Nature Tech

Collars or Cameras: How Do Researchers Best Monitor Wildlife?

August 1, 2018

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Something’s wrong with the harness. As Josh Rydalch settles his weight into it, 8 feet up an evergreen, his head starts losing priority to his bottom half. There’s no way I’m letting him dangle upside down, at least not for long. I put down my camera, scramble up the rise and throw my weight onto his boots. The commanding shift brings his feet in contact with a limb before his face does. Rydalch, now upright again, starts strapping trail cam to trunk while explaining why he’s willing to go to such astonishing lengths for research.

“The goal is to monitor for wolves in the area, if there are wolves,” says Josh Rydalch, Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. “Hopefully we get wolves walking by and if a wolf walks by, that’s an occupied site.”

The way Rydalch counts occupied sites is changing. GPS collars, the most popular wildlife tracking tool in recent years, is losing reign. Electronically tagging an animal, be it finned, feathered or furred, requires manpower and money.

One GPS collar alone can cost up to $2,000. That doesn’t include scouting time to find the animal, labor to attach the collar or satellite service for collar location transmission. Trail cameras, the collar’s new competition, are $500 for a research-decent model. And attaching them requires tree touch instead of wild wrangle.

“This is a lot less invasive for the animal,” Rydalch says. “The animal is not in hand. It’s not being darted or trapped.”

Wolves, aggressively monitored via collar while on the Endangered Species List, were delisted in Idaho and Montana in 2011 and in Wyoming in 2012. During listing, federal money covered collaring costs. Those funds disappeared with delisting, but states still keep track of packs to ensure sustainable population growth. That’s why 200 trail cameras from Canada to Utah started capturing the Gem State in 2016 for a population study. Biologists are counting wolves with cameras instead of collars.

“As the wolf population grew, it became a ridiculous notion to think we could collar a wolf in every pack,” says David Ausband, Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife research biologist. “Any wolf collaring done now is for livestock issues. We don’t use collaring as a monitoring method anymore. It’s cameras.”

Wolf pups caught on a camera trap. Photo © Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game

While Rydalch tracks pack population changes in eastern Idaho, Ausband is in charge of discovering the why behind population changes. He’s the trail cam ringleader for the whole state.

“If we see no wolves on a camera one year and half of the wolves on that camera the next year, something changed,” Ausband says.

Field time is changing too. Biologists, who chose their profession for its outdoor appeal, are finding themselves inside for weeks at a time instead of coming inside every now and then.

“Cameras certainly reduce your field effort because they’re surveying when you’re not there,” Ausband says. “But that’s a double-edged sword. It’s saving data when you’re not there, but it forces you to be in the office longer to go through the data.”

The unintentional result of unmanned monitoring is a pile of images that include sometimes nothing and other times everything but a wolf. Bears, bobcats, butterflies, buffoons.

“It’s amazing how many people walk by in the middle of nowhere on a trail. They see our cameras sometimes. Sometimes they give me good signals and wave and sometimes they’re not [good].”

Photo © Kris Millgate /

But every shot is still worth analyzing. It can lead to proof of illegal OHV use. Or of even higher value, empty spots.

“Empty spots are probably our most important shot with trail cameras,” Ausband says. “If the population is going to expand or decrease, the area we’ll detect that in first isn’t the core, it’s the edges. The edges of the puddle dry first. Not the center.”

All population-counting trail cams have to be out in the field by July 1 and back in the office after September 30. Pack movement is limited during that summer window. Pups don’t go far and pups don’t know how to hunt. Adults leave their pups at rendezvous sites and come and go with food. Any other time of year, they can move a dozen miles a night.  The cameras need to catch them before the constraint of raising young loosens. So far, the cam catch is working.

“We know we still have wolves widely distributed throughout Idaho,” Ausband says. “From here on out, it’s cameras for wolves. There’s interest in how many wolves we have and what the population is doing so I don’t see trail cams going away.”

Kris Millgate

Kris Millgate investigates outdoor and environment issues for TV and web with cross publication in newspapers and magazines. Millgate graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in broadcast journalism in 1997, then worked for one TV station or another around the country for a decade. In 2006, she started her production company Tight Line Media. More from Kris

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1 comment

  1. Great discussion. We have been using cameras for determining use of livestock tanks by wildlife (1 year). Amazing the diversity of wildlife that drink, bathe, and hunt by these tanks. We have also spent a year assessing use of pinyon-juniper habitat in southeastern Colorado by wildlife — very remote and in good ecological condition. And now The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the United States Geological Survey, Colorado State University, and the Colorado State Land Board are measuring any changes in bighorn sheep use from habitat treatments. Luckily (and due to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, we have some satellite collars to double check our observations). It is amazing what moves into the views of wildlife cameras. Important science, good natural history, and nearly always inspiring!