As it goes high-tech, wildlife biology loses its soul

by Jim Robbins

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, Mont., 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 10 a.m.," 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 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.

Kate Kendall, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, based in West Glacier, Mont., has created her own special recipe for grizzly bear soup: She dumps assorted carp, trout and other fish into a 55-gallon drum, and stirs in cattle blood gathered from slaughterhouses. Then she seals the fetid concoction and lets it age for a year, until it's good and ripe. "Then we open the drums and bottle it," she told me recently.

Last summer, Kendall and 75 others on her crew wrapped barbed wire around stands of pine trees at 395 locations in northwestern Montana's two-and-a-quarter-million-acre Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, to create what she calls "hair corrals." In the center of each corral, the team placed a generous dollop of Kendall's homemade lure on a pile of brush and stumps.

Remote cameras show that after the team left each corral, it seldom took long for the scent to work its magic. As the bears sneak under the wire to check out the heavenly smell, the barbs snag clumps of their hair. That project snagged 17,000 hair samples in that ecosystem. Once black bear hair is excluded from the samples, the DNA -- the basic genetic material -- in each grizzly hair will be assayed. In 2014, for the first time ever, the local people will have a realistic idea of how many grizzly bears live in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, where they go and even their kinship: which bears are related to others and in what ways. That will give bear managers a much better sense of how many animals they are dealing with, compared to previous estimates based on radio collars and sightings. Moreover, the bears will never see a human being, never be drugged, and probably never know they have been studied.

A similar project led by Kendall in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem revealed a dramatic finding by the time it ended in 2008. Biologists had estimated that 300 grizzlies lived in that ecosystem, but the DNA results indicated more than twice that: 765, all told. "That's a totally different story," Kendall said. "Population numbers and trends are critical (for determining) if conservation methods are effective."

DNA analysis is revolutionizing wildlife research in many ways. It allows researchers to easily collect data on more than one animal, for instance. The old method -- live trapping -- allows researchers to sample blood and tissue from just a few bears. But collecting DNA in scat or hair allows them to gather information on two or three dozen, or even two or three hundred. They can calculate not only basic population numbers, but -- as Kendall has done -- relationships. Servheen's agency has assembled a complete family tree of all the grizzly bears between the Yukon and Yellowstone. In one example of how that's useful, when a grizzly was killed in the Selway-Bitterroot in 2007, DNA revealed that it had come from the Selkirk Mountains in northern Idaho -- an indication of a migration corridor that needs to be preserved.

"The genetic code is a mystery novel, a history book and a time log in a single hair," Michael Schwartz, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, observed recently. "We are answering questions we couldn't even ask a few years ago." He described a potential breakthrough regarding pneumonia in bighorn sheep, which often catch it from domestic sheep; the domestic sheep are merely carriers, but the disease is often fatal to bighorns. Agricultural researchers know which genes govern disease resistance in domestic sheep, and now biologists can sequence the bighorns' genes and try to determine if some bighorns have a similar genetic resistance. "The gene for resistance may have drifted out of (a bighorn) population through random processes," Schwartz said, "so we know we need to bring in these genes" from other herds.

In Portugal, DNA researchers lined the back wall of a lynx den with cork, and placed a parasitic Amazonian kissing bug in a quarter-sized hole covered with a thin plastic membrane. When the lynx entered the den, the bug drilled through the plastic, bit the lynx and sucked its blood. After the cat left, they recaptured the bug and examined the blood and DNA it contained. Researchers in Vietnam who analyzed the blood from 25 leeches found genetic material from three mammal species that were rare and not well understood, including two that were only recently discovered -- a deer called the Truong Son muntjac and the Annamite striped rabbit.

In a visit to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in upstate New York -- the premier institution for the study of birds, with a staff of 50 scientists and educators -- I was amazed by the range of new approaches there, especially the use of sound. The lab has developed software that identifies the noises many kinds of animals make, and offers that software to researchers around the world. The lab also has built a vast audio library, and anyone with Internet access can hear thousands of distinctive birdsongs and the various calls of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish and even arthropods. The study of birds began long before binoculars were available; pioneering ornithologist John James Audubon, in the early 19th century, had to shoot birds to study them up close. Today's technologies include arrays of microphones and radar installations to gather data as flocks of snow geese and migrating hummingbirds pass overhead.

