Modern technology keeps refuge scientists at forefront of research

The right tool for the job

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2001

This year, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

Among the items on display last week at the refuge's special open house marking the occasion were a series of radio collars and dart guns. They are examples of the kind of technologies that have dramatically changed the way refuge biologists do their jobs.

Even though spies may get all the high-tech gadgets in the movies, here on the Kenai Peninsula the scientists are the people with the coolest gizmos.

Wildlife technician Stephanie Rickabaugh said modern electronics are extending people's understanding of the Kenai Peninsula's backcountry and its wild inhabitants.

From the time the federal government first established the refuge in 1941, airplanes have played a vital role in accessing the roadless wilderness. From the beginning, aerial surveys for moose and then other animals were central to the biologists' mission.

"The survey methods themselves haven't changed much," she said. "But the tools we use in the aircraft and with the data have changed a lot."

The computer age revolutionized the refuge, so much so that no one now on the staff can remember when the first PCs showed up in their offices. Now every desk in the Soldotna headquarters has one.

Rickabaugh estimated that wildlife biologists now spend 30 to 45 percent of their time doing computer work.

The main tools they use are global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS).

"Those two tools, right there, have really helped," she said.

GPS uses portable electronic signals and an overhead network of satellites to pinpoint positions in three dimensions. It allows people anywhere, no matter how remote or devoid of landmarks, to determine an exact position. The refuge started using handheld GPS in 1992.

Now refuge personnel can tell exactly where they are when flying surveys.

They also can get GPS devices small enough to fit inside radio collars for large animals. The collars come in two types. One automatically sends signals at intervals that can be detected from aircraft or satellites.

The other stores information within itself. Biologists retrieve the devices and their stored data when the animal dies, is recaptured or drops the collar. Some collars are designed to wear through or pop off after the study period.

The GPS collars can tell biologists where the animals really are, even at night, when hidden in brush or when the weather is too foul for biologists to pursue them.

For other types of tracking, the scientists use collars that emit radio signals. Each can be set to a distinct frequency, so scientists on the ground or in the air can locate individual animals, home in on them or gauge their direction of travel.

For example, biologists are using programmable collars combining VHS radio and GPS to study brown bears. The results have given them valuable, unprecedented information on the travel corridors bears rely upon, she said.

But the collars, radio or GPS or both, have tradeoffs.

The original versions were bulky and expensive. Signal strength, the number of sensors, the battery life and how often they can send out signals all take up space and increase weight. But over time, the trend has been toward miniaturization.

Rickabaugh predicted that radio collars will become more useful in the future.

"You can get radio collars that fit almost anything now," she said.

"A lot of this stuff will get lighter, smaller, cheaper. Cheaper is key."

Someday, Alaska scientists may have collars that relay data via satellite so a biologist in front of a monitor could track a wild animal nearly anywhere. But the system still has a few bugs.

In the late 1990s, when relocating wolves from Tok to the Kenai Peninsula in partnership with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the scientists tried satellite tracking. But many of the collars did not transmit reliably, and the refuge has not used them since.

"At that time we didn't have much luck with it," Rickabaugh said.

The new GPS and radio-tracking information fits perfectly with the GIS computer software.

GIS generates detailed maps in forms that allow reams of data to be displayed visually.

Before GIS, which came to the forefront in the mid-1990s, scientists could get and display the information only by tedious processes. Rickabaugh said she remembers presentations like that.

"You were flipping mylars back and forth," she said.


Larry Lewis and Kris Hundertmark use a radio telemetry antenna to pick up a signal from a VHS radio collar on a moose at the Moose Research Center north of Sterling several winters ago.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Now the computer will combine data layers in response to a few keystrokes and print out customized maps in seconds. The results allow scientists to see patterns that were not obvious before.

On the Kenai Peninsula, the refuge biologists are using GIS to map out bear corridors and study habitat quality, while other scientists are using GIS for projects like monitoring the spruce bark beetle infestation and watching glaciers retreat, she said.

Among the other cutting-edge technologies the refuge uses are medical ultrasound to evaluate body condition of animals such as captured moose, and both dendrochronology (tree ring records) and analysis of lake sediment cores to study climate history.

One area the refuge has not directly gotten involved with -- yet -- is genetics, although some research projects based on the refuge have used genetic analysis.

"We send things out for genetic work," Rickabaugh said. "We don't do any on site."

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