Preface by Merritt Clifton
Jon Geller, DVM, whose guest column “Field Mortalities in Wildlife Research: It’s Time for a Conversation” appears below, is scarcely the first to call into question the ethics of wildlife captures for research purposes.
While Geller’s critique focuses on capture techniques, why animals are captured and what happens to them afterward is also of concern.
Alaskan wolf researcher Gordon Haber (1942-2009) was already aware that poachers could use telemetry to track and kill nominally protected wildlife when he and I first compared notes about radio tracking circa 1996.
Supposedly the radio frequencies used by wildlife researchers are inaccessible to others, but reality at the time was that paparazzi were routinely hacking cell phone conversations to ambush and embarrass celebrities, including members of the British royal family, who were presumably protected from eavesdropping by Scotland Yard.
Using telemetry to zero in on a wolf, a bear, or any other “trophy” animal required much less skill and investment in equipment.
Cheaper technology & more of it
Radio-tracking technology has improved since then––and the price of the needed equipment has plummeted, enabling more and more researchers to capture and radio-tag more and more animals.
Meanwhile, the abilities and technology of poachers has also exponentially improved. The ANIMALS 24-7 files document more than 50 cases between January 2005 and August 2014 in which radio-tagged “trophy” animals were poached, often within days and sometimes within hours of the radio tracking devices being attached to the animals.
Few cases come to light
Of note is that these are just the cases that came to light, usually because the animals who were poached were already well-known to local people for their size or other distinctive characteristics long before they were radio-tagged.
In each instance the people and agencies responsible for the radio-tagging insisted that their radio tags were incidental to the killing, but since the killers have seldom been caught, leaving aspects of their technique unconfirmed, this may be mere wishful thinking.
Yet even if radio-tagging is miraculously inaudible to poachers sophisticated enough to kill elephants and rhinos from helicopters and routinely make quick getaways, the risk that a radio-tagged animal will be poached might be the least of the problem.
My 1996 discussion of radio-tagging with Haber was occasioned by observing first-hand that wildlife biologists who were radio-collaring endangered Columbia whitetailed deer fawns at the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge were creating trails through the tall grass that led coyotes right to the vulnerable newborns.
The radio-tagging technique practically manufactured the research conclusion that coyote predation jeopardized the recovery of Columbia whitetailed deer. This in turn led to a coyote massacre in the name of protecting the deer, which appeared to have most benefited the ranchers who leased much of the refuge for cattle grazing, and from time to time lost calves to coyotes.
There were other critical observers of similar procedures. The northern Canadian indigenous corporation Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. in December 2007 passed a unanimous resolution asking the federal and territorial governments to stop all wildlife research that involves extensively and repeatedly handling animals.
Backing the Nunavut Tunngavik position, University of Saskatchewan biologist and veterinarian Marc Cattet in the August 2008 edition of the Journal of Mammalogy reported that “Bears who are captured, examined and then released are left with lingering muscle damage and long-term weight loss that increases with the number of times they are caught,” summarized Bob Weber of Canadian Press.
“Cattet used data from two different bear research projects,” Weber continued, “one in Alberta on grizzlies and one in North Carolina on black bears. Both projects used padded leg-hold snares, barrel traps, and helicopter darting.” Cattet and colleagues analyzed the bears’ blood to detect enzymes released by muscle damage as result of extreme exertion, struggle and stress. They found that “About 70% of the grizzlies captured by snares had higher than normal levels of such enzymes – in some cases up to 12 times higher.”
The injured grizzlies decreased their foraging range by about half. The black bears decreased their foraging range by about 25%. Both species suffered weight losses of up to 14%, no small matter for animals who depend upon stored body fat to survive the winter.
Macho B, the last jaguar
Perhaps the most egregious misuse of radio-tagging on record was the case of Macho B, the last jaguar known to have inhabited the United States. Summarized John Faherty of the Arizona Republic, “Macho B was caught Feb. 18, 2009 in a snare in a remote section of the Coronado National Forest west of Nogales.”
