Monique the space elk and the wild history of tracking wildlife

The legacy of scientific researchers, and a couple intrepid ungulates, endures half a century later.


This story was originally published by The Last Word On Nothing and is republished here by permission.

Among my favorite forms of visual art is the wildlife movement map. (Yes, I’m a philistine.) I love the clustered territories formed by rival wolf packs, the filamentous corridors of migratory mule deer, the mystifying circuits of great white sharks. They are, first, aesthetically beautiful, both abstract and intricately structured, like a Jackson Pollock canvas. More than that, they reveal the hidden architecture of the wild world, a cryptic animal infrastructure that whispers across our own paved routes. We might all be homebound and stationary these days, but other creatures remain as wide-ranging as ever. 

We might all be homebound and stationary these days, but other creatures remain as wide-ranging as ever. 

These maps have become such a staple of wildlife research that it’s easy to forget the sophisticated technology that underpins them. Modern GPS tracking units communicate with orbiting satellites, storing coordinates every few hours — in some cases, every few minutes. Like all tech, these remarkable devices are the products of decades of experimentation, iterative failure, and innovation. Recently I found myself wondering about the animal subjects who participated, unwillingly and unwittingly, in their development. Who was the first creature to wear a satellite collar, and how did it go? 

That’s how I became acquainted with Monique the Space Elk. 

Really, Monique was two elk, both of whom were outfitted with satellite collars in early 1970 — almost fifty years ago on the dot, in fact. The Moniques belonged to a migratory herd of 7,000 animals that wintered on the National Elk Refuge just south of Yellowstone National Park, and then went…  well, no one quite knew where. Although John and Frank Craighead, twin brothers and legendary wildlife researchers, had long studied the region’s elk movements, their tracking methods were rudimentary. In the 1960s they’d fitted thousands of animals with color-coded necklaces, then hiked around Yellowstone searching for their bands. The herculean project revealed patches of habitat, but offered scant insight into how the animals moved between them — a Connect-the-Dots illustration with no dots connected. 

Those gaps, the Craigheads vowed, would be filled in 1970. The previous year, they’d struck up a partnership with NASA to develop a newfangled elk tracking collar that would communicate with a weather satellite called the Nimbus 3. The collar cost $25,000, weighed 23 pounds — most of it a sheath of protective fiberglass — and would beam its wearer’s location and skin temperature, along with the ambient air temperature and light conditions, to the Nimbus every day. 

A new era of wildlife biology had dawned. “The beauty of the experiment,” John Craighead told reporters in February 1970, “is that we can daily monitor elk at distant or remote locations where it might be impossible to go into the field and visually watch her.”

That information, Craighead added, wasn’t merely academic. The environmental movement was ascendant, the inaugural Earth Day just two months away. Satellite gathering, Craighead said, was “one of many research tools that scientists need if man is to prevent further global pollution of air and water and destruction of plant and animal life.” The Space Elk wouldn’t just carry a collar that weighed as much as a Boston terrier — she would bear the burden of planetary salvation.

OF COURSE, ENVIRONMENTALISM wasn’t the era’s only potent cultural force. The space race, too, was afoot. Americans had trod on the moon the previous summer. Here was another opportunity to assert our interstellar dominance. Did the Soviets have an elk who could talk to satellites? Didn’t think so. 

No wonder, then, that the media devoured the “Space Elk” experiment. The Associated Press’ stories about the project would ultimately run in every major newspaper in the country. The press was most ardent in cities with ties to the aeronautics industry. Space Elk stories landed on A1 in the Santa Maria Times, whose official slogan, “Missile Capital of the Free World,” paid homage to a nearby air force base; and TODAY, billed as “Florida’s Space Age Newspaper,” which serviced the county that included Cape Canaveral. One cartoon depicted the Nimbus launching a jagged, Zeussian bolt at a collared elk as she grazed with her herdmates — nature’s wildness brought to heel by humankind’s awesome technological might. 

