“Here I am! Shoot me!”
BY TOM SPEARS
Electronic tracking devices on wildlife that are intended to help scientists carry out conservation studies are instead calling out to hunters: “Here I am! Shoot me!”
From Banff to Yellowstone to India, hunters and poachers are downloading data from conservation studies — even hacking into science labs — to make stalking prey easier.
Some go to court for tracking data, and some may be using their own tracking devices, after gaining the technology from researchers.
At Carleton University, fish scientist Steven Cooke is worried about the data he collected from electronic transmitters showing where muskie live in the Rideau River. He knows people catch muskie, but he doesn’t want to supply a precise map of fishing hotspots.
His study, called “Troubling issues at the frontier of animal tracking for conservation and management,” is now published in a journal called Conservation Biology. Other authors come from the Universities of Ottawa, British Columbia, and Windsor, and the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
“Animal tracking can reveal animal locations (sometimes in nearly real time), and these data help people locate, disturb, capture, harm, or kill tagged animals,” the group writes.
• In Minnesota, anglers petitioned a court for access to movement data from transmitters on northern pike, arguing the data should be publicly available because it was publicly funded. “Although their attempts failed, the case highlights perceptions among some stakeholders regarding their right to data.”
• Sharks were tagged in Australia in order to warn when they were close to beaches, but the data ended up being used in a shark cull.
• Tags and their data “also contribute to human-wildlife conflict and the potential euthanasia of an animal. After photographers used telemetry to track animals tagged by researchers and managers, Parks Canada implemented a public ban on VHF radio receivers in Banff National Park.”
• Hunters could tag an animal themselves, hoping it will lead them to a larger group, they write, “and most management agencies are ill-prepared to respond.”
• Cooke says there’s speculation that groups that want to drive wolves out of Yellowstone National Park have found ways to unravel the codes that let them follow radio-collared wolves there. In India, there were unsuccessful attempts to hack into GPS data showing the location of a rare Bengal tiger, which Cooke calls “cyber-poaching.”
You don’t need to be Steve Jobs to use telemetry.
“You can now buy a radio receiver of the same kind we use for about $300,” Cooke said. “You literally can just stand there and just turn the dial if you have a general idea of the bandwidth (of the transmitter). They just keep turning it until they hear ‘beep-beep-beep-beep’ and you point it at that bear or that cougar or whatever happens to be tagged.
“Telemetry wasn’t just invented yesterday but it has become more widespread … Anyone who knows a little about technology can order and use this gear.”
Parks Canada has banned possession of such receivers in Banff for people without a permit.
As well, anyone who wants to sabotage conservation studies can “flood” an area with fake signals to generate nonsense data, he notes. For instance, they can attach transmitters to the wrong species of fish, creating a pattern of movement that clearly makes no sense. Then all the results from the study might be thrown out.
Cooke is calling for governments, tracking device manufacturers and scientists to explore the issue.