Initially said to have been captured accidentally, “Macho B was sedated, fitted with a satellite radio transmitter, and released. After just a few days, however, radio signals from the collar indicated Macho B was not moving as he should have. He was captured again and flown by helicopter to the Phoenix Zoo. Veterinarians there decided the cat was suffering acute kidney failure, and euthanized him.”
Biologist Emil McCain, who was at the time working for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, with an employee of the Arizona Department of Game & Fish, eventually admitted to having baited traps at three sites with jaguar scat to try to capture Macho B.
Charged with illegally taking an endangered species, McCain in May 2010 plea-bargained a sentence to five years on probation.
“Lacked proper training or equipment”
“In 2003,” reported Tony Davis and Tim Steller of the Arizona Daily Star, “McCain worked on a jaguar capture in Sonora in which the animal died within a day after his release. McCain and another biologist acknowledged [then] that they lacked proper training or equipment.”
Both cases should have provoked the “conversation” throughout the field of wildlife biology that Geller calls for in his essay, originally published in the July 14, 2014 electronic newsletter of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, a subsidiary of the Humane Society of the U.S.
Yet if such a “conversation” is occurring, there is scant evidence of it. More instances of injury to wildlife resulting from radio-tagging came to my attention in 2013 than in any previous year.
(See also “Telemetry testimony, 1998 & 1999.”)
Field Mortalities in Wildlife Research: It’s Time for a Conversation
by Jon Geller, DVM, DABVP
If you happened to be driving up the road alongside Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park in December 2011, as I was, you would have been surprised to first note a coyote, and then a mountain lion, in plain sight in a meadow right next to the road.
Shortly after, you would have come upon an elk carcass surrounded by large crimson patches of blood-stained snow.
On closer inspection, you would have seen an injectable dart lying next to the carcass, containing remnants of carfentanil and xylazine.
You might have become concerned since a few drops of carfentanil could be deadly to a child who might also be exploring the carcass, not to mention the magpie perched on the exposed sternum and the other scavengers and predators observed nearby.
Principal investigators for government-funded field research projects must submit proposed studies to the appropriate Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC, to ensure compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.
Unfortunately, unlike institutional animal research, there is no protocol for project inspection or follow up, often leading to unfortunate outcomes that may not be reported.
Unforeseen anesthetic complications, intra-species transmissions of disease, adverse effects of outdated and AWA-noncompliant protocols, and participation by underqualified and under-skilled personnel coalesce to prompt a call for an extensive review of IACUC protocols related to wildlife field research.
Bad darting killed desert bighorn
According to National Park Service reports (1), a rafter floating down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in August 2012 would have been surprised to see several wildlife biologists in a motorized dory taking aim at a desert bighorn sheep grazing along the riverbanks.
The rafter would not have heard the dart bite into the sheep’s skin and underlying muscle, but would instead have seen the sheep buckle to her knees and then collapse into recumbency.
The rafter would have witnessed a frantic effort on the part of the biologists to resuscitate the sheep, unfortunately, without the assistance of the attending veterinarian who was supposed to accompany them.
The mis-aimed dart had penetrated the sheep’s abdomen, causing hemorrhage and death.
Project was not yet approved
The biologists had not yet secured approval for their research project, resulting in an immediate shut-down and investigation once the park authorities were notified of the fatality. A year later, the same researchers and dart shooter were allowed to recommence their project—without consequences, tighter controls or follow up.
Several capture methodologies that have been used for years require further scrutiny, because they both are ineffective and cause pain and suffering.
Fans of quantum physics (aren’t we all?) are aware that the mere act of studying subatomic particles changes those particles’ behavior (2).
That principle applies to wildlife research subjects as well.
