The Amazing Capture-and-Collar Field Work That Drives Conservation
A firsthand look at the science that informs smart conservation policy (and allows for powerful, up-close encounters with the West’s iconic big game animals)
Anglers know that there’s a certain magic, when releasing a lively fish, in seeing the flick of its tail propel it back into a “wild” state, as if you’d momentarily held lightning in a bottle. That feeling is magnified many-fold, one might imagine, when letting go of an adult mule deer and watching her trot off toward the horizon on a blue-sky day in sagebrush country.
Needless to say, when faced with the opportunity to do just that by participating in the type of scientific research that informs our work at TRCP, I didn’t have to give it much thought before accepting the invitation. Here’s what I learned from a weekend of capturing and collaring mule deer and bighorn sheep with the University of Wyoming’s Monteith Shop.
(Check out the four-minute feature below and then scroll down to read the story and view additional video shorts from this project.)
One Data Point at a Time
Across the West, there’s no issue to which fresh-from-the-field data is more relevant than the challenge of safeguarding big game migration corridors and seasonal ranges. As development of all kinds sweeps across the Western landscape, transforming and fragmenting habitats at an alarming rate, unprecedented advances in the study of migratory big game animals help inform solutions to ensure these herds can access the food and cover they need throughout the year. And central to our understanding of these issues is on-the-ground, boots-in-the-mud wildlife science.
This is part of the reason I’ve long been intrigued by the work of my friend Kevin Monteith, a professor at the University of Wyoming, and was thrilled to join his team last month for a few days of working with collared bighorn sheep and mule deer.
Kevin’s team—a mixture of Master’s and doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and research scientists—had already been in the field for 10 days by the time I met up with them at a Wyoming Department of Game and Fish parking lot in Jackson. Each December and March, the researchers at the Monteith Shop spend three weeks capturing and collecting data from collared big game animals, timing the work to shed light on how winter has affected their physical condition. Then, in mid-May, they capture and collar that year’s offspring, gathering the first of what will be a lifetime of information provided by the study of these animals. On top of those three key periods, various other field work occupies researchers from the Monteith Shop for the rest of the summer and throughout the year.
How It All Adds Up
Some of these different tracking projects have been ongoing since 2013, helping to illuminate the connections between the health and behavior of these animals and the changing landscapes on which they live. The data collected in the field amounts to a highly detailed portrait of these individual animals at a particular moment in time, and when repeated at regular intervals over a long period, it begins to tell the stories of their lives. As the years pass, the data begins to stretch across generations and the collective wealth of information illustrates population-level dynamics.
This is exactly the type of research that tells us, for example, what happens to herd numbers or fawn recruitment in the years following industrial development in a migration corridor or the fragmentation of winter habitat by a new highway.
As sportsmen and sportswomen who care about, observe, and encounter animals like mule deer and elk, it’s easy to take for granted that we know what we do about the bigger picture in terms of what will keep these populations healthy for future generations. To be sure, the most basic pieces of that puzzle are obvious—they need food, water, security, etc. But evidence showing, for example, that a specific change on the landscape will have a particular effect of a certain magnitude on a big game herd allows us to make well-informed, responsible decisions about how to manage our public lands for multiple uses over the long term.
The Main Event
At the day’s outset, a helicopter-based crew, which travels across the country performing this highly specialized work, tracks down the animals using the frequencies emitted by their collars. Individually, these animals are netted, then hobbled and blindfolded, before being transported to Kevin’s team, who set up staging areas in different locations throughout the day to minimize the distance traveled by each animal.
Once they arrive via helicopter, each individual animal undergoes a series of tests. Members of the team weigh each animal and measure their length, girth, and lower leg (metatarsus), while others collect blood, hair, and fecal samples. Portable ultrasound machines allow the researchers to gauge the amount of body fat remaining after a long winter, and to check each animal for pregnancy. For each pregnancy identified, the number of fetuses, as well as the width of their orbital sockets (a key indicator for their stage of development) are noted. The bighorn sheep, which are particularly susceptible to respiratory pneumonia, receive an extra test: nasal and tonsil swabs to test for infection.
