For sage grouse, science can be fatal

Is the value of data worth the death of individual animals?


Sage grouse outfitted with GPS tracking units had about a 40% reduction in survival compared to those wearing VHF tags. Though the GPS units are more precise, researchers are now looking at their potentially negative effects on birds.

Millions of sage grouse once roamed the arid, open sagebrush landscapes of the West. But with overgrazing, oil and gas development, wildfires and other threats, their numbers have collapsed. By the early 2000s, less than 10% of the original population — only about 500,000 birds — remained. In response, the federal government worked with ranchers, states and nonprofits to finalize sage grouse recovery plans in 2015. But the Trump administration has since overhauled those plans, stripping sage grouse habitats of key protections.

Amid this management chaos and with the bird’s existence at risk, scientists are dedicated to tracking sage grouse to understand their movements and develop stronger conservation policies. Now, new research suggests that one of the tools scientists rely on to track them causes more fatalities than the alternative.

As scientists seek out information on animals’ location, movement and behavior to better manage wildlife, they must balance the need to acquire that data with the harm it may cause.“No animal is better off because we tag them,” said Steven Cooke, a professor of fish ecology and conservation physiology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. “The question is whether the value of the information that one gets outweighs the impact on one individual.” And evaluating that balance requires both stringent ethics standards and a clear-eyed look at the potentially lethal effects of tracking animals.

Wildlife biologists have been tracing animal movements for centuries, but a new kind of tag transformed the practice in the 1960s. Tiny radio transmitters called “very high frequency,” or VHF, tags allowed scientists to pinpoint an animal’s location, a huge improvement over metal bands with unique identification numbers. But to track a VHF tag, scientists need to be on the ground with a receiver close enough to the device to pick up its signal, which can be difficult or even impossible if, for example, the animal is in a tight canyon. In the 1990s, GPS devices —which allow researchers to track the exact locations of even the most elusive animals using satellites —were developed, once again revolutionizing wildlife research. GPS has opened new doors for scientists, letting them uncover the perilous journey of Wyoming’s pronghorn, for example, and a mule deer with the longest-documented land migration in the Lower 48.

But a recent study shows the downside of this technology for sage grouse. GPS are crucial for locating the birds, which primarily are tracked at night and are difficult to find using VHF technology. Researchers wanted to know the impacts of the two types of trackers, which differ physically: A VHF tag sits around a bird’s neck, while a GPS rests like a backpack on a bird’s rump. Peter Coates, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and his team tracked sage grouse at 14 sites in Nevada and California over five years with both GPS and VHF tags. They found that sage grouse wearing GPS devices had around a 40% reduction in survival compared to those with VHF tags.

In Bodie Hills, California, U.S. Geological Survey technicians taking the measurements of a sage grouse wearing a VHF tracker.

While wildlife research is important, science has a long history of viewing animals as objects, said Max Elder, a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, a nonprofit think tank based in England. Using trackers to get real-time data might speak more to scientists’ hubris and desire to manipulate the environment than a need to develop conservation practices, he said. When it comes to balancing the importance of data with individual animal deaths, “Who says that we are the ones to decide those things?”

For scientists, there are standards and strategies in place to help guide these decisions, said Leslie Schreiber, a wildlife biologist who leads the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s sage grouse program. Animal studies typically receive an extensive review by a research organization’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, an oversight board designed to make sure researchers minimize creatures’ pain and distress. And studies like Coates’ can drive change; in response to his findings, Schreiber’s program is collecting more data to better understand the impact of GPS devices on sage grouse.

Wildlife tracking is essential in understanding how populations fluctuate and developing new conservation strategies, Coates said. It’s also important to evaluate the negative impacts of tags, and seek to minimize them. For example, his research team is now investigating whether getting rid of the reflective solar panel on the GPS unit they used, which may attract predators, will help sage grouse survive their stints as research subjects. The goal, he said, is “not to dismiss GPS; it’s to improve it.”

Technology is evolving quickly, and there are already smaller and lighter GPS devices on the market. But, even with the best tracking technology, it’s impossible for humans to observe wildlife without impact, said David Stoner, an ecology professor at Utah State University. “We are influencing the behavior of that system simply by virtue of looking at it,” he said.

Helen Santoro is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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