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The unnatural kingdom

Judicious use of technology has allowed man to track, recover and help wildlife proliferate

If you ever have the good fortune to see a Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, the experience might go like this: On a sunny morning in Yosemite National Park, you walk through alpine meadows and then up a ridge to the summit of Mount Gibbs at 3.6m above sea level. You unwrap a chocolate bar amid breathtaking views of mountain and desert and then you notice movement below.

Binoculars reveal three sturdy ewes perched on a wall of rock, accompanied by two lambs and a muscular ram. The sight fills you with awe and also with gratitude for the national parks, forests and, yes, environmental regulations that keep the dream of wilderness alive in the United States.

Unless your binoculars are unusually powerful, you are unlikely to notice that many of those sheep wear collars made by Lotek Wireless of Ontario. So you will remain unaware that GPS and satellite communications hardware affixed to those collars allows wildlife managers in distant air-conditioned rooms to track every move made by those sheep. Like similar equipment attached to California condors, pronghorn antelope, pythons, fruit bats, African wildebeest, white-tailed eagles, growling grass frogs, feral camels and countless other creatures, those collars are the only visible elements of the backlot infrastructure that now puts and keeps so many animals in the wild.

UNDER CONTROL

Mostly hidden from view, this infrastructure is proliferating and improving so quickly, thanks to advances in digital technology, that wildlife managers are seizing more and more of nature's relevant dials - predator and prey alike - and turning those dials to keep nature looking the way we want it to. Undeniably in the service of good, this technological revolution in the human relationship to wildlife is also accelerating the ancient human project of bringing the physical world under our control.

In the case of the Sierra bighorn, a genetically distinct subspecies of wild sheep, there were likely more than a thousand before the 1849 gold rush brought domestic sheep into the High Sierra. Those domestic sheep carried diseases for which bighorn had no defence. In the late 1970s, a field biologist named John Wehausen counted 250 survivors, none inside Yosemite park. In 1979, Dr Wehausen began a recovery effort that included translocation of sheep back into the area around Mount Gibbs, where there had once been a herd. But then a state moratorium on the sport hunting of mountain lions caused lion numbers to rise, and some of those lions began to prey on bighorn. Then a mid-1990s drought depressed the deer population, causing even more lions to become sheep specialists. Bighorn numbers crashed, and the total population dropped to near 100. In 2000, the federal government listed the Sierra bighorn under the Endangered Species Act.

TREAD CAREFULLY

Putting astronauts into space, that was child's play, by comparison. The only thing rivalling an ecosystem for complexity is the human brain.

DR MARK HEBBLEWHITE, a wildlife biologist at the University of Montana, on technological breakthroughs tempting us to overestimate our own cleverness.

The subsequent Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Programme, an inter-agency collaboration, tacitly acknowledged that our biggest and best-protected wild ecosystems are so badly compromised that we can no longer fence them off and hope for the best. Starting in the early 2000s, the recovery programme used ancient and contemporary technology: net guns, fired from helicopters, were used to capture bighorn outfitted with collars that carried both GPS and VHF radio transmitters; professional hunters, meanwhile, tracked and darted every mountain lion in the area to outfit them with collars that carried VHF radio transmitters. Biologists at computer monitors began to watch bighorn movements. Any time a lion killed multiple bighorn in a short period of time, those hunters used VHF radio telemetry and specially bred lion hounds to find and kill it.

Once bighorn herds grew large enough to spare members, biologists moved them around - to establish new herds in long-vacant habitat and to inject biological diversity into smaller herds like the one on Mount Gibbs. This was done through operations that read like science fiction about humans trapped in a game reserve managed by alien overlords.

In March 2013, according to programme director Tom Stephenson, a fixed-wing aircraft circled above an established herd on Mount Langley, a 4m-high peak. Technicians onboard that airplane used radio telemetry to guide a low-flying Hughes 500 helicopter towards five pregnant female sheep known from previous DNA testing to carry diverse genetics. The helicopter herded the pregnant sheep up a mountainside. A man leaned from the helicopter and fired a net gun that tangled up one female after another. Another man, known as a "mugger", jumped out and tackled the netted females, hobbled and blindfolded them, and then wrapped them in bags that dangled from the underside of the helicopter.

