This elk in northern Wisconsin sports a heavy-duty radio collar. Does it detract from the viewing experience? ©John T. Andrews

From Florida manatees equipped with small, satellite-monitored tags to elk in the Rocky Mountains fitted with large radio collars, our wildlife is becoming more wired every day. We now know more about the locations and wanderings of animal populations than at any other time in history.

That’s why it’s surprising to learn that old-time wildlife tracking—reading scats, chews and paw prints—is making a comeback. Now, even as courses in natural history are being dropped at universities across the country, tracking clubs are flourishing in more than half of the United States, books on track- and sign-identification techniques are becoming big sellers and adventure travel companies are adding wolf trips in Yellowstone National Park and grizzly bear tours in Alaska.

So today, is traditional wildlife tracking simply a low-tech way for the lay public to increase their chances of having wildlife encounters, or is it a still-essential method for professional biologists?

With VHF radio tracking, a scientist in close proximity can discern an animal’s location. ©John T. Andrews

A wired wilderness

American wildlife biologists began to incorporate Cold War-era surveillance technologies into their practices during the second half of the 20th century. VHF (very high frequency) radio tracking began in the late 1950s, where an animal would be captured, sedated and then fitted with a collar or tag that contained a radio transmitter. Once placed on the animal, the device would transmit a signal to a radio antenna and receiver. Scientists who were in close proximity by foot, truck or airplane could then pick up the signal. For the first time, researchers were able to determine an animal’s day-to-day movements, home range size, what type of habitat it used and what other animals were sharing its territory.

Then, in the late 1970s, satellite tracking came into use. Satellite tracking is similar to VHF radio tracking, but instead of a radio signal being sent to a radio receiver, a signal is sent to a satellite. Scientists no longer had to be near the animal to pick up its signal; it could be tracked by computer. In the early 1990s, GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking was added to the biologist’s toolbox. With GPS technology, a radio receiver (not a transmitter) is placed on the animal. The receiver has a computer that calculates location and movement. Depending on the GPS collar’s weight, it can store data and then drop off the animal to allow retrieval, transmit the data to another set of satellites that relay it to researchers or send the data on a programmed schedule (e.g., daily) to biologists who must be in the field to receive it.

Since the 1950s, then, radio tracking has provided scores of ecological insights, from movements of cheetah and other wildlife in Namibia to the pintail duck migration from California to Alaska. It’s hoped that by analyzing all this data, scientists can learn new ways to manage animal populations, determine what impact development might have on a particular species and predict its chance of surviving in the future. In fact, today, many conservation biology students devote themselves almost exclusively to studying statistical modeling and DNA analysis.

Prints in the snow can tell the story of a day in the life of an elusive animal. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

The wild, unplugged

But wildlife radio tracking has created concerns as well as capabilities; it has provided opportunities for connection as well as for control. It’s been reported, for instance, that shock collars have been tested on wolves. When the wolves tried to roam beyond a fence of sensors controlled by a satellite, they were shocked. And as wolf management grows ever more controversial, biologists have also experimented with collars that contain tranquilizers, which can be activated remotely.

In some national parks, hundreds of animals have been, or are being, studied by radio tracking. Consequently, many visitors are finding that it’s hard to spot any animal in the wild without a collar, diminishing their viewing experience. In some cases, collars turn out to be more than just metaphors for the forfeiture of freedom and wildness—they can also mean a loss of life. In one study, howler monkeys that were originally equipped with telemetry packs inside leather collars tried desperately to get them off. Many that did not succeed died. The reason was that howlers groom each other to control lethal parasites, and the collars interfered with the practice, thus spelling their doom.

While researchers are aware of the limitations and dangers of telemetry, other factors—such as a seemingly insatiable appetite for new and improved gadgetry—often take precedence. Advances in aerospace, medical and military technologies are destined to propel wildlife research techniques to ever-greater levels of sophistication.

Surveillance technology doesn’t evoke a feeling of mystery about that “other world.” ©Eric Rock

That’s why some, mostly those in the public sector, are going retro. Old-fashioned wildlife tracking, they say, not only results in usable data but heightens awareness of sounds, smells, visual clues and surroundings. In the field, each track and sign helps reconstruct a day in the life of an elusive animal. A hillside of what initially looks like dry, brown stones could actually be composed of porcupine dung, which means the place has probably been a den site for years. Wolf paw prints in the snow can tell the story of how an elk hunt was conducted with precision and strategic thinking on the part of the whole pack. These are things you wouldn’t see with transmitter technology.

Proponents of “unplugged” wildlife tracking say there has been a lamentable change in environmental education since the 1970s—just about the time technology tracking was being widely put in use. With today’s technology, it’s possible to do a wildlife study, yet never actually see the animal, its tracks or where it lives. You can follow an animal in real time on a computer. As a case in point, a recent paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management looked at how reliably Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists could identify the tracks of northern river otters, a species they were responsible for counting as part of a 15-year research project. The biologists misidentified 37 percent of river otter tracks and incorrectly identified the tracks of other species as otter 26 percent of the time.

The price for dealing only in technology and mathematical abstractions may be losing a basic, emotional connection to nature. Surveillance technology tends to erode a sense of wildness and a feeling of mystery around that “other world,” out there. That could not only fail to further conservation causes but hinder them.

Do you think that wildlife research today is too dependent on surveillance technology, losing its ability to connect us with nature in any meaningful and soulful way?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,