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