Concept image of Monique and her radio collar from the back page of the paper.
The Jackson Hole Guide, Feb. 19, 1970

So who was this intrepid ungulate, anyway, this chimera who existed so comfortably at the junction of nature and technology? That would be Monique, a 500-pound cow elk who, in late 1969, had been outfitted with a “dummy” collar to get used to bearing the weight of the genuine article. Although Monique had been chosen from her herd’s ranks more or less at random, she became an overnight B-list celebrity. In a culture whose aeronautic heroes and iconic animals were overwhelmingly male — Armstrong, Aldrin, Glenn; Lassie, Flipper, Mr. Ed — Monique’s femininity made her all the more notable. Many papers took pains to mention that she was a “Lady Elk.” 

As it happened, Monique’s sex had been something of an accident. When the project was first conceived, NASA’s scientists had dubbed the elk MOE, an acronym that stood for Meteorology, Oceanography, and Ecology. The Craigheads, though, had pointed out that the necks of bull elk swell during the fall mating season, and that a collar would thus strangle a male. The Space Elk would have to be a female. 

“Since the difference is rather obvious, we had to find a girl’s name,” a Goddard spokesman explained, channeling the conventional gender naming norms of the day. “Monique was natural from Moe.” 

Although Monique enthusiasm ran high, a few contrarian copy-editors seemed apprehensive about the eye in the sky. “It’s Farewell to Privacy for Elk Named Monique, fretted the Star-Gazette in Elmira, New York. Elk ‘Bugged’ By Satellite,” wrote the Times of Munster, Indiana. The Cold War was still hot, and McCarthyism a not-too-distant memory. As one New Jersey congressman cautioned:

“(T)his use of wildlife demonstrates a perfectly plausible way from some individuals to stifle the life of their fellow humans… If Nimbus 3 can tell all about Moe, Nimbus 10 or 50 or 100 can tell all about a ship or an airplane or, for that matter, a person. All it would take would be a bug attached in the right place.”

When even wild animals are vulnerable to the surveillance state, what freedom can the rest of us expect?

THE EXPERIMENT BEGAN in earnest on Thursday, February 19. The plan was a simple one: Biologists would entice Monique’s herd with truckloads of hay, hit her with a tranquilizer dart, switch out the dummy collar for the real one, and then dose her with a drug to reverse the tranquilizer, whereupon she’d “revive and dash off to join her mate and traveling companions.”

Monique, however, refused to cooperate. Harry Reynolds, the University of Montana grad student tasked with firing the dart, chased her for 45 minutes, but couldn’t get close enough to pull the trigger. Reynolds finally snapped off a desperation shot from 35 yards out, but missed Monique, who “scampered away with others of her 1,500-member herd.”

All seemed lost. As the herd ran off, though, one elk staggered, then collapsed. Reynolds’ wayward shot had struck a different elk, whose neck turned out to be the same circumference as the original Monique’s. The scientists shrugged and outfitted New Monique with the satellite collar instead. The media poked gentle fun at the eggheads. “Scientists Get Wrong Elk,” teased a newspaper in Abilene, Texas. Other papers expressed condolences for the original Monique, now as irrelevant as Wally Pipp. “Elk Loses Shot at Stardom to Stand-In,” lamented the Salt Lake Tribune.   

When Nimbus 3 passed over Wyoming that afternoon, it failed to detect Monique’s signal. The wayward elk had “snubbed (her) appointed rendezvous.”

With Monique (or at least a Monique) collared, the project could proceed. But the snafus continued. When Nimbus 3 passed over Wyoming that afternoon, it failed to detect Monique’s signal. The wayward elk had “snubbed (her) appointed rendezvous,” the A.P. wrote. A NASA spokesman speculated that the lofty peaks of the Teton Range had interfered, and claimed that the Nimbus’ next orbit would provide a better angle. 

But the next pass, on February 21, was a failure, too. “Elk Still Missing,” reporters worried. The issue seemed to be a broken timing mechanism: The collar’s solar-powered batteries kept turning on too early, and switching off again before the satellite could pass over Wyoming. If the problem persisted, biologists would have to recapture Monique and replace the device.

