“Smart collars”: Taking the wild out of wildlife–and putting it on Facebook?

Idaho National Lab photo

Kathleen Stachowski
Other Nations

Spend enough time in Yellowstone and you’ll see an ever-increasing number of radio or GPS-collared animals. Elk, bison, wolves, and the occasional coyote are species easy to spot sporting the bulky neck gear. Research must be big business.

I once watched as wolves skirmished at Blacktail Pond. One in the group wore a collar, and this same animal sat down–repeatedly–to scratch like a fleabag at her itchy neck. Even after her pack mates bedded down for a siesta, the unrelenting torment kept her from resting; she’d jump up again and again to have another go at it.

Even though it’s likely that some research is duplicative and conducted mainly because it’s lucrative, it’s easy to understand how insight into migratory patterns, for example, or denning preferences can help the human species accommodate the needs of other animals whose survival is increasingly jeopardized by habitat loss and, now, global warming.

Take the secretive wolverine, for example. Without a research tracking device, biologists would have had no insight into the 500-mile journey of one subject (photo)–from the Tetons to Rocky Mountain National Park–revealing valuable data on what it takes to be a Gulo gulo success story in what’s left of the wild. Will research collars help humans help them to survive? We can hope. (But when will Montana finally quit sport trapping them? In a two-year study, half of the research-collared animals were killed by trappers!)

It’s no stretch to fathom how tracking a species’ every move can be used against them, however–especially predators for whom no love is lost. Need to wipe out a wolf pack for predation? Dial up the frequency! Should ranchers have access to collar frequencies? That debate has played out in New Mexico, where Mexican wolf numbers have dwindled as collared wolves have disappeared.

According to the Idaho National Laboratory, data from collared coyotes (pictured above) has the potential “…to fundamentally change the body of knowledge surrounding both lethal and non-lethal control…” of coyotes who prey on domestic sheep. Will fewer coyotes be killed if researchers can pinpoint which ones are depredating? Is this even the right question to be asking?

Currently, radio and GPS collars reveal primarily where an animal’s been, where he is, or which direction she’s headed. But now, “smart collars” will challenge the remaining mysteries of wild animal life:

The collars, in development in academia and intended for commercial production in the next few years, use a combination of global positioning technology and accelerometers for measuring an animal’s metabolic inner life in leaping, running or sleeping. From the safari parks of Africa to urbanized zones on the edge of wildlands across the American West — places where widespread interest in the devices has already been voiced, scientists said — the mysteries of the wild might never be the same.  New York Times

Researchers, using mountain lions trained to run on treadmills (picture at article), have established “data points” that indicate a lion’s every endeavor, from walking to chasing prey to sleeping. Rabbit for lunch–or deer? Each has a different “signature,” so even the cat’s menu is up for scrutiny. Wolf and coyote collars are currently in the development process.

But high-tech spying on collared critters’ lunch buckets isn’t the ultimate goal of this $800,000 project, financed by National Science Foundation grants. Aspirations are much grander than that.

What the researchers are aiming for is no less than a platform for predicting wild behavior, a human dream since the first hunter-ancestors ventured onto the African savannah.   NYTimes

Predictable wild behavior–isn’t that something of an oxymoron? How far, exactly, might this go?

“We want to get to a stage where we can say, ‘We’ve got a lion that, for whatever reason, is really hungry out there and chances are you should put your dog indoors and shouldn’t go hiking in this area’ — that there’s a higher likelihood that this animal is going to go after something,” Professor (Terrie) Williams said.   NYTimes

A state wildlife manager suggested that the “new human-wild interface” could incorporate social media, “with data from the collars posted online as it comes in.” Facebook pages for collared animals could be created, he added.

Animals-other-than-human, the largest and most exploited class of beings on Earth, are not afforded any claim to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own interests. Moreover, the man swarm is obliterating wild habitat through rapacious development and global warming. Now comes “smart collars,” and wild animals are forced to relinquish the last thing not already stolen from those who survive the onslaught–the ability to conduct the intimate, every-day details of their lives without human intrusion. Up next: a world where the heretofore mysteries of the wild are transformed into data points for human consumption. Is this the world we want?

No. No thanks, professor. You can keep your data points and signatures, your intrusive, soulless technology, your engineered safety and your human superiority. While your motivation might be the reduction of conflicts, restraint from our own species and accommodation of wild animals with the respect they deserve and the breathing room they need could accomplish the same, couldn’t it?

I’ll take my chances with the vagaries of the wild. My heart beats a little faster when I hike in grizzly country, and that’s how I like it. Returning from a run at dusk on a winter’s afternoon, I scan my surroundings more frequently for the mountain lion I imagine watching me pass by. I’ll take my chances with my fellow animals in the “splendour and travail” of Henry Beston’s vision:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

And I will not log on to Facebook, “friend” a grizzly, and check to see if he ate a hearty breakfast before I lace up my hiking boots.

For the animal shall not be measured by man.

8 Responses

  1. The lack of compassion and conscience among these scientists astounds me. They sound like sociopaths.

    I wish I could rip that itchy collar off that poor wolf. Relieving her unrelenting misery isn’t on the researcher’s radar, is it?

