Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Radio collars help scientists gather data, but some say they harm animals.

I've always wondered about this questionable practice. Good to see some talking about it.

http://www.latimes.com/features/outdoors/
la-os-collars5jul05,1,1601959.story

WILDLIFE

Distress signals

Radio collars help scientists gather data, but some say they harm animals.

By Ann Japenga
Special to The Times

July 5, 2005

Wildlife biologists snap radio collars on ground squirrels, strap
transmitters on bats and stick electronic devices on just about anything
that moves.

Yet now some scientists are asking: Just because we can, should we?

Radio telemetry
in which researchers use transmitters to track animals
has surged in popularity since brothers Frank and John Craighead
pioneered the collaring of grizzly bears in Yellowstone in the 1960s. In
some instances, animals wear the devices long after the research
concludes. Yet scientists have put more effort into advancing the
technologies than weighing the ethics of the practice.

"The problem I see is people just throw a bunch of collars on animals
before they think deeply about the questions they're asking," says Rick
Hopkins, a cougar researcher and co-owner of Live Oak Associates, an
ecological consulting firm in San Jose.

While the devices have aided science, their use can harm creatures. Wild
animals respond to stress with "capture myopathy," a potentially
life-threatening condition characterized by damage to muscle tissue.
"Anytime you handle an animal or chemically restrict an animal you run the
risk of mortality. If you collar enough animals, you have to assume some
mortality," Hopkins says.

Sometimes the devices can alter animal behavior, skewing scientific
findings. University of Colorado biologist Marc Bekoff says a diminutive
penguin species found in New Zealand and southern Australia have
difficulty diving for food when fitted with small tracking devices. He
says the equipment can alter nesting behavior, social interactions, mating
and predation in other species.

"It can really change their behavior and other animals' response to them,"
Bekoff says. "Even if you don't give a hoot about ethics, that means the
data you're collecting is tainted."

In a search for less intrusive methods, some scientists have begun to
experiment with techniques that do not require tranquilizer darts, radio
collars, helicopters, surgical implants or handling wildlife.

"Noninvasive approaches are the wave of the future," says University of
Vermont wildlife biologist Robert Long. With his wife and fellow
researcher Paula MacKay, Long is compiling a manual of noninvasive
alternatives. They include remote cameras; hair snares, a Velcro-like
material that snags a fur sample for DNA testing; and scent stations that
collect tracks as animals sniff out bait.

Domestic animals help humans study wild animals too. Long says dogs locate
scat, desert tortoises, snakes and wolves killed by poachers.

Long, like Hopkins and many other biologists, believes radio collars are
still useful. For example, researchers can locate an animal quickly after
it has died or given birth; the collars give off a signal when a creature
stops moving for a prolonged period.

"Noninvasive techniques have come a long way," Long says, "but there are
still some things you can get from collaring [that] you can't get from
anything else."

Meanwhile, a more nuanced ethical and aesthetic debate is underway: Is a
wild animal still wild if it's wearing a glorified dog collar?

In Yellowstone, where biologists with the Yellowstone Wolf Project
reintroduce wolves to the park, some visitors object to seeing animals
adorned with plastic collars. Due to protests, project leader Doug Smith
collars only about one-third of the population, though he is permitted to
track half the park's wolves.

"I'm trying to balance an intense need for information with a public that
comes here to experience pristine nature," Smith says. "The information we
need is pressing, and the radio collars are the best way to get it."

Although researchers say telemetry can yield valuable results, no one has
reviewed the practice to see if wild animals are better off now, overall,
than they were before the Craighead brothers figured out how to lasso a
grizzly.

"You can get these huge data dumps from
collars, but what does any of it mean?" Hopkins asks.

"There's no central agency, warehouse or website where researchers can see
what sort of research has been conducted," adds Camilla Fox, director of
wildlife programs for the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento.
Absent that, she says, some telemetry studies may be needlessly repeated.

In addition, no standard guidelines exist for radio-collaring animals, Fox
says. University researchers review individual studies, and when an
endangered species is involved they consult with the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, but practices vary considerably from study to study.

Despite those concerns, Smith concludes after 26 years of wolf watching
that collars do not significantly affect wild animals struggling with
greater threats to their survival. Says Smith: "It's the most minor
minutiae in their life."

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