The sheep were flown to a parking lot for blood tests that allowed disease diagnosis and more DNA- sequencing, as well as ultrasound testing for body-fat analysis and skeletal measurements of their foetuses. Next, they were trucked some 160km north, transferred into bags hanging below another helicopter, flown up near Mount Gibbs and freed to give birth among sheep they'd never met.

The view through those binoculars, in other words, lovely as it might be, will also be a deeply human cultural product. People have always manipulated the natural world. The most primitive farms are human-managed ecosystems; European aristocrats fenced off game reserves in the Middle Ages; American land managers have argued for more than a century over how to protect livestock from predators; and government agencies have long dumped hatchery-raised trout into streams so that we can have fun catching them. Radio collars and species recovery projects have been around for a while, too: In California alone, starting back in the 1980s, biologists saved both the peregrine falcon and the California condor from extinction.

More and more, though, as we humans devour habitat, and as hardworking biologists - thank heavens - use the best tools available to protect whatever wild creatures remain, we approach that perhaps inevitable time when every predator- prey interaction, every live birth and every death in every species supported by the terrestrial biosphere, will be monitored and manipulated by the human hive mind.

Conservation Metrics, for example, a California technology startup, is developing software to process immense data sets - from remote camera traps or, say, DNA samplers that might one day sit in wilderness streams and filter DNA fragments as a way of counting species in a given watershed. Dr Mark Hebblewhite, a wildlife biologist at the University of Montana, integrates real-time moisture and temperature data from satellites with data from accelerometers attached to birds' wings to keep tabs on bird flocks in migration. Drone aircraft allow Dr Tim Boucher, a nature conservancy scientist, to map wilderness terrain down to an astonishing 5cm resolution.

As for manipulation, African game managers use drones to herd wild elephants away from farms where they might get shot. A still more intriguing example comes from Western Europe, where large predators were mostly killed off by the Renaissance. Fifteen years ago, biologists in Trentino, Italy, went to Slovenia to capture 10 European brown bears, smaller cousins of grizzlies. These bears were released into the Italian Alps with extraordinary success; 10 bears are now 50.

"It's exciting to have these large, iconic carnivores roaming Central Europe where they were extirpated centuries ago," said researcher Francesca Cagnaccion.

Predictably, a few of the brown bears in Italy began to eat farmers' chickens, tear up commercial beehives and generally wreak havoc. Wildlife managers initially responded by outfitting problem bears with collars that allowed precise mapping of their movements. Then a pilot project tested sensors placed around local farms and other temptations. These sensors detect a signal from collars attached to bears and other wildlife, and then communicate with one another in a wireless network that delivers deterrents in random patterns: bear spray fired by hidden guns, followed by sirens and bright lights, and then by robotic dogs lurching out of robotic doghouses accompanied by the prerecorded sound of barking bear hounds. If all goes according to plan, the entire system - collars, sensors, deterrents - will be operational this year.

RE-WILDING

Like most people, I would miss the un-manipulated wild if it entirely disappeared, and I like a point that Dr Hebblewhite makes about technological breakthroughs tempting us to overestimate our own cleverness. Even with the latest digital tools, he notes, ecosystems, and specifically the challenge of restoring broken ones, remain profoundly more complex than any phenomenon or system that humans have ever mastered. "Putting astronauts into space, that was child's play, by comparison," he says. "The only thing rivalling an ecosystem for complexity is the human brain." Dr Hebblewhite also argues that conservation success stories like the bighorn - or the return of wolves to Yellowstone - contribute to what he calls the "Lego fallacy, the idea that ecosystems are like those Lego sets where you build the Millennium Falcon and if a piece goes missing all you have to do is find a replacement and pop it back in". Put another way - and a vast majority of conservationists would agree - the best strategy is still just to avoid destroying habitat in the first place, and sometimes to let developed places become wild again.