    More proof that they need something like this: http://www.rpaforall.org/billofanimalrights.html

  2. I have mixed feelings on the use of tracking. It can give data to illegal hunters to hunt the animals. But, it also helps catch illegal hunters and gives us otherwise-uncollectable data we need to protect the habitats of wild animals.

    I also share your concerns about unraveling too much of the mystery of wildlife. But I also can’t shake the feeling that I’m more concerned with how I want to aesthetically and emotionally enjoy wildlife than I am with the needs of animals themselves. Obviously we shouldn’t use trackers that harm animals, but keeping people away from hungry wildlife probably also means that particular animal won’t be killed after it attacks. Isn’t that a form of accommodation? Anyways, these are questions I’ve struggled with for a while and would love your feedback!

  3. This makes me weep, actually.

    And, Sarah, those are good, nuanced questions to ask. I think that if we *really* want to accommodate animals, we should act “as if” they are persons, or as the Breston quote says, “other nations”. If you were concerned about modern day impacts on a particular Amazonian tribe, for example, would you condone radio collaring them in order to study them in the hopes of accomodating their needs? (Actually, modern folks do/have done similar things to indigenous tribespeople, so I guess maybe the analogy is shakey…but you get the point). And yes, there are arguments for the tracking, as there are for most research.

    My question though is that at what point do we rein in science and technology (which are, at base, unavoidably human centric) on ethical grounds, even where that science may do *some* good? When it comes to animals, we never do. Sure it may be anthropocentric to assume that wild animals want to be left alone, but it may be a good assumption to make.

    You also touched on the anthropocentric argument for NOT tracking — your own “aesthetic and emotional” pleasure in wildlife. That’s actually not a throw away, nor is it purely about pleasure. I for one, know I go a little mad when my only reference point is humans for too long. I need to get away from FB and internet and phones and people sometimes. Someone wrote somewhere that a totally human-tinkered world would drive him “stale and mad”, and it doesn’t take much imgination to see that staleness and madness in most urban/suburban poulations. So i think there’s something important in leaving the wild alone, for US as well as for them.

  4. I heard about this. It just seems like such a pointless invasion of animals’ bodies. Yet another way humans find to exploit the animal.

  5. Kathleen, I agree with much of what you say, but also must disagree with some of it.

    I’ve lived the greater part of my years so far on or near the cusp of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, having at one time or another made residence in all three keystone states, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
    I’ve also because of professional networking, and a passionate personal interest in wildlife and ecology, spent considerable time in the company of wildlife biologists, ecologists and other professionals in the relevant fields.
    Along the way, I’ve absorbed information about numerous wildlife tracking studies, and see much good in them.

    To illustrate just one point: Perhaps the greatest threat to wildlife in the GYE is the “checkerboarding” of their habitat and disruption of their migration routes by subdivisions, trophy homes and other developments.

    I have seen first hand how knowledge of migration routes, garnered from tracking studies, has helped seal the case for easements and protection from development through the efforts of The Nature Conservancy or similar groups.

    Without that data, the case could not have been made, and the profiteers likely would have won further encroachment upon the uninterrupted corridors animals simply must have in order to move between summer and winter range.

    I cannot overstate how badly the disruption of migration corridors can damage wildlife and the ecosystem.
    And if we don’t know the path of those routes, in their entirety, we can’t effectively and adequately protect them.

    Mystery is fine, we all enjoy it. But as the pressures on wildlife become ever greater, conservationists must have the best understanding available to build the case, and secure the funding, for projects that make all the difference.

    Simply leaving things alone isn’t an option anymore. Not unless you, me and everybody else who lives in this entire region is willing to pack up and move somewhere already thoroughly urbanized and hopelessly lost to nature.

    For good, ill or otherwise, considerable human settlement surrounds the “island” of true wilderness created by the GYE. Knowledge is vital to preserving what remains.

    And as loathsome as the political side of things can be, public tolerance of potentially dangerous animals such as grizzlies is tantamount to their continued vitality here.
    Knowledge of their whereabouts can, in some circumstances, contribute greatly to that tolerance.

    Developing technology will also continue to make the implementation of data-gathering less uncomfortable and obtrusive to the animals.
    Radio collars today are likely to be replaced by tomorrow’s tracking chips.

    All that having been said, I will agree heartily on one point of general principle. There most be constant mindfulness of the line between legitimate research and unwarranted intrusion.
    I’m not fond of essentially turning wild creatures into reality show stars on Facebook.

  6. As a scientist myself; premed, microbiologist, biochemist, and naturopath for 40 years I have come to concluded that humans have used their superior intelligence for the “greater evil”. Whatever good anything suppose to do, it turns out destructive on this earth and all it inhabitants. Maybe it because mental movtive is “INSECURITY” so the end result is wanting CONTROL!!!!.


