A Case for Collars

As a wildlife photographer I have a real love/hate relationship with radio telemetry collars.

All photographers live in a world of aesthetics, and most wildlife photographers try capture natural animal behavior in natural settings with as little apparent human influence as possible. Even something as ephemeral as a jet’s vapor trail in the sky can destroy a wild image. The permanence of collars (and ear tags, too) placed by human hands on wild animals is impossible to ignore.

Given that we have altered virtually every square foot of the earth, it may be that true wilderness is an illusion, but it is an illusion some of us strive for. Try as we might, however, nothing takes the “wild” out of the wilderness quicker than a man-made object physically attached to an animal – especially an animal as quintessentially “wild” as a gray wolf.

Telemetry collars are becoming truly common in places like our national parks. Right now, nearly half the wolves in the northern range of Yellowstone National Park are wearing either radio or GPS collars. Wolves aren’t the only Yellowstone animals collared either; bears, bison, elk, sheep, deer, antelope, and virtually every other critter big enough to wear a collar has been fitted with telemetry at one time or another.

Dr. Doug Smith, lead biologist of Yellowstone’s wolf project says that the long-term goal is to have at least 25%, or no fewer than two members of each recognized Yellowstone wolf pack wearing the collars. But packs come together and disband with amazing regularity. Individual wolves leave the greater Yellowstone area completely, and of course, wolves die. The fact is, because of this constant state of flux,  it’s almost impossible to maintain that 25% collaring ratio, so Smith and his fellow biologists collar as many wolves as they can afford to (with much of the funding coming from private donations.) And this annoys a lot of people.

For my part, I think are few truly valid reasons not to collar wolves in Yellowstone. But there is also one really good one, and in the interest of open discussion, some points are worth exploring:

From a digital photographer’s perspective, things like radio collars and ear tags can, of course, be removed in photographic post-processing. But the photojournalist in me cringes at the thought of cloning out things I don’t want to see. Simply put, in editorial photography cloning is unethical and strictly forbidden, and it’s time consuming and imperfect for fine art prints — so I prefer to avoid the clone brush.

But lord those collars are ugly. They make a magnificent wild wolf look like the neighbor’s Shepherd/Husky mix.

February 4, 2012–Yellowstone Wolf Project leader, Dr. Doug Smith, prepares to sedate a wolf for radio collaring using a tranquilizer gun, in Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: National Park Service/Yellowstone

There is also the question of just how traumatized animals are as they are being collared and/or tagged. Certainly, it can’t be a pleasant experience for the animal. And I have personally seen evidence of animals (bears, primarily) trying to remove the collars on their own.

But since a typical wild predator’s life consists of innumerable traumatic events, many of which are incredibly brutal and daunting, the collaring procedure is probably little more than one bad morning in the short term, and hopefully only a slight distraction in the long run.

And we know that plenty of domestic animals, especially canines, wear tracking and electronic collars with no apparent discomfort, so why should it be overwhelmingly annoying for the much tougher wild wolf?

It’s worth noting, too, that biologists are continually trying to improve the process to minimize the affect collaring has on the animals. New sedation drugs, new capture methods, and new collar designs are continually tried and tested.

And I will add that every wildlife biologist I know cares deeply about the animals they choose to study. The thought of harming a study animal is just as distressing to them as it is to those who oppose collaring.

Those against telemetry collars will also suggest that hunters use those same telemetry signals to track wolves to kill. This theory has been floating around for a couple years now, but I have yet to hear of even one definitive case where hunters used telemetry to locate a specific animal to kill. There are lots of rumors tossed around, of course, but no hard evidence. Until something concrete comes to light, further comment is not only pointless, it’s counterproductive.

So, what is the one valid reason to stop collaring Yellowstone’s wolves? Well, this is the only good one I can think of:

Strictly speaking, the collaring of Yellowstone’s wildlife goes against the guiding study which makes Yellowstone the wildlife watching Mecca it is today. That study, known as the Leopold Report occurred in 1963.

Recognizing that park usage would continue to change throughout the ensuing decades, a committee led by Starker Leopold (son of the famous naturalist, Aldo Leopold) concluded that one of the goals of the park service should be to minimize any visible sign of human activity in the park. According to the report, “observable artificiality in any form must be minimized and obscured in every possible way.”

For the most part, Yellowstone has been managed by the Leopold principles since the report was published, but telemetry collars certainly fly in the face of the “observable artificiality” recommendation.

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So, those are some of the “cons.” Here are the “pros.”

It’s important to understand just how valuable these collars, and the data they provide, are to the biologists who are tasked with studying and preserving these species.

A Gray wolf (870F) wearing a telemetry collar climbs a snowy hill in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S., January 19, 2015

What we know about 870F (above) we know in large part because of that ugly collar around her neck.

Formerly of the Junction Butte pack, she now lives mostly on her own having recently lost her status in the pack. She was born in the spring of 2008 and was the Alpha female of the Junctions for several years until a series of injuries and clashes with other wolf packs saw her lose that dominant position. We know where she has denned and we know how many pups she has raised. We know some of the diseases that have plagued her and her pack mates. We know the territory she favors and how she interacts with the members of her former pack since losing her Alpha status.  And when the time comes, we will learn where, and likely how, she dies — all because of the collar.

