individual animals by the patterns on their coats—even in the irises of their eyes.

Tiny helicopters take breath samples from whales while hovering over their blowholes; aerial drones monitor orangutans; and endangered black-footed ferrets have been implanted with transponder chips that can be read by sensors buried in the dirt around their burrows, scanning their comings and goings, like groceries at the supermarket. DNA and isotopes in hair or nails are parsed in new ways to determine exactly how individual animals exploit the specific aspects of landscapes.

Even imitation wolf howls have gone high tech, thanks to the Howlbox, a kind of wilderness boom-box that sends out a pre-recorded howl. It also records the real-world answer, while doing a sonic analysis to identify the individual wolf that returned the call.

As the discovery and application of these new technologies accelerates, our understanding of wildlife increases exponentially. Despite limits imposed by politics and budgets, it's helped our efforts to protect species in an increasingly crowded, developed and fragmented world. Yet there are drawbacks. Even some biologists think that the high-tech approach to wildlife diminishes the wonder of the wild, and sacrifices the unique knowledge that comes from laborious, on-the-ground fieldwork. As the technological rush even gets into wildlife genetics in new ways, it's a good time to reflect on how much things have changed—and where we seem to be headed.

Since I listened to the simple pinging from that 1979 wolf collar, technology's potential to improve wildlife conservation has been proven by many researchers. In the 1990s, for instance, Brian Woodbridge, a Forest Service researcher in Northern California, encountered a mystery. Many of the Swainson's hawks he studied—a species also known as "grasshopper hawks" or "locust hawks" because that's their primary food—were leaving Butte Valley National Grasslands as winter approached and for some reason they were not returning in the spring. Woodbridge heard about a lightweight satellite transmitter that could be fixed to a bird's feathers, to broadcast a signal about its whereabouts to a satellite. So he trapped two hawks and fastened the transmitters, each a little heavier than a silver dollar, to their tail feathers. In the fall of 1997, the hawks circled into the sky wearing the $3,000 instruments and headed due south, chasing summer. One of the hawks was never heard from again, but two months later the other beamed a signal from a region in Argentina called La Pampa, some 6,000 miles from California. It was the first time anyone knew where that species went for the winter—an ornithological riddle until modern technologies came along.

The next year, Woodbridge and two colleagues traveled to the hawks' wintering ground in Argentina to try to find out why so many were disappearing. They were astonished. Back in California's Butte Valley, he'd spotted the hawks only occasionally, but in Argentina he discovered huge flocks—sometimes thousands of hawks—roosting in non-native eucalyptus groves called montes. And something was obviously very wrong: As he drove to a ranch to find the hawk he'd outfitted with the transmitter, he passed hundreds of dead birds on the ground. Woodbridge found that the farmers there had started using a deadly pesticide called monocrotophos. Hawks were drawn to spraying operations to gobble up squirming, dying grasshoppers and ingesting toxic amounts of the pesticide. Some died with grasshoppers in their talons, having absorbed the poison through their feet. In some cases, a fifth of the birds that roosted in a given monte were killed.

Woodbridge's pioneering research with satellite telemetry led to the formation of the International Swainson Hawk Working Group, which met with Argentine farmers and pesticide manufacturers, who eventually agreed to phase out toxic pesticides. "Satellite receivers were transformative," Woodbridge told me.

I had the same thought in 2005, when—under the glow of four headlamps in Glacier National Park—I watched as four biologists unwrapped the down coat covering an anesthetized wolverine and swabbed its belly in preparation for surgery. It was a typical combination of old and new technology: They had captured the wolverine in a hand-hewn log trap that snapped shut when the animal yanked on a piece of meat. When Jeff Copeland, the head of that U.S. Forest Service research project, approached the captive wolverine—dryly named "M-1"—it snarled and growled, and as he carefully opened the trap's lid to peek in, it lunged at him, taking a chunk out of the log near his hand. Copeland gingerly used a jab stick with a hypodermic at the end to sedate the wolverine and, after it fell asleep, picked it up and brought it to the table, where they operated. The biologists carefully sliced open the wolverine's belly and implanted a tiny satellite transmitter under the skin.

They wanted to find out where wolverines go in the forest, and how much snowmobiles and other winter recreation are invading the species' winter redoubts, and whether the Endangered Species Act should require protection of the habitat. Once the wolverine was released, they tracked it every two hours, using satellites, watching as it crossed 25 miles of a snow-covered mountain range in one day, and 25 miles the next. Wolverines are rare and secretive animals, so no one knew about their wide-ranging nature until some were successfully collared and tracked. Now the discussion of whether that species and its surprisingly large habitat need legal protection can incorporate the researchers' findings, including the fact that a male wolverine's home range spans 500 square miles. As Copeland said, "The hallmark of the wolverine is its insatiable need to keep moving."

In 2008, I visited a concrete underpass on Interstate 90 in the mountains west of Missoula, Montana, with Chris Servheen, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who's a long-time leader in the effort to protect and increase grizzly bear populations. As we walked the dirt and gravel between gray pillars and under a massive gray roof, with tractor trailers and cars whizzing overhead, Servheen pointed out the heat- and motion-activated cameras mounted in various places.

Hundreds of grizzly bears roam the mountains north of the highway, in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park. But almost none have been spotted to the south, in good habitat whose core is the sprawling Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. In the 1990s, biologists proposed moving bears into the Selway-Bitterroot, but Congress, reacting to the anxieties of some locals, forbade it. Now biologists are hoping grizzlies will move there on their own, but I-90, with six lanes of high-speed traffic and several rows of concrete jersey barriers, remains an obstacle. The bears seem to refuse to use the underpass. A few years into this monitoring project, the cameras in the underpass have snapped pictures of deer and a host of other critters, including ATV riders, but no grizzlies.

Servheen's career, like mine, has spanned the evolution of the new technology. He remembers how the old-style radio collars required biologists to go airborne just to discover "where a bear was twice a week, during good weather, at 10am," he said, adding wryly, "If you know where I was at 10 o'clock in the morning twice a week, and you tried to draw conclusions about the places I like to go in my weekly activities, you would be pretty limited."

In contrast, the modern collars can find a bear 24 hours a day with an astonishing degree of accuracy, pinpointing an animal within 10 yards of its actual location. Sometimes biologists still go airborne to gather data, but as they fly over a bear, the collar is "interrogated" by an onboard computer, the data is beamed skyward and, in a few seconds, the entire trove is downloaded remotely into a portable laptop. Some modern collars contain a bolt-shearing mechanism set to go off at a predetermined time, reducing stress on both the bear and the biologists who retrieve its collar. "The bear stands there, there's a little pop and it falls off its neck," Servheen said.

The modern collars report in great detail where grizzly bears travel over periods as long as two years, exposing their behavior far more accurately than even a TV "reality show" would. We've learned that the huge bears come surprisingly close to people's homes at night, moving so surreptitiously that the residents don't see them. That warns managers when to ask people to remove bird feeders and other bear attractants.

"The technology gives us a much better and more profound understanding of how bears respond to human activity on the landscape, and how we can better manage that human activity," said Servheen. "We can identify the places where bears cross the highway, so if a group like The Nature Conservancy wants to put in a conservation easement to protect a crossing, we know exactly where that is and can get the biggest bang for the buck." Even so, we still don't know for sure why grizzlies refuse to use that I-90 underpass.

Click here for Part 2.

This story first appeared in High Country News.


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