THEY NEVER HAD THE CHANCE. On Thursday, February 26, the A.P. reported a tragic twist in Monique’s tale: The Space Elk was dead. “For the last couple of days Monique had disassociated herself from the rest of the herd, and didn’t appear to be up and feeding,” said Don Redfearn, manager of the National Elk Refuge. “This seems to be a symptom of those who die of pneumonia.” 

Papers around the country — the Boston Globe, the Sacramento Bee, the Chicago Tribune — ran the story, some in the form of an obituary: “She is survived by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Nimbus III weather satellite.” The news even went international. During a visit to West Germany, Ottmar Grunewald of Casper, Wyoming, spotted the headline on a newsstand in Bad Krausznach. “People there were surprised to know that we would spend a lot of money on an experiment they think is foolish,” Grunewald told the Casper Star-Tribune.

Although an autopsy confirmed the diagnosis of pneumonia — a common affliction among Wyoming’s elk — suspicion swirled. Surely it couldn’t be coincidence that Monique had died just a few days after her ordeal at the hands of scientists. It didn’t help that NASA’s press office, which had basked in positive publicity before the project began, went dark for a couple of days, seemingly out of embarrassment. 

“(O)fficials in the case would have liked to have swept the death of Monique under a handy piece of sagebrush somewhere,” claimed the Jackson Hole Guide. 

Whatever its cause, Monique’s death hinted at a tension that still vexes wildlife biology. As the fish ecologist Steven Cooke has put it, “No animal is better off because we tag them.” Penguins burdened with flipper tags have fewer chicks; sage grouse saddled with GPS “backpacks” seem to face lower odds of survival. The assumption that undergirds conservation biology is that tracking projects produce enough valuable population-level data to justify their danger to a few individual animals. The Monique affair remains an object lesson that neatly illustrates the tradeoffs. In a 2011 op-ed, one biologist invoked Monique in asking whether “the methods we use to research our animal subjects (are) harming them, or inadvertently altering the biological systems we study?” 

Even in 1970, some scribes wondered whether Monique had been unjustly sacrificed at the altar of science. “(W)e have a hunch that her unusual burden made her a pariah, and that the herd wanted nothing to do with a lady elk carrying such an expensive and exotic contraption,” opined the Marshfield News-Herald in a column titled “Monique, the Martyr.” “Our guess is that Monique was ostracized and died of a broken heart, and we extend our sympathy to the next ‘volunteer.’ ”

A herd of elk, one with a tracking collar, graze in Lamar Valley, Wyoming.

FOR THERE WOULD BE another Space Elk. Around five weeks later, at 10:20 a.m. on April 1, Harry Reynolds, the same grad student who’d shot the wrong elk, darted the original Monique, the one who’d been wearing the dummy collar since 1969. After Monique the First — or, depending on how you counted, the Second — received her collar, she sat up groggily, “examined the 16 persons standing around her, and then calmly took a bite of hay.” Given the unfortunate fate of the last Monique, you’d think someone might have considered renaming the next Space Elk, but apparently the Craigheads weren’t superstitious types. 

Still, Monique Trial #2 began auspiciously. The collar and the satellite connected on the very day of the capture. Monique’s body temperature, the Nimbus reported, stood at 101.5 degrees. “It’s right on beam,” Frank Craighead told reporters. The Space Elk hadn’t lost her shot at stardom after all. 

Monique seemed to thrive in the weeks that followed. Both the satellite (a new one, the Nimbus 4) and on-the-ground observers kept close tabs. By June 1, she’d moved around thirty miles, to summer range near Mt. Leidy and the Gros Ventre River. And then, abruptly, she vanished, rendered invisible to the satellite by yet another malfunction. “Missing: One female elk in Northwest Wyoming. Wearing large collar valued at $25,000,” wrote Steve Shipp for the A.P. “Answers to name ‘Monique.”

