Animals as Observers

There is a nice Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by science writer Emily Anthes on the use of remote tags to track animals and their behaviors.   Built around the story of 832F, a radio collared female wolf who had the audacity to step outside the boundaries of Yellowstone’s wolf conservation area and into the crosshairs of a hunting rifle, the piece shows how valuable remote animal tracking has been for science, conservation, and for energizing and educating the public about the challenges of being a wild animal in the world today.

I didn’t initially love the idea of collaring animals to track their behavior, thinking it took the wild out of them.  I remember a government consultant in the early days of Yucca Mountain boasting to a group of my fellow conservation minded students at Stanford in Washington how every desert tortoise on the facility had a collar and could be tracked so they wouldn’t get run over.  I thought of the absurdity of these tortoises lugging collars around, getting dodged by GIs driving Jeeps equipped with tortoise detector radar screens, and it made me think they had all missed the point underlying objections to a huge nuclear waste facility in the desert.

But that same year, while working with wilderness ranger Joe Flood in Montana, I heard a talk by a bear biologist who had been tracking Montana’s grizzlies with radio collars.  Using the relatively new observational tool of GIS, he overlaid bear movement patterns on top of a map of dirt and paved roads in the area. The conclusion was stark and unmistakable–bears avoided roads like the plague.  The implications were huge at a time when “roadless areas” were the hot topic of debate about land use, and likewise, my own conversion toward seeing the net value of tagging and tracking wild things was immediate and lasting.

I’m still an advocate of wild places and wild creatures, but I’m not so technophobic or idealistic to be blind to benefits of people knowing a bit more about how and where these wild things live.



About Rafe

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. In both his science and policy work, Sagarin connects basic observations of nature to issues of broad societal interest, including conservation biology, protecting public trust resources, and making responses to terrorism and other security threats more adaptable. Dr. Sagarin is a recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and has recently published two books, Learning from the Octopus (Basic Books, March 2012) and Observation and Ecology (Island Press, July 2012), which show how nature observation--when extended across large scales and enhanced with both new technologies and greater deference to traditional knowledge sources—is revealing profound new insights about our dynamic social and ecological world. He was a Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative (and later U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. He has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles and University of Arizona. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Conservation Biology, Ecological Monographs, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Foreign Policy, Homeland Security Affairs and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the editor, with Terence Taylor of the volume Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (2008, University of California Press).
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