Take the return of wolves to Central Europe, made possible by the fact that humans no longer hunt and trap and poison them with the same dedication they once did. "All on their own, wolves found corridors to recolonise most of the Alps and Central Europe," Ms Cagnaccion says. "They are now in Germany, Denmark and close to Holland! It's like: 'What!? Wolves in Holland!' It happened because people left the mountains and the forests to live in cities. It was an unconscious re-wilding, and it is more successful than the bear reintroduction."

Once you break something and try to put it back together, you have to decide what exactly you want the restored version to look like. If you happen to be a government agency in a democracy, that means reassembling ecosystems based on the desires of competing interest groups. In the Rockies, where grizzlies, wolves and elk support tourism and real estate values, wildlife managers who track all those animals have to contend with home owners who don't want the family dog ripped in half and hunters who wonder why, when it comes to eating elk, we'd want to give wolves priority over humans in picking the tastiest-looking bulls. The Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Programme eventually had to stop killing mountain lions because too many Californians hated the idea of government hunters shooting those beautiful cats, regardless of the benefit to bighorn sheep. Decisions like these, based on public opinion, might some day dictate the subtlest interactions between animals everywhere.

Still, surveillance and manipulation of the wild sure beats doing nothing, especially when technology can make conservation easier. Take the recording devices that have become the spyware of the backcountry. Only a few years ago, researchers trying to count great grey owls in Yosemite had to hike into the forest, hoot, wait for response hoots from actual owls, and do their best to tell them apart. Now the same researchers can set out sensors that record every noise in the forest. Computers then crunch this data (a week's worth runs to a jaw-dropping 23 terabytes) and identify the voices of distinct owls. Machine-learning software may soon make this easier by identifying the sound, say, of a particular female owl responding to a particular male bringing food to the nest, or of a juvenile begging for food, either of which would indicate the presence of a nesting pair.

Remote cameras have also proliferated in wilderness backcountry and these, too, are a big help to wildlife conservation. In January last year, for example, field biologists Stephanie Eyes and Toren Johnson snowshoed out to retrieve the memory card from a motion sensor camera in an obscure corner of Yosemite. According to biologist Sarah Stock, that camera had been baited with scent tucked into a white athletic sock nailed to a tree, part of an effort to lure and identify rare high-altitude carnivores like pine martens and wolverines.

The pair pitched their tent, crawled in, plugged that memory card into a small hand-held camera, and saw images of the first Sierra Nevada red fox known to have entered Yosemite since 1916, when a ranger killed the last one documented in the park. This recent sighting prompted a petition to the federal government to list the so-called greater Yosemite population of the Sierra Nevada red fox as threatened. That, in turn, set in motion a recovery effort, directed by Dr Stock, that has deployed more cameras. With luck, these cat-size canids might become a common sight along Yosemite's trails.

Then there is the tantalising possibility raised by the GPS satellite that picked up a signal from the collar of grey wolf OR-7 as it wandered from Oregon into California in 2011. There had not been a wolf sighting in California since 1924, so OR-7's walkabout - and the fact that it wore a collar - was responsible for the listing of grey wolves as a California endangered species. OR-7 eventually meandered back to Oregon to start a family, and is now the breeding male of the so-called Rogue Pack in Southern Oregon. Just last year, however, a wildlife surveillance camera picked up images of a different wolf pack in Northern California. That discovery led to the development of plans for protecting the pack and accommodating wolves elsewhere in the state, should they proliferate.

In densely populated California, as wolf numbers grow, the obvious next question will be, what about grizzly bears? Grizzlies are the California state animal, after all, featured prominently on the state flag - despite the fact that no grizzly has been sighted in California since wolves disappeared, in 1924. Dr Bernie Tershy, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a co-founder of Conservation Metrics, points out that California has great reaches of plausible grizzly habitat, public sentiment that favours wildlife conservation and a robust technology industry. If huge predatory carnivores can be made to coexist with humans anywhere, it has to be here. Unsightly collars on all those predators might well diminish the romance, but it would be a small price to pay for the pleasure of their enduring company on earth.

"I loved working in really remote parts of the world where the wildlife was there just because it was there and no one was managing it," says Dr Tershy, who spent years as a field researcher. "And I love seeing bears without collars, but they're going to have to get along in densely populated areas just like people do."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'The unnatural kingdom'. Print Edition | Subscribe