Collared, Banded and Tagged: Are We Overtracking Wildlife?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | October 26th, 2010 | 8 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Ever since they were reintroduced to Wisconsin in 1995, I’ve wanted to see an elk in my home state. Last month, my dream was realized when I spotted three of them during a trip to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. One evening, while driving slowly up and down the forest roads at dusk, my husband and I saw three elk crossing the pavement ahead of us.

We pulled off to the side, and using our car as a blind, we watched as a bull, a cow and a calf stood in a small opening in a stand of trees and munched.Since hunting them is not allowed here yet, Wisconsin’s elk are not spooked much by automobiles and humans. So this little family group was content to let us peek in at their world for a while.

The experience was worth the 15-year wait. Anyone who has ever seen the wolves of Yellowstone National Park knows the sound of that little voice inside when you finally gaze upon a long-gone species back in its homeland again. It whispers, Yes, this is now put back right. We have undone a wrong; restored a bit of nature we once lost.

But when I got home and looked at the photos we took of the elk, that small voice was quieted. For there, around the bull’s neck, was a clear view of a radio collar.

Collaring, collecting and categorizing

Monarch butterfly

Are we sure a tag on a monarch butterfly’s wing doesn’t affect its flight? ©John T. Andrews.

According to the Predator Conservation Trust, a charity in the United Kingdom, radio telemetry is defined as “a tool used to research wild animal species in the field in order to gain a thorough understanding of that population and its dynamics as well as to identify any potential threats to its survival. This information can then be used to formulate management plans for the long-term conservation of that species.”

I understand the need to keep a vigilant watch over endangered species, especially ones that have been reintroduced to home ranges after a long absence. When a particular population is precarious and so few individuals are released into the wild (such as the original 25 elk released in Wisconsin in 1995), it’s important to know where they’re thriving and where and why they’re not. And in areas of thick vegetation or where the animals are only active at night, relying on visual observations alone won’t work. Too, there’s the risk that close proximity of humans could adversely affect an animal’s behavior, such as when it interferes with a carnivore’s hunting success.

I also know that techniques such as banding have greatly contributed to keeping birds, such as the federally endangered whooping crane, from going extinct. Without banding, a new migration route for whoopers might never have been successfully developed, making the establishment of a second migrating flock in the United States impossible.

Losing a wild moment

Yet there’s something about that exact moment when you discover that the animal you finally have a chance to see in its natural habitat is wearing a collar, band or tag. It lessens the thrill of the “hunt” just a bit. You realize that you’re not the first to get this close to that particular animal because it already sports a physical sign that says, “I was once handled by humans.” Something of its wild quality is undeniably lost. It’s almost as if the sighting doesn’t qualify as a wildlife encounter at all; almost like seeing an animal in a zoo.

Trumpeter swans

Around a trumpeter swan’s long, thin neck is a band. ©John T. Andrews.

While tools such as radio collaring, banding and tagging may lessen human intrusions into an animal’s life when research is a necessity, I think a greater trespass may be being made. I might be anthropomorphizing, but the collar on the elk looked very heavy to me. I wonder if he walked a little differently than he would have if he weren’t burdened with it. During that day, would he have traveled a little farther down the road than where he passed in front of our car, would his footsteps have been a fraction lighter on the forest floor, or would he have held his head up just an inch higher to get a sweeter leaf above, now beyond his reach?

The real question may be: How much information do we really need to know? Is it necessary to capture as many animals as we can, take samples of their blood, weigh them, measure them, and make them carry our technological devices around for the rest of their days — or even for a portion of them — just so we can learn the minute details of their lives?

In her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World, author Terry Tempest Williams writes,

“I think about the ethics of wild animals being tagged and collared, the grizzlies and wolves in Yellowstone, the harlequin ducks I saw with tags stapled to their beaks, the whooping cranes I witnessed at Gray’s Lake in Idaho years ago, burdened by radio collars dangling around their long, thin necks. Even a raven, now, in Grand Teton National Park, can be seen wearing a silver bracelet around its leg. Tens of thousands of animals in the United States of America are numbered and scanned, then monitored through biological surveillance.”

Do you think we may be tracking wildlife too much, to their detriment?

Perhaps knowing that elk bugle in the Wisconsin woods again or that wolf howls are once more carried on Yellowstone winds might be all we need to know.

Happy trails,


Feature photo: When I looked at the photo, there was a clear view of a radio collar. ©John T. Andrews.


  1. It has always bothered me how large and heavy those collars and tags are. With such great technology of tiny gps, computers, etc. why are we putting intrusive devices on animals. There has got to be a better more comfortable way for the animals.

    KM | October 27th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. I know this may sound like a joke, but I am serious: I don’t mind the tags on crows. I don’t trust them. They’re too smart.

    Travis | October 27th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. I don’t like seeing wildlife collared, banded and tagged either. However, I believe it’s a necessary evil and hopefully, it will help in a successful long term out come.

    John H Gaukel | October 27th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. I can understand banding and tracking wildlife that is endangered or recently introduced to an area…it’s important to help them get established. But, when they reach a certain population and are no longer threatened, they should be left alone; wild wildlife.

    Andrew Jay | October 30th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. Tagging wildlife is the only way to acquire necessary data on movement, health, and behavior. The benefit to conservation from having this information outweighs the harm from tagging the animals.

    NineQuietLessons | November 3rd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. This has to be my second favourite piece of writing in the last few days, i’m not able to’t inform you
    the top, it might offend you!

    Emma Thompson | February 7th, 2015 | Comment Permalink
  7. wonderful usage of terminology inside the article, it in fact did help when i was reading

    Michael Sanchez | February 16th, 2015 | Comment Permalink
  8. I agree wholeheartedly with the author. It definitely waters down the experience of seeing a wild animal when you realize it has a collar around its neck. I’ve recently seen a few nature shows filmed in Africa where the lions are running around with collars–it just kind of spoils it. Plus, I sure wouldn’t like a collar around my neck for the rest of my life, and I doubt if any biologists or naturalists wouild either.

    Joel Storer | December 22nd, 2015 | Comment Permalink

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