Telemetry collars allow biologists to determine mortality causes for wolves, and they help determine which prey animals wolves target. They allow scientists to determine pack territories and to determine the dispersal patterns of lone wolves. Without telemetry the now-famous wolf OR-7 and its extensive travels through Oregon and California, would still be a mystery.

Even the wolf spotted near the Grand Canyon last November was wearing a telemetry collar. Not much was known about the animal initially because the collar was non-functional, but when the wolf was later mistakenly shot in Utah, and the collar recovered, it was learned that this was an animal originally added to the database in January 2014, near Cody, Wyoming, proving once again that lone wolves are amazing travelers.

For anyone who has spent time following the wolf story inside Yellowstone, it quickly becomes apparent that the ever-changing pack dynamics would be virtually impossible to understand, or record for future analysis, without telemetry.

As mentioned earlier, it’s not just about wolves. Telemetry collars provide opportunity for scientists around the world. Polar bear biologists, elephant biologists, big cat biologists, wolverine biologists, and so on, all use telemetry to better understand the animals they are trying to help. In many of those cases, telemetry is the only practical way to gather data.

Take the case of Black-footed ferrets… Once considered extinct, these native ferrets live out the majority of their lives underground, and when they do appear on the surface it is almost always at night. One of the few studies which have been done on the mortality of these highly endangered animals was only possible because of telemetry. There is simply no other way to find them without the collars.

In the end, radio telemetry is a staple of the science of wildlife and if you can think of a better way to track animals in real-time, I know lots of people who would love to hear about it.

Yellowstone Wolf Project technician, Rick McIntyre uses a radio telemetry antenna to locate a wolf in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

The Wolf Project technicians you see in Yellowstone watching the northern packs through spotting scopes and taking meticulous notes, often only know where to begin looking for wolves because of those collars.

If you can’t locate the animals, it’s much more difficult to study them. If you can’t study the animals, you also can’t educate the park visitors who have come to learn about them. If you can’t teach the public about the animals, you can’t build any good will toward them.

Yellowstone is a unique place for educating the public about a great many things, wolves being one of them. People who would never have the opportunity to see a wild wolf anywhere else, can see them there with some consistency. But only because of those collars.

Most recently, I’ve heard many people — people from both sides of the wolf issue — state that there is no good reason to collar wolves anymore because we know what we need to know about them. They view the collars as a boondoggle, allowing scientists to justify their own existence. That is the most galling argument to me personally.

The first point that needs to be made is that the Greater Yellowstone wolves have only been studied since their return to the ecosystem 20 years ago. 20 years is nothing more than a blip in time when it comes to wildlife studies. The Isle Royale Wolf/Moose study is in its 57th year and has just begun to scratch the surface of wolf biology in this Great Lakes ecosystem. Scientists make new discoveries every year about wolves on the island, and the predator/prey population dynamics are just now being understood there.

Who knows what remains to be learned from Isle Royal’s wolves, and who knows what remains to be learned from Yellowstone’s wolves?

And that’s the point. I don’t believe we can ever know enough about wolves — or about the rest of the universe. Quite simply, we don’t know what we don’t know. Science is a perpetual journey.

So, as much as I hate how the collars, (and ear tags, and dye marks, and a variety of other wildlife management tools) look, and what they occasionally do to the individual animals, I also understand the necessity of continuing research, whether it’s wolves or any other species.

Alpha female 471F of the Agate Creek Pack wearing a telemetry collar, January 24, 2012

Like anything else, they can be over-used and I’m not sure how many wolves in each pack need to be collared. But wolf researchers are caught between a rock and a hard place; too many collars and visitors to the park miss the “wilderness experience” they came looking for, and the photographers, like me, are up in arms. Too few collars and it’s easy to lose track of a pack as individual animals disperse or die. Continuity is a key factor in research.

I should also point out that scientists like Dr. Smith are well aware that these collars are unpopular with photographers and park visitors. Smith says he has regularly passed on collaring certain individual wolves entirely because they are “crowd favorites.”

In the end I may complain about the collars, but I’ll complain quietly.  I will be glad that there are people out there who have devoted their professional lives to the science of wildlife — so I have wild things to photograph.

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5 thoughts on “A Case for Collars

    1. In a perfect world, one would be enough, Daryl. But the situation with 870F sums up the problem with that. If she was the only member of the Junction Buttes with a collar, now that she has been booted from the pack the wolf project could easily lose track of the core pack for an extended period. If you were a researcher, you wouldn’t want that to happen, especially during the breeding season. It’s a sticky situation. But, having nearly half of those northern range wolves collared is pretty excessive, IMO.

  1. I hate the collars on wild animals enough study is enough how many study’s do you need they go here they go there that’s it they eat that food they eat this food. Resarch is good but its research that you use to track these animals these collars if you can’t find them then tough that’s the natural way

  2. Well written! You have such a great perspective on this. And, as a biologist, I especially appreciate that you pointed out that we’re all on the same team–we love the animals too and don’t want to see harm done to them–people often forget this!

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