Throughout the process, the animals are handled with care and their temperatures are monitored as a way of ensuring that they are not experiencing excessive physiological stress. Each animal also receives a mild pain reliever and fever reducer as a precaution. Behaviors such as vocalizations and kicks observed in the course of the process are all recorded for future reference.
After collecting all of these data, the team checks—and, when needed, replaces—the tracking collars, then marks each animal with livestock paint so that they will not be inadvertently recaptured as the day’s work continues. One finished, we release the deer at each processing site, watching as they spring forth onto the sagebrush-covered landscape, while the sheep are loaded back onto the helicopter to be released where each specific individual had been captured.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of my experience was watching the Monteith Shop team at work. With every load of animals from the helicopter, they leapt into action unprompted, moving with a care and a seriousness of purpose that never wavered throughout the process. Moments of downtime allowed plenty of laughs and smiles among the group, but a shared sense of responsibility for the welfare of each individual deer and sheep—as well as a shared understanding of each data point’s importance—meant that the whole operation hummed along methodically, efficiently, and deliberately.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve typed the phrase “the latest research tells us,” or some variation thereof, during my tenure with TRCP. That should come as no surprise: Smart conservation policy is grounded in science and derives much of its credibility from dispassionate, empirical data. But even the most objective and matter-of-fact fieldwork does little to dull the wonder of experiencing an up-close interaction with a bighorn sheep or mule deer.
Participating in the hands-on work of the Monteith Shop put into stark relief the strange familiarity, intimacy, and mystery that surrounds each encounter with the West’s big game animals and fuels my fascination with them. In that sense, it was a welcome reminder of why we do what we do at TRCP and instilled in me a greater appreciation for the tireless efforts and dedication of so many others who make our work possible.
For more information about the Monteith Shop, visit monteithshop.org or follow on Instagram (@monteithshop) and Facebook.
To voice your support for migration corridor conservation, sign our petition to decisionmakers here.
Images and footage by @maxsbenz
BLM’s June Oil and Gas Lease Sale to Bring Commonsense Reforms
New provisions and guidelines for public land energy leasing will conserve habitat, improve transparency, and benefit taxpayers
In November of 2021, the Department of the Interior released a report on public land oil and gas leasing that included specific recommendations for ensuring more responsible development of these critical resources. The TRCP published a blog supporting several of the report’s recommendations that would create new efficiencies in the process while also conserving quality fish and wildlife habitat.
Last week, the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for the leasing and development of federally owned mineral resources, announced its intent to complete the first oil and gas lease sale of the Biden Administration. Scheduled for June 2022, the upcoming sale will include several important changes to the federal leasing program.
Among other changes, the BLM will:
- Ensure public participation and Tribal consultation in the leasing process. Given the public and Tribal resources at stake, it only makes sense for Tribes and the public to have a voice in the process, and the BLM announced steps to facilitate this involvement.
- Avoid leasing in lands with low potential for development. It makes no sense to lease public lands and important wildlife habitats in places where there is little actual chance that economically viable development will take place. Moving forward, the BLM will avoid leasing in these low-potential areas and focus leasing in places where viable energy resources are known to exist.
- Concentrate leasing near existing development. Leases sold in areas with existing oil and gas infrastructure are more likely to be developed, and they are also likely to be sited in locations where impacts from development have already occurred. Leasing near existing development is a common-sense measure that will help avoid the fragmentation of important habitats where development does not exist.
- Increase the royalty rate to 18.75% for leases sold. Increasing the royalty rate from 12.5%—a rate that was set in 1920—brings the federal price in line with state and private rates. This market-adjusted royalty will improve the rate of return to taxpayers.
It is important to note that these actions by the BLM and Interior Department will not have any short-term effect on the price of gasoline. There should be no doubt that TRCP supports affordable energy for American consumers—particularly the oil and gas we rely on to power our cars and heat our homes—while also working to increase the availability of renewable energy resources as the U.S. transitions to a more climate-friendly economy. TRCP fully recognizes that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and associated sanctions against Russia have created pain at the pump, with many consumers paying well over $4 per gallon of regular gas. But the availability of public land oil and gas leases, simply put, has no short-term bearing on the supply-and-demand curve of our energy sector.
