August 20, 2019

Collaring Wild Animals: Scientific Research or Playing With Technology?

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The manufacture, sale and use of radio telemetry collars for animal research is a racket and perhaps a serious waste of dollars. Depending upon the model of telemetry collar selected for each use, the cost of one such collar can run into the thousands of dollars. One must ask then if the cost of the collars is worth the return on investment? Well, that depends.

What we do know is that using tracking collars for wildlife is big business and a very popular thing to do. The tax payers like it because of their perverse love, adoration and all out worship of any kind of animal…well, until such animals become a real threat to them. The average tax payer doesn’t know how the collar is used and seldom is any “scientific research” information/data shared with the public. When it is, a trained eye recognizes very little scientific process and whole lot of speculation and theory swapping.

When it is a most difficult task to receive information from state fish and wildlife agencies about their “ongoing studies,” some of us are left to only guess what it is they are using collars on animals for and what actual data is being collected. So, let’s take a look at what is, might and could be done with a tracking collar.

What got me thinking about this popular event of tracking animals with radio telemetry, was an exchange of emails among a handful of wildlife scientists about this very subject. The foundation of discussion was centered around an article written about a collared wolf in British Columbia, Canada that was tracked along a route covering over 300 miles (not unusual). The journey for the wolf came to an end when it was legally shot and killed by a hunter. Of course this prompted outrage from the above described group of perverse, adoring wolf worshipers. But that’s not the topic of this immediate discussion.

In the email exchange, questions arose about what, if any, data and information was being collected on this wolf other than to know where the male wolf was at any point in time when a “data point” was sent (telemetry) and recorded on a computer. One scientist commented: “Reading the story makes me suspect that the wolves are collared and then left alone, while “researchers” are watching wiggly lines on the computer screen – and start guessing what is going on.”

Which brings us back to one of my original comments that because of the stinginess of researchers to share information, minus their speculations, the rest of us are left to guess (our own speculation) as to just what it is they are doing or not doing.

It seems about the only place we can get any information about studies is through the “Echo Chambers” of the Press. The vast majority of news media personnel are nothing more than “copy and paste” writers who wouldn’t understand what a true scientific process was if it was spelled out for them. As such, what is reverberated in the echo chambers is the Environmentalist’s nonsense, most often including speculation and theorizing about each collared animal based on placing human values on the animals – i.e. a guess as to what animals might be thinking, doing, etc. based more than likely on human projection of human values.

The State of Maine claims to be in the middle of a moose study. I have written extensively on this project and moose management in general. You can search this website, mostly under the Maine Hunting column.

What has been doled out to the public, which we have no idea if this is an actual reflection of the study, is that biologists placed collars on a hundred or so calf moose and some cows. It has been passed on that the purpose of the “study” is to find out the effects of winter ticks (moose ticks –¬†Dermacentor albipictus) on moose mortality. All that we have been told is that when one of the collars stops moving, the collar sends a signal notifying researchers of the non movement. Somebody will go find the stationary collar (as quickly as possible – wink, wink) and attempt to determine what killed the moose.

This is one function that we are allowed to know about, evidently. But what kind of science is this? Or is it any kind of scientific research that will provide data and observation in order to find out more useful information in order to create better management plans? Who knows. It would seem that if any fish and game department was going to go through the expense and time to trap and collar moose, a full spectrum of scientific observation, collection of data, and analysis would be implemented into the effort. Is it? Who knows.

If the only thing these researchers are doing is sitting in front of a computer screen, in their comfortable offices, “watching wiggly lines” so somebody can go to the site where they think a moose died in hopes of determining cause of death, what is the real value of placing the collars on the moose?

It appears the collars work pretty good for “tracking.” Watching wiggly lines on a computer screen can tell biologists where a moose has gone over any prescribed length of time. They receive a signal when a collar becomes motionless for a period of time. Suggesting the collared animal might be dead, researchers journey into the woods to see what they can find…we are told.

Then what?

How well trained are the biologists in determining cause of death? So, they get to the scene and see a dead moose. It’s covered with winter ticks. The moose looks emaciated and missing hair/fur. No cuts, scratches, etc. are noticed on the moose and is it assumed that the moose died from the effects of the winter ticks? Other than tracking this moose on a computer screen, did researchers enter the woods on a regular basis in order to know, not speculate, what this dead moose had been up to over the weeks and months prior to it’s death? Where was the moose when it died, and in relation to where it normally “hung out?” How is this fact relevant to making a determination of its cause of death? Did the moose actually die of exhaustion, due to a combination of a low blood supply from the ticks, poor nutrition (it is winter you know) and being harassed by predators, including harassment by humans – both scientists and the general public? If it appears the moose was partially eaten, are the biologists adequately¬†trained in making determinations of the kill tactics of predator suspects? How many of such kills has each scientist seen and been a part of? Are they trained to know when the dead animal became a meal for scavengers or when it became a meal by the kill of a predator?

What other data is collected on this moose? Is a full necropsy (animal autopsy) done, along with checking for all diseases and health issues? Moose calves are probably too young to have contracted what Maine biologists like to call “lung worm,” also known as Hydatid cysts caused by the existence of Echinococcus granulosus parasites carried and spread by wild canines (coyotes, foxes, raccoons). It has been shown that this disease exists in moose in the state of Maine. An infected moose, having cysts in the lungs, heart or liver, can seriously hamper a moose’s ability to escape danger from predators. Is this aspect of a moose’s death even considered, or is it just passed off as death by winter ticks? It is important to know the differences if ever there was hope to do anything about the problem.

Tracking a moose, or any other animal, with a radio telemetry collar can tell biologists where a moose is at pretty much any given point in time. One could argue that is science, but if you call that science it isn’t very good science.

Another scientist in our email discussion referred to this action this way: “…just data points that merely define where they [collared animals] are at a given time. What they are doing, which really matters, is left to interpretation, [and] conjecture. Until an effort is made to “follow” as closely as possible the movements of radio-collared animals, we can expect more “Research Lite.”

It is not a simple task to net a moose and snap a collar around it’s neck, wait to see if it’s going to die and then go find it to see if you can tell what killed it. However, is that effort alone worth the time and expense? Before this “study” began, I really don’t think it took a highly educated wildlife biologist to figure out winter ticks were knocking the hell out of the state’s moose herd.

What other information is being gathered and will any of the rest of us get to see it and not be relegated to the end of the line waiting for another copy and paste edition of our favorite echo chamber? I’m guessing the latter.

Who knows!

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