  7. What I appreciate about this blawg (in addition to the outpouring of compassion) is embodied in Sarah’s comment and Lorien’s excellent response to it. We challenge ourselves with difficult issues that have multiple implications–ethical, legal, scientific, etc. The ethical considerations are as important as the empirical–sometimes more so–and no one short-changes them. Nor are many afraid to say that we struggle, that we don’t have all the answers, that we’re finding our way. I guess it’s just my day to feel gratitude for those who, with humility and honesty and in spite of criticism, plumb the murky moral depths unilluminated by the cold hard glare (and certainty) of science and technology.

    HAL 9000, you spend multiple paragraphs expounding on the value of migration corridor research as if I had been opposed to it, yet I acknowledged its importance right there in my 3rd and 4th paragraphs. But what we are discussing here is not just tracking. I think Dr. Georgie might be onto something when he/she claims it’s about control (excuse me, CONTROL!!!!). Humans have feared and/or envied the wild ones always; and now, to predict wild behavior is to control it. How long, really, before that comfy little embedded micro chip has the ability to actually program wild animals, to direct their behavior? (Perhaps by then we’ll have genetically engineered them to our specifications.) Will humanity finally say no to *that* level of intrusion? or perhaps that’s just the next step in managing wildlife for human tolerance…

    I have to admit to chuckling over the name HAL 9000–a technologically advanced artificial intelligence so thoroughly sure of what it knew yet which, in the end, destroys and is destroyed.

  8. Kathleen,
    I’m glad we’re on the same page regarding migration corridors. It simply cannot be stressed enough; without diligent preservation of those corridors and winter range, virtually any conservation efforts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are in vain.
    Still, I’m dubious about your concerns over wildlife research leading toward some sort of Orwellian nightmare scenario.
    I don’t of any person or party – even among the most politically conservative elements – who would ever suffer the thought of the GYE’s wildlife being manipulated via microchip. And I know key players in all three states, at every level and from across the spectrum of viewpoints and interests.
    The over-arching principle that wildlife should be left wild is ubiquitous.
    Where the disagreements are taking place is over the details. Over such things, for instance, as where and if energy development should take place, or to where and how far Bison should be allowed to wander beyond the borders of Yellowstone.
    To take a more philosophical approach, there’s nothing wrong, or unnatural, about any creature, the human being included, trying to control or alter its environment to best suit its needs, or to defend its territory. It’s a driver of biological evolution, woven indelibly into the fabric of every ecosystem.
    You talk about “control” as if it were an inherently bad thing. In fact, every living thing does it.
    It’s not a question of principle, but rather of degree.
    It’s axiomatic that helplessness is not a virtue in the natural world.
    When it’s a matter of defending one’s person or personal space, clarity is a given.
    Where the question becomes complex is when the focus switches over to the establishment and protection of human turf, especially in the collective sense.
    Unless I’m mistaken, and forgive me if I am, you live in the Missoula area.
    I’m quite familiar with the place, having finished my studies and received my degree at the University of Montana. Of all the places I’ve lived, it was perhaps my favorite – culturally, sociologically and, of course, in terms of the surrounding country and boundless opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.
    That area has experienced mind-boggling growth in just the relatively short time since I lived there. When I go back, areas where friends and I would enjoy hikes or mountain bike excursions without another soul around have been over-run with subdivisions and trophy homes.
    Having known what many of those places used to be, it is, on a personal and visceral level, heartbreaking.
    So, with that case in point providing illustration of the larger issue, exactly how do we draw the lines of our “turf?”
    Besides the application of zoning laws, how do we encourage people to live in “people territory,” rather than checkerboarding the countryside, thereby eating up both pastoral agricultural land and wildlife habitat?
    In the GYE, it’s an increasingly complex and pressing situation.
    We, as humans, possess an awesome power, an ability to alter our environment in a manner no other creature can.
    In and of itself, that’s neither good or bad. It simply is.
    It is in what we decide to do with it that power that the complex questions begin to manifest.
    At what point do we cross the line from reasonable control of our own environment to best suit our needs, and enter the realm of potentially destructive meddling?
    Tracking the general location of a particular grizzly to determine his proximity to a ranch, campground or subdivision – in order to head off potential trouble – is a good thing. But do we really need to know where he is every second of every day, just to assuage a baseless dread some people might have regarding his presence?
    On one hand, it’s a fine thing to experience and enjoy the wild on a level where one’s sweat hits the dust – where you can trade glances across a sage steppe with a coyote, or the elk are near enough smell through the darkened timber.
    I assert, and I think you would agree, technology can numb us to a basic purity and appreciation of being. It can cause us the labor under the illusion that we can, or should, manipulate things better left alone.
    Wild things should not suffer it any more than what is reasonably necessary.
    And therein lies the crux of the debate. How much is too much?
    On the other hand, it’s rather silly for any of us to too strongly berate technology or civilization while we sit in front of computers in climate-controlled rooms.
    Wild animals are what they are, and experience a purity of being simply by virtue of drawing breath and in their daily struggle to continue doing so.
    Our existence is rife with paradox and contradiction, on both the individual and collective level.
    And yes, “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of my favorite films of all time.
    In addition to the cautionary tale regarding the treacherous double edge of technology, it explores numerous subtle, profound and richly layered themes. Truly the finest work of one of the greatest directors ever, at least in my opinion – though I can hardly claim to be a qualified film critic.

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