The Interior Department’s own documents indicate that 13.9 million acres of federal minerals already under lease—more than half of the 26 million total federal acres presently leased—have not yet been developed by energy companies. Energy producers could develop these existing leases for many years into the future before the availability of public land oil and gas resources becomes an issue, and no existing policies prevent energy companies from developing their current holdings.
And while the recent BLM announcement is taking heat from both sides of the political aisle, the TRCP believes these changes are both balanced and necessary and we have advocated for them for many years. Leasing oil and gas resources in a way that involves the public, reduces impacts to sensitive habitats, and generates a fair rate of return for American taxpayers is common sense. We now hope the administration will take an equally thoughtful approach to expanding renewable energy resources in a way that takes into account these same considerations and conserves our best fish and wildlife habitat and public resources.
Top photo: USFWS via Flickr
Outdoor Recreation Spending in PA Is Up 26%
New research finds that hunting, fishing, biking, camping, and other activities drove $58 billion in statewide spending
A new economic study finds that outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania, including hunting and fishing, generated $58 billion in 2020—that’s 26 percent more than in 2016. The state’s wealth of natural resources and rich outdoor traditions also supported more than 430,000 jobs—up 10 percent—with Pennsylvanians earning $20 billion in salaries and wages.
The research, conducted by Southwick Associates for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, showed that hunters and anglers, in particular, spent $1.6 billion, or 23 percent more, to pursue their passions. Combined with activities like biking, camping, and snow sports, this helped to contribute more than $32 billion to Pennsylvania’s state GDP and over $6.5 billion in tax revenue at the federal, state, and local levels.
“The power of outdoor recreation spending in PA is undeniable, particularly since hunting, fishing, and boating provided a real lifeline to so many during the pandemic,” says Alexandra Kozak, Pennsylvania field manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Conservation of our natural resources is critical for this to continue. That’s why our decision-makers should prioritize legislation that helps to invest in better habitat, cleaner water, and stronger outdoor recreation businesses.”
The TRCP and its partners plan to point to the strength of the outdoor recreation economy when advocating for investments in Pennsylvania’s Growing Greener III program, a Clean Streams Fund, and other dedicated funding for conservation.
Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program via flickr
Forest Service Issues Anticipated Guidance for E-Bikes
Here’s how the use of this new technology will be managed on national forests and grasslands and what it means for public land hunters and anglers
If you talk with hunters and anglers about electric bikes, or e-bikes, you will get a mixed response. Some embrace the obvious utility of e-bikes for accessing remote areas and for hauling gear and game. Others worry that widespread use of e-bikes—by dramatically increasing the ability of the average person to travel further into the backcountry—could potentially have a negative impact on our big game herds. Such concerns are warranted: Research clearly shows that high-volume trail use displaces big game, and in some areas high motorized route densities are associated with excessive elk harvest. Elk are particularly susceptible to these impacts, as they require large secure areas far from heavily used roads and trails to thrive.
On March 31, 2022, the Forest Service announced its final internal guidance on how e-bikes will be managed on national forests and grasslands. The long-anticipated update reaffirms the existing policy that e-bikes are now, and will continue to be, managed as a motorized use—that is, e-bikes will be allowed on all currently authorized roads and trails open to motorized use and not allowed on roads and trails closed to motorized use, seasonally or otherwise. At the same time, the guidance also outlines a process for the agency to evaluate requests for expanded e-bike access and establishes a new “e-bike only” trail category.
As an avid motorcyclist and mountain biker who has used two wheels to access my favorite hunting spots for many years, the new guidance is somewhat reassuring, but it also highlights the need for hunters and anglers to engage in local travel management planning to make sure quality hunting opportunities are maintained.
Here’s what you need to know about this update.
The purpose behind the new guidance is to provide direction for the agency to coordinate travel management planning with other federal, state, county, local, and tribal governments, to ensure, as much as possible, the continuity of recreational experiences across these jurisdictions. The guidance also directs the agency to consider how emerging technologies such as e-bikes provide opportunities for individuals that may otherwise be prevented from certain forms of recreation on our public lands.
