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.