Paper: Uncertain effects to wildlife from collaring and tracking devices

Image of a black bear in a field.
A black bear (Ursus americanus) in a field.
Photo by Panadian / Getty Images

Increased considerations to the health and environmental impacts of radio telemetry and other wildlife tracking devices should be prioritized, according to a recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Health and environmental effects to wildlife from radio telemetry and tracking devices – state of the science and best management practices, identifies a gap in knowledge on tracking devices that use very high frequency (VHF), ultra-high frequency (UHF), global position system (GPS) technologies, and others such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) and passive integrated responder (PIT) tags.

“Such tracking technologies have resulted in cutting-edge findings worldwide that have served to protect and better understand the behaviors of myriad wildlife species,” the paper reads. “As a result, scientists, field researchers, technicians, fish and wildlife biologists and managers, plus wildlife and other veterinarian specialists, frequently opt for its use without fully understanding the ramifications to target species and their behaviors. These include negative physiological effects from electromagnetic fields (EMF) to which many nonhuman species are exquisitely sensitive, as well as direct placement/use-attachment impacts from radio collars, transmitters, and implants themselves.”

A butterfly rests on Canada Goldenrod.
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are one of many native species in North America that relies in part on electromagnetic frequencies for annual migration.
Photo by ErikAgar / Getty Images

A personal anecdote from one of the study authors also showcases that these technologies are frequently used – but potential impacts may not be understood by users.

“Over a 3-year period, one of the authors of this paper captured 35 black bears (Ursus americanus) and radio-tagged, released and tracked 25 in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula, USA. He triangulated and tracked bears radio-tagged with 2 types of very high frequency (VHF) neoprene neck-attached collars (fixed and expandable) using hand-held and pole-mounted Yagi field antennas and VHF scanning receivers on the ground. He also located bears from fixed wing aircraft and helicopters—using wing strut and body-mounted Yagi antennas as well as scanning receivers—and found one bear had traveled 95 air miles (153 km) from its winter denning site to its summer range, returning the following fall. The goal of the project was to determine home ranges, movements, key concentration areas, and den site locations while investigating the impacts from humans on bears. However, at the time of the project, he was unaware—as are most wildlife biologists—of possible impacts from EMF on the tagged bruins.”

Health and environmental effects to wildlife from radio telemetry and tracking devices (2024)

It is irrefutable that data collected by these methods have grown our understanding of wildlife biology, ecology, and behaviour; however, the ongoing use of these methods when we don’t fully understand the impact it has on individuals, populations, and the broader environment is problematic.

The Fur-Bearers is pleased to see the ethical, welfare, and environmental impacts of wildlife collaring being considered by the authors. However, the paper does not include key issues such as:

  • Capturing wildlife can be intensely traumatic for animals. Practices to catch animals for collaring prior to any anesthesia or pain relief include the use of leg-hold traps; the process of undergoing anesthesia can also leave animals disoriented and affect their behaviour.
  • Alternatives to collaring and tagging are abundant and growing more available, with options such as passive trail cameras, fur/hair catches, and fecal collection and analysis.
  • Frequency of issues related to trapping and collaring or tagging processes, which may not be currently available in scientific literature.

More analysis and review of this paper can be expected, and The Fur-Bearers hopes to see more on this issue and from the study authors. The Fur-Bearers would like to thank study authors Albert M. Manville II, B. Blake Levitt, and Henry C. Lai for their work on this paper.

Manville AM II, Levitt BB and Lai HC (2024) Health and environmental effects to wildlife from radio telemetry and tracking devices—state of the science and best management practices. Front. Vet. Sci. 11:1283709. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2024.1283709

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