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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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.

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