Leghold traps & electrofishing
For example, leg-hold traps used in wolf studies have evolved to include padding, triggered sedatives (phenothiazines), and remote notification of researchers in order to decrease wolves’ time in the trap. Many of the wolves are then radio-collared to study their future movements and migrations. However, trap refinements are of no benefit if the wolves under study alter their behavior, daily migrations, and travel patterns as a result of the disrupting trap-line.
Electro-fishing is popular among fish biologists and veterinarians studying fish because the resulting shock temporarily stuns all fish in the area, allowing collection of the species under study. Unfortunately, radiographic studies are showing a high number of vertebral fractures—due to the violent axial muscle contractions—causing permanent impairments. Further discussion is needed about whether this methodology complies with the AWA.
Drugs with complex effects
Many wildlife research projects involve powerful sedatives and tranquilizers with complex physiologic effects.
In many cases, however, a qualified wildlife veterinarian is not present, sometimes resulting in significant morbidity and mortality. These adverse outcomes could be minimized if someone with the anesthesia training and knowledge of pharmaceutical effects on physiology had been present.
Institutional Animal Care & Use protocols could require that a wildlife-qualified veterinarian be present for all field anesthesia of large or endangered mammals.
Studies introduced disease
The argument for putting a temporary halt to wildlife research proposals could not be stronger than in cases where man-made disease is inadvertently introduced into a population, resulting in out-of-control spread, transmission, and potential species collapse.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, researchers at Colorado State University and the Colorado Division of Wildlife collected large numbers of white-tail deer from various locations and placed them in pens in the foothills west of Fort Collins.
The result, 50 years later, is unstoppable transmission and increasing incidence of Chronic Wasting Disease, now affecting deer, moose, and elk in 24 states and seven provinces of Canada. There is no current treatment or prevention.
In the words of one prominent epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, “I have no doubt that Chronic Wasting Disease is a man-made disease.”
In his opinion, CWD was most likely introduced into this deer herd by cross-species transmission and modification of scrapie from sheep that previously inhabited the pens.
Field studies, as opposed to field research projects, gain summary IACUC approval because they presumptively do not cause pain or distress, or significantly alter the behavior of the animals being studied, and are Intended to be mostly observational in nature.
Because of their potential effects on behavior and stress levels, field studies may not be as benign as depicted.
If you were near the bison pens in the Foothills west of Fort Collins, Colo., on May 12, 2012, you would have noted a skunk wandering erratically in the pen, just as the animal caretaker did.
Captive wildlife are not immune to researcher and IACUC oversights. USDA-APHIS investigators involved in a 2012 embryo transfer project with captive Yellowstone bison failed to vaccinate the herd after numerous skunk rabies confirmations in the area, and the disoriented skunk was found wandering in the pen.
Three weeks later, three of the bison dropped dead, two with confirmed rabies after brain histopath. The third bison was never necropsied. (3,4)
It’s time for a conversation. The veterinary profession should collaborate with the Wildlife Disease Association, the American College of Zoological Medicine and other professional wildlife organizations to brainstorm refinements to the wildlife research project approval, inspection, and follow-up processes before more damage is done. An umbrella group could be charged with expediting collaboration among existing IACUC’s to accomplish this task. Let’s slow things down so we can get it right. Pending proposals for field research projects should be triaged or put on hold until these issues are addressed.
• Briefing Statement, National Park Service IACUC, Sept.6, 2012,
• Hawking, S., Mlodinow, L., “The Grand Design”, Random House, New York 2010
• Larimer County Colorado Dept. of Health and Env. News Release, June 29, 2012
• Rhyan, C., Van Campen, H. et al, Rabies Deaths in Two Bison, Case Rep Vet Med. 2013;2013(0):906782. 1-3. 8 Refs
Jon Geller, DVM, a 1995 graduate of the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine, directs the Veterinary Emergency and Rehabilitation Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. In 2010 he joined the National Park Service as a member of their newly-formed IACUC committee, and also worked as a volunteer veterinarian on several field research projects with elk.