At the University of Montana Flight Research Lab, I've watched researchers like Bret Tobalske use lasers and other tools to discover exactly how birds fly, and even to explore how their habitat shapes their physiology. In one experiment in the warehouse-like flight lab, while a Rolling Stones recording rocked out in the background, Tobalske placed a small hummingbird he had captured in his yard into a plexiglass cube. As the tiny bird hovered and drank from a feeding tube, an emerald green laser beam illuminated a fine cloud of olive oil hanging in the air. A camera recorded the movement of the swirling mist, detailing how lift, drag and other forces work on the bird as it flies. By understanding a bird's flying strategies, scientists can learn more about its ecology. The hairy woodpecker, for instance, has evolved a technique to get from one bug-infested tree to another as fast as possible using a minimal amount of energy, with a distinctive combination of flapping and gliding flight. "Flight is extraordinarily expensive per second (when it comes to energy use) and birds have evolved ways to sidestep some of those costs," Tobalske said. "It tells us something about (how they deal with) predator risks and why they feed where they do."

Meanwhile, isotopes -- stable compounds created primarily by the planet's geologic processes and then naturally dissolved in water -- are being interpreted in new ways to monitor wildlife. When clouds move across the landscape and drop rain, they leave hydrogen, carbon and deuterium and other isotopes in soil and vegetation in unique and varied ratios. So the isotopic fingerprint of, say, the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park is different than that of the Pelican Valley, which is also in the park. When a bear or mountain lion drinks water from different sources, a record of those isotopes is formed in its hair or claws, and biologists can later analyze it to determine where the animal has been drinking. Researchers analyzing isotopes can also identify what portion of a bear's diet is meat, vegetation or fish. The technique does not require trapping the animal, but it does require gathering isotopic ratios across vast areas -- known as "isoscapes" -- to accurately compare an animal's tissue with the places on the landscape it has visited.

That technology has other uses: After a camper was attacked and killed by a grizzly near Yellowstone in 2010, for instance, biologists killed the bear and tested a snip of its hair for a corn isotope. Since almost every processed food contains corn syrup, they could discover if the bear in question had been corrupted by human garbage. In this case, it hadn't.

Fishery biologists in Yellowstone remove the calcium carbonate otolith, or "ear-stone," from dead fish to discover where the fish swam when they were alive. Tom McMahon, a professor of fishery biology at Montana State University, explained that technique: The otolith forms as a fish grows, and incorporates distinctive isotopes from each tributary it visits, so by analyzing it, "You can backtrack on (the fish's) movements through its entire life."

But I've heard a cautionary tone from several biologists over the years. Even Brian Woodbridge, the Swainson's hawk researcher who used early transmitters to discover migrations and threats posed by pesticides in Latin America, said the technology would not have played such a transformative role, if the researchers hadn't done the long-term fieldwork that included banding and watching the birds. Those traditional methods determined the basic population dynamics and the significance of the fact that the hawk's numbers were dropping. "Patterns emerge over time, that you can't get through technology in the short term," Woodbridge said.

Denver Holt, head of the Montana-based Owl Research Institute, had similar thoughts on a sunny day last March, when he drove me to a subdivision north of Polson, Mont., to show me more than a dozen bright white snowy owls -- aka "snowies" -- sitting on rooftops. In the same area, Holt pointed out a black golf-ball-sized owl "pellet" -- indigestible remains of an owl's meal -- lying on the ground. Holt, who has studied snowies in the field for 25 years, often following them to the Arctic where they spend most of their time, concluded that this pellet had been regurgitated by a snowy that had devoured voles. He took out his binoculars and looked through them upside-down, using them as a magnifying glass, to find tiny bones in the pellet. "Hmm, fibula ... tibia," he said, "and here's a humerus," as he pulled out a leg bone the size of a paper match. "Ought to be a skull in here somewhere," he predicted as he pawed through the black mass. And, sure enough, there was.

