Wolf Awareness is a non-profit Canadian organization dedicated to the conservation of wolves through research and public education about wolf ecology.

How We Know What We Know About Wolves Part Two – Electric Wolves

Date: 16th May 2017

by W. H. “Hank”Halliday

Over 100 years ago a Canadian inventor by the name of Fessenden became the first person to transmit sound using electromagnetic waves. Translation – he’d just made a radio broadcast.

Today most people have smart phones that receive these electromagnetic waves from seemingly endless sources translating them into phone calls, text messages, TV programs and more. It should surprise no one that this same technology would be used in wildlife research.  The miniaturization of radio transmitters with low energy demand and long life batteries has made it possible for animals large and small to wear these devices.  These “radio-collars” have unlocked the hidden lives of wolves and other animals that are active both day and night in remote locations.

Essentially a radio-collar is a miniature radio station transmitting a beeping signal on a particular frequency. If you have a radio receiver with its dial set to that frequency and an antenna, you’ll hear the beeping.

Researchers using a basic radio-collar employ a Yagi antenna which can be handheld. Using the radio-collar frequency, the researcher can listen to the beeping and by scanning with the antenna, locate the wolf. When the beeping is loudest, that’s where the wolf is. By taking bearings from two different locations and using triangulation, the wolf’s location can be plotted on a map.

A more efficient way of locating radio-collared wolves is to get airborne, with an antenna on each wing-strut of a plane. The researcher then listens for the signal, while switching back and forth between each antenna, turning the plane towards the stronger signal. With luck and ever diminishing circles (and often a queasy stomach), the wolf is located although seldom seen through the forest canopy.

Getting the wolf to wear a radio-collar is another interesting activity of the researcher. Different methods are employed depending on the terrain.  If logging roads or other defined travel routes are involved, the standard method is using baited, padded leg-hold traps. Setting and monitoring these traps is time-consuming as they must be checked continuously so that the animal is in the trap for the shortest possible period of time.

In more open areas net-gunning is preferred and the total time for necessary data collection and collar placement can be as short as 15 minutes. This involves the researcher flying low over the wolf and, using a gas powered gun, firing a net over the wolf and then jumping out of the helicopter and keeping the wolf contained while the rest of the collaring crew arrives. The advantages of this method are twofold. The period of stress for the wolf is very short before release and no tranquillizers are needed.

Information gathered during radio-collaring includes body measurements, blood samples and an assessment of the general health the animal.  As advancements in technology have continued, monitoring radio-collared animals can now be done using GPS collars which transmit information to satellites passing overhead. These sophisticated devices can gather data on locations, activity cycles and much, much more.

This information is available to policy makers to make informed, science based decisions to aid in land and resource management. Habitat destruction is a major cause of population declines in many ecosystems. Knowing the minimum range needed by animals is critical for their survival.

As you can see, technology makes the data available. The question then becomes – will policy makers base their decisions on it?

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