The guidance categorizes e-bikes into Classes 1, 2, and 3, all of which are limited to a 750-watt-capable motor—essentially the same classification adopted in 2020 by the Bureau of Land Management. The biggest difference in the Forest Service’s guidance as compared to the BLM’s is that the Forest Service has elected, by default, to regulate all categories of e-bikes as motorized use. The Forest Service’s guidance also provides a process and specific criteria for evaluating new “e-bike only” trail designations and for allowing e-bikes on existing non-motorized trails.
When the Forest Service classifies trails and routes by allowable use during the travel management planning process, the agency emphasizes combinations of motorized and non-motorized uses on the same trails, but also recognizes that the best way to minimize conflicts among user groups may be to provide separate routes for each. As a result, the creation of a new “e-bike only” category could lead to a proliferation of additional trails if, for example, traditional mountain bikers can’t get along with e-bikers. In these cases, which—again—will be decided at the local level, e-bike compatibility with traditional mountain bikes will likely depend on the category of e-bike under consideration: class 1 e-bikes, which require pedaling and are limited to 20-miles per hour, are considered the most compatible with traditional mountain bikes.
Of particular interest to hunters is that the updated Forest Service guidance maintains limited use of motor vehicles (now specifically including e-bikes) for game retrieval within a limited distance of specific routes during big game hunting season. The particulars of when and where this is allowed will be made clear in individual travel management plans. And remember: While many hunters with traditional mountain bikes utilize gated roads closed to motorized use as a means of accessing hunting areas, hunters with e-bikes cannot do the same and are subject to the motorized use closure.
E-Bikes and Habitat Fragmentation
There are welcome provisions in the updated guidance that promote conservation and stewardship, and some provisions that are less clear. On the positive side, the specific criteria for designating trails and trail-use areas require that the agency considers the potential for “harassment of wildlife and significant disruption of wildlife habitats.” Additionally, the policy explicitly calls out considerations for maintenance and administration of new trails in the context of budget and staffing, and it provides guidance to avoid adding new routes unless adequate budget and staffing for long-term maintenance have been identified. Both of these provisions promote conservation and well-designed, sustainable trail systems for access.
There are also provisions to address unauthorized routes, but some of the guidance regarding this issue remains problematic to those who care about the impact of these trails on habitat fragmentation. On the one hand, the policy prohibits use of unauthorized routes, calls for identifying unauthorized routes through travel analysis, and prioritizes addressing restoration and decommissioning of unauthorized routes when making travel management decisions. On the other hand, the policy acknowledges that some unauthorized routes are well sited and would enhance the system of designated routes. This seems to pave the way for continuation of the long-criticized practice of allowing unauthorized trail builders to have illegally built trails legitimized during travel management planning.
Whether or not you choose to embrace the use of e-bikes for hunting and fishing, as you would any new technology, here are some things to consider:
- Unless otherwise specified in your local travel management plan, e-bikes are allowed only on designated motorized trails or motorized-use areas on Forest Service lands and are subject to the same seasonal restrictions and closures as any other motorized vehicle.
- E-bikes allow public land users to travel significantly farther into the backcountry and provide increased access for all. This may change trail-use characteristics, as well as the distribution of big game on the landscape in your favorite hunting areas.
- If you choose to use an e-bike for hunting and fishing, pay close attention to the class-type (1, 2, or 3) and match your choice of e-bike to the applicable regulations in areas you want access, as identified by the Forest Service in the travel management plan for your hunting area.
- Engage with the Forest Service on travel management planning in the areas you care about. Decisions on the designation of new e-bike only trails and e-bike access on existing trails will impact your hunting access, the distribution of big game, and whether you continue to have quality hunting opportunities in the areas you care about, which is why it is critical that hunters and anglers participate in local travel management planning processes.
- The recently passed Modernizing Access to our Public Land Act requires the Forest Service and other land management agencies to create and make publicly available recreational access information as geospatial files that depict restrictions by vehicle type, including e-bikes. This will help hunters identify routes where they can and cannot ride their e-bikes in the future.
Photo credit: @maxsbenz
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