Despite Monique’s disappearance, NASA’s rocket boys felt vindicated. They’d shown satellite tracking was possible — albeit a bit glitchy — opening a promising new world of prospective studies. “(W)e plan to move on to the green marine turtle off the South America coast, the caribou of Alaska, the polar bear in the Arctic Circle, plus continued work with elk and possibly the black and grizzly bears,” one Goddard Space Center scientist told reporters. The Space Elk — both of them — had fulfilled their mission. Now it was time for the Moniques to cede the headlines to more glamorous study organisms. 

AS IT HAPPENS, Monique’s journey didn’t end when the Nimbus 4 lost contact with her collar in June 1970. That fall, the Craigheads knew, she’d return to her winter range on the National Elk Refuge — if, that is, she survived hunting season. In September, Frank Craighead implored Wyomingites to let Monique complete her journey. “If You Seek an Elk With Radio, Don’t Shoot It!” pleaded the Casper Star-Tribune. “Please Protect Monique,” concurred the Jackson Hole Guide.

But Monique would not see another winter. On Saturday, November 14, at around 2 pm, she was gunned down northeast of Jackson. The dismayed hunter, who claimed to be a fan of the project, called Frank Craighead to deliver the bad news. Apparently Monique’s head and shoulders had been hidden behind a tree, concealing her collar and thus her identity. Some outlets reported that the famous elk had birthed a calf before her demise, though the Craigheads never confirmed it. 

The biologists were disappointed, but hardly devastated. The project, Frank Craighead said, “has provided us with the information needed to further reduce the weight of the collar and to improve the whole system.” 

Today GPS trackers are one of the most powerful tools in conservation’s arsenal.

Although the satellite tracking revolution took decades to truly arrive, GPS collars at last became ubiquitous in the early 2000s, revealing migratory routes with a granularity that would have astonished the Craigheads. Today GPS trackers are one of the most powerful tools in conservation’s arsenal. When you know that grizzly bears disperse between mountain ranges via a certain valley, you can slap a conservation easement on the relevant property; when you discover that mule deer and pronghorn approach interstate highways at particular points, you can ease their migrations with wildlife crossing structures

Best of all, today’s Space Animals carry a far less onerous burden than Monique schlepped through the Wyoming wilds. Modern satellite collars for large ungulates weigh closer to two pounds than to twenty-five. Some GPS transmitters for songbirds are as light as a couple of dimes. 

The Space Elk left behind a communicative legacy as well. Monique went viral not merely because she was the avatar of a quirky scheme, but because she was, well, Monique — the bearer of a memorable human name that allowed readers to identify with her travails. If she’d been Elk J-17, or even MOE, as originally intended, it’s hard to imagine she would have achieved the same celebrity. I’ve met plenty of wildlife biologists who are reluctant to name their study animals — names forge emotional bonds that, they argue, impair objectivity — but I confess to being a sucker for a well-named animal: I’ve rhapsodized about Evelyn the Anteater, eulogized Irene the Grizzly. As the primatologist Frans de Waal has argued, our problem isn’t that we anthropomorphize animals, but that we deny them the rich emotional lives and sentience they surely possess. Naming wild animals not only dramatizes their epic lives, it engenders interspecies empathy. 

There never was a Monique III, but the Space Elk’s spiritual successors live on. In 2017, scientists at the Wyoming Migration Initiative deployed a satellite collar on a female mule deer who annually trekked 140 miles from the Red Desert to the Gros Ventre. The deer’s migration, one of the longest known ungulate movements in the United States, was, in its way, a hero’s journey: She scaled cliffs, forded icy rivers, and crossed highways, her passage guided by her forebears’ game trails and her own stellar memory. Every week the Initiative posted maps on Facebook depicting the doe’s peregrinations, updates followed by thousands of adoring fans — an enthralling narrative made possible by the magic of satellite collars. “We let the animal tell the story,” Matt Kauffman, the Initiative’s co-founder, told WyoFile.

And the deer’s name? Kauffman told me they wanted a moniker that conveyed the propulsive energy of migration — its movement, its momentum, its mobility. In the end, they called her Mo.

Ben Goldfarb is a frequent High Country News contributor and the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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