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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.