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Wildlife Researchers' Good Intentions Often Can Be Deadly for Animals

Nature: Elk, antelope and lynx are among creatures that failed to survive officials' rescue attempts. Critics blame fear and poor planning.


ELMA, Wash. — Everything was going as planned, until elk began to die.

A helicopter swooped in over the herd and a marksman leaned out, firing tranquilizer darts at elk fleeing across the meadow. Animals hit with darts soon began to weave and stumble, watched by workers waiting to move in once they dropped.

The capture, conducted in March to relocate wild elk from a burgeoning population in western Washington to a failing herd 80 miles away, looked as if it would go without a hitch, wildlife officials recall.

Then one of the tranquilized elk bolted into a rain-swollen creek. As narcotics coursed through its body, the normally strong swimmer flailed about, drowning as its head slipped beneath the rushing water.

A second elk ran into the woods, staggering as the drugs took effect. Pitching down, the animal buried its nostrils into soft earth and lay there, unable to move, until it suffocated.

Two other elk collapsed in the open, but by the time they were blindfolded and strapped onto pallets for transport, they were having trouble breathing. Their systems were shutting down from the trauma of the chase and the drugs; they died within minutes.

It's a side of wildlife research and management seldom seen by the public: A surprising number of wild creatures are inadvertently killed or injured by the scientists entrusted to protect them.

Wildlife biologists do more these days than venture into nature with notepads and binoculars.

Animals are chased, darted, netted, drugged, tagged, banded and radio-collared. They are cut open and implanted with satellite transmitters. They are caught in leghold traps, then released and caught again.

Decisions about how much death, injury and harassment to allow in the pursuit of science are left largely to the wildlife managers and researchers themselves.

"Anytime we lose an animal, it's not a good day," said Jack Smith, who ran the elk capture for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "But if you don't go into an operation expecting that you're going to lose a few animals, then you're not being properly realistic."

Marc Bekoff disagrees. An animal-behavior expert who has written books on the intelligence and emotional life of animals, he believes researchers have obligations to the animals they study.

"The methods you use are set up by the philosophy you have. If you think it's OK to let individual animals die, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Wildlife researchers often underestimate the effect they have on their subjects, said Bekoff, who teaches biology at the University of Colorado.

"Wild animals are living on the edge," he said. "They're trying to get food and water, they're trying to survive. They can't tolerate stress."

Some stressful moments in the wild:

* In Colorado, efforts to reintroduce Canada lynx have been particularly deadly. Four of the first five lynx released in 1999 died of starvation. Biologists later improved their methods, fattening up lynx between their capture in Alaska or Canada and their release in the Colorado Rockies, but even so, at least 42 of the 96 lynx released to date have died, and more than a dozen are missing.

* In Alaska's Prince William Sound, satellite transmitters surgically implanted in scoters in 1998 and 1999 led to the death of about 40% of the sea ducks within two weeks. The implanted scoters kept to themselves, away from their flock, making them easy pickings for predators.

* In Oregon, government biologists investigating the poor survival rate of young pronghorn antelope made matters worse. Fourteen of the 20 pregnant pronghorns they captured in March 1997 died of "capture myopathy," a wasting of muscle that can occur when animals overheat from the trauma of being chased or handled.

* In Kaktovik, Alaska, Eskimo villager Isaac Akootchook seethes about government scientists who have buzzed around the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in recent years, studying wildlife for the debate over oil drilling.

One winter's day about four years ago, Akootchook said, a polar bear wandered into town, acting strangely. Fearing for their safety, villagers shot the bear and then noticed a radio collar around its neck. Akootchook's photos show the bear's fur rubbed off by the collar, its skin red and raw.

"It was going to die," Akootchook said. "It got infected because of the collar, and we couldn't even eat it."

Wildlife researchers say some mortality is inevitable.

The day that four elk died in Washington, Smith's team successfully captured 20 others, for a mortality rate of 17%. Overall, the five-day relocation effort killed eight elk but successfully moved 81, for a 9% mortality rate.

"We would definitely do it again," Smith said. "We were within what we consider acceptable limits."

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