Long-term field studies like those Holt has conducted are increasingly rare. He believes they bring something unique and powerful to the table, even though they are difficult and hard to fund. "If you are on the ground, touring the field, making observations, you start to see patterns," he told me. "And if you aren't in the field, you would miss the unusual events that happen. If a snowy owl attacked a polar bear or a caribou that was getting too close to a nest or a chick, you wouldn't see that with just (transmitter) technology. You would have beeps on a map that might tell you something was going on, but you wouldn't know what it was." He worries that high-tech will supplant, rather than complement, long-term field studies. "You don't want to totally abandon field research," Holt said. "What you want to do is combine them, try to get the best out of both types."

Ed Bangs, probably the most well-known wildlife biologist in the Northern Rockies, shared his philosophical thoughts over breakfast in Helena, Mont., where we both live. For most of the history of federal wolf reintroduction in the Rockies, Bangs was the chief spokesman and manager; he retired in 2011. Over the years, after traveling with him to several wolf-related meetings and other events, I'd come to believe that he thought more deeply about the work than most of his colleagues. "You never need to go into the field" anymore, Bangs said, given today's technology. "You collar the animal and follow it in real time on the computer. You never see it; you never see where it lives. You can do a wildlife study and never visit the area. ... I became involved in wildlife research because of my passion for wildlife and wild places -- and technology doesn't catch that passion. We need more of an emotional connection with wildlife ... not just technological connections."

We talked about how the new technology encourages many researchers to think there is less need to spend dogged days, weeks and months in the field watching wildlife. Like Woodbridge and Holt, Bangs also believes long-term fieldwork can lead to a deeper, or least different, understanding of wildlife ways and habitat. Some in their camp also fear there has been a steady erosion in the sense of wildness, the feeling of mystery, much as the sense of freedom in the human world is being changed by surveillance technology. In some cases, Bangs warned, the new technologies not only don't further conservation, they may hinder it.

"Conservation involves managing people more than it does wildlife," said Bangs, drawing from his long experience in trying to persuade ranchers and hunters to accept wolves that kill livestock and elk, while also trying to persuade environmentalists that it's OK to shoot and trap some wolves. "Learning more about wolves is almost immaterial to wolf conservation. Some biologists don't even go out in the field anymore. How does it further conservation if you don't know about the people?"

Day by day, the advance of the new technologies raises more ethical questions. With the power to work with DNA growing by leaps and bounds, the revival of extinct species may not be far off. The veteran environmentalist Stewart Brand -- editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and founder of several green organizations, including the Long Now Foundation -- has helped launch a new project called Revive and Restore, dedicated to "de-extinction" of vanished species. The first species Revive and Restore may try to pluck out of the black hole of extinction is the passenger pigeon, the last of which died out in 1914. So far, only preliminary steps have been taken -- the genes of several museum specimens are being sequenced -- but Brand thinks it is doable in the not-too-distant future. In Revive and Restore's first meeting, at Harvard last February, Brand told me, "The practicalities are getting more practical all the time." In Spain a few years ago, in fact, researchers cloned an extinct ibex, a wild mountain goat, though it only lived a very short time.

Even the high-tech collars raise uncomfortable management questions. How far do you go to make a species palatable to people who are antagonistic to it? Collars can measure whether the animal is resting or active, by its heart rate and body temperature. But they can also be programmed to control an animal. Shock collars, similar to those put on ornery dogs, for instance, have been tested on wolves; when the wolves tried to roam beyond a fence of sensors controlled by a satellite, they were shocked. As the whole realm of wildlife conservation grows ever more controversial, biologists have also experimented with wolf collars that have tranquilizers in them, and can be activated remotely. Some ranchers, Bangs said, have joked that such a collar could also be packed with explosives that could be detonated remotely -- the kind of fate that might be in store for prisoners on a totalitarian planet in science fiction. In today's brave new world, or habitat, if things go that far eventually, it wouldn't surprise me.

---

Jim Robbins is a longtime New York Times writer based in Helena, Mont., and the author of five books, including this year’s The Man Who Planted Trees. His Times stories over the years included some of the experiences in this essay.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

© High Country News