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

  • Outfitted with a tiny backpack geolocator and ready for release near Olympia, Washington, this burrowing owl will help researchers study habitat, nesting sites and migration patterns vital for owl conservation.

    Jadine Cook/
  • The wake of a hovering hummingbird is revealed using particle image velocimetry, where a mist of olive oil is illuminated by a laser.

    Bret Tobalske, Montana Flight Lab
  • A gray wolf with a circa 2006 collar used to track its movement in Denali National Park, Alaska.

    © Momatiuk-Eastcott/Corbis
  • A wildlife cam on I-90 near Missoula captures images of passing bears.

    Courtesy Chris Servheen
  • Kate Kendall (far right) and project technicians Christine de Caussin and Katie Spendel concoct "grizzly bear soup."

    Courtesy Kate Kendall
  • Barbed wire fencing surrounding a "grizzly bear soup" mix catches hair samples for DNA analysis.

    Courtesy Kate Kendall
  • Bret Tobalske uses a wind tunnel at the Montana Flight Lab to track the movement of misty air around a diamond dove.

    Janie Osborne
  • The wake of a zebra finch flying at 18 miles per hour in a wind tunnel, made visible by a cloud of laser-illuminated olive oil droplets.

    Montana Flight Lab
  • Denver Holt releases a female snowy owl fitted with a satellite transmitter into the wilds of Barrow, Alaska, during his 20th field season in the Arctic.

    Daniel J. Cox/

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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.

Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn Subscriber
Dec 14, 2012 11:09 AM
A thought provoking article. My thoughts were to dispute opinions that better and more efficient research tools somehow handcuffs field research. I marvel at the improved and new methods to study without as much direct physical impact on a species and to acquire much good data. I notice that Mr. Robbins and the biologists he quotes as being uncomfortable with better technology and technique are older and have been long in their field. It's pretty commonly agreed that as we age; most of us become somewhat resistant to change.
Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Dec 14, 2012 01:08 PM
My father pioneered research on California quail in the 1940s, long before telemetry technology of any kind was available. I served as a small aircraft pilot to monitor collared wolves (including some in the North Fork of Montana in the late 80s) and to count animals from the air. More lately, I volunteered to help with a greater sage-grouse study in eastern Montana. I believe the less direct contact scientists have with studied animals, the better it is for the animals. It seems to me that the mortality rate for collared animals, once they are released, exceeds that for animals that have never been touched by human hands. Something for researchers to ponder, or maybe even study...
Harry Greene
Harry Greene Subscriber
Dec 18, 2012 01:06 PM
Nice piece of writing, but one would never known from the title that most of the article is, appropriately, about the very positive role of technologically assisted research in conserving and appreciating nature. Fair enough to raise the issue of a downside to technology and certainly basic field-based natural history needs more support, but why cast the whole piece in such negative light with that title, as if the last few paragraphs were all that mattered?
Georgeann Savage
Georgeann Savage
Dec 18, 2012 01:23 PM
Intellectually, I can understand the desire of science to "know" more about critter's habits and travel habits. However, the picture of the
wired small bird is worth a thousand words. Who the heck gave us the right to burden it with what has to be called an assault on its sensitive nervous system?! People involved in this torture seem to be derailed by their fascination with the technology.
Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith Subscriber
Dec 18, 2012 01:51 PM
We can't help the animals unless we understand their needs. In a world of ever increasing human encroachment on the last pristine habitats, denying people their "god-given right" to property ownership requires justification to the nth degree and that is why studies such as these are invaluable. I have marked fish, frogs and turtles for telemetry, mark-and-recapture and other studies in the San Francisco Bay Area and I can attest to the fact that biologists have zero interest in a tracking technology that is cumbersome, painful, or otherwise harmful to the subject as it results in a higher risk of predation and a loss of data. We are studying them because we care about them, and our jobs don't need to be made harder by people who fret that we are "hurting them."
Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn Subscriber
Dec 18, 2012 01:52 PM
I believe that the insult to the individual animal is far outweighed by the benefit to the species that well conceived research provides. Also, the mortality rate of instrumented animals cannot be compared to all other members of the population. For instance, a "mortality signal" or lack of movement of a collared animal causes a search and when the collar is recovered, death is recorded if such is the case. Obviously, this is not the case with the population at large as most may go unnoticed. And since our actions impact so severely on animal populations; those of us who care need to do research in order to manage (help) those populations.
Tom Lockhart
Tom Lockhart
Dec 18, 2012 03:45 PM
Long in the tooth or not, Mr. Woodbridges and Mr. Holts assertion that field observation is essential to be able to see the forest despite the trees has, is, and always will be true. If this basic truism is overlooked, we'll end up sifting through reams of data trying to figure out what went wrong whilst we thought we were getting such a good handle on things.
Lyn McCormick
Lyn McCormick
Dec 18, 2012 05:17 PM
I almost didn't read this article because of the title, but was curious as to the author's meaning of "soul." however, I am glad I read it and found it very interesting and informative. I think that if there is anything keeping the "boots on the ground" people chained to their desks it is that they have to account to their funding source.
Steve Pavlik
Steve Pavlik
Dec 18, 2012 11:25 PM
Always mixed feelings on this topic. I can't help thinking about how Arizona Game and Fish killed what was then believed to be the last borderlands jaguar - Macho B - by capturing and radio collaring it. The stress was too great for this animal - perhaps 18 years of age - and he was dead in less than a week. The individual responsible for the death of Macho B later remarked that he could "imagine Macho B's spirit roaming his mountain home." I often wondered in his mind's eye, if the spiritual jaguar he envisoned was wearing a collar? How much could we have learned by radio-collaring this one aged jaguar? Much of scientific research is done to benefit the scientist, not the animal.
Donald Walker
Donald Walker Subscriber
Dec 19, 2012 10:53 AM
I'm still uncertain that there is an actual problem here. If there really is, then it will be up to tenure committees and grant-funders to settle.
Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn Subscriber
Dec 19, 2012 11:29 AM
I am afraid that I can't let the Arizona jaguar comment pass w/o commenting on it. The death of that animal was a travesty on any form of legal and sanctioned research. Like much of what is connected to "Homeland Security"(a nationalistic coinage) this was ill-advised and wasteful. To compare an illegal act with legally sanctioned and peer reviewed research is unfair and does not add to reasoned discourse.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Dec 20, 2012 12:26 PM
Thanks, HCN subscribers, for your careful and thoughtful comments here, another indication of the strength of the HCN community. -- Ray Ring, HCN senior editor