Wildlife tracking has been around for centuries, but most of the time it had little to do with research.
More than 500 years ago, falconers in Europe were known to place leg bands on their birds as a sign of ownership; it wasn’t a big leap to go from banding to define ownership to banding for research.
In North America, John Audubon’s desire to understand the behavior of birds would alter the course of wildlife research forever. He banded a few phoebes near Philadelphia in the early 19th century, making the birds easily identifiable when they returned to the same nesting site the next year. Advances in technology broadened the possibilities, and by the 1960s, very high frequency tracking devices allowed researchers to delve deeper in their studies of wildlife behavior.
These devices require a user to acquire transmissions from a device attached to an animal using an antenna, either carried in hand or attached to a vehicle or aircraft. The technology is similar to GPS, but GPS devices — sometimes more cost-prohibitive — are capable of providing precise information that is either stored on a collar and collected when the collar drops off an animal or is transmitted to a satellite that sends the data via email.
“Not only does the information collected help biologists locate and track wildlife, but the data gathered can also provide wildlife officials with information about migratory routes, the types of habitats a particular species likes and causes of mortality,” said Bill Taylor, northwest regional wildlife biologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
Telemetry makes it possible to document survival, migration patterns, timing and locations of birth, food habits and seasonal landscape use. Some states have used the technology to study migration routes across roadways.
“There are transmitters used for birds, mammals, fish, insects and arachnids,” said Nicole Quintana, big game program manager for Game and Fish. “The type and size of a transmitter will vary depending on the species and the reason for its use.”
Collars have been vital in developing an understanding of pronghorn antelope behavior, which has led to fence modification projects because pronghorn prefer to go under, rather than over, fences.
Gould’s turkeys were fitted with backpack radio transmitters to gather information on survival rates and dispersal. Necklace-style radio transmitters were fitted to white-tailed ptarmigans in the Pecos Wilderness to gather information on seasonal habitat use. The work isn’t easy and at times can put those in the field in harm’s way.
“Wildlife doesn’t know you’re trying to help, so sometimes they’re going to fight,” Quintana said.
If you happen across a collar while hiking or harvest an animal with a collar, it is important to return it to the Game and Fish Department. These collars are not only expensive tools that get reused from year to year, but the location information on where it was found or where the animal was harvested is critical for biologists.