Getting up close and personal with amazing wildlife – everything from large carnivores to forest songbirds – is a major job perk for park wardens and rangers, one that just doesn’t wear thin. But the job of a ranger or warden also comes with big responsibilities, like tracking and monitoring all of the animals in their care, big or small, in order to gather information that can be used to better understand how these wild inhabitants use and move across a landscape, and how they interact with other species, including humans. So how does wildlife work actually work?

Mist-netting songbirds allows banding and assessment of avian productivity and survival.

In Canadian national parks, monitoring strategies come in all shapes and sizes, and involve a variety of different tools, from 'mist nets' that capture wild birds for study, to net guns and helicopters used in the capture of wolves and caribou to better understand the predator-prey systems that have evolved over millennia. And with rapidly changing technology, the approaches to conducting all of this research and monitoring have also been shifting.

In the span of a few decades, radio collar and GPS technology in particular has advanced to the point that animals can be tagged or collared and monitored remotely, reducing disturbance and allowing them to continue with their normal activities while providing reams of data that give rangers insights into their movements, use of habitat and much more.

GPS collared caribou provide valuable insights into habitat use and seasonal movements.

Very High Frequency (VHF) radio collars had been used in Canadian parks to track wildlife for decades, helping rangers to locate animals (on the ground or from the air) on a regular basis and collect basic information about their home range size, seasonal movement patterns and habitat use. GPS technology has made this work much easier by increasing the amount of information gathered while reducing the need for costly monitoring flights and allowing for data collection on a 24-hour basis.

Radio-collared wolves can be tracked to evaluate their impacts on prey species such as woodland caribou and moose.

The critical first step to using any collar technology is actually getting the unit on. This involves the careful capture of an animal, and its handling and release after the collar is fitted. Monitoring the animal after it’s freed is the next step – rangers need to ensure the collars are functioning properly and the animal is not suffering any negative effects. The impact of capture strategies on animals can be a controversial issue, so it’s crucial that this work is carried out humanely and with the least possible impact on wildlife. Today, wildlife capture has to follow strict rules that are backed by animal-care committees responsible for overseeing the welfare of any animals used in studies in the national parks.

When the capture of a target species isn’t necessary, less intrusive strategies come into play, including surveys – conducted on the ground or from the air – to track population numbers and trends. Remote cameras and specialized microphones are also part of the 'unobtrusive' monitoring arsenal, and provide data like acoustic files and digital imagery, which can be archived for future reference and used to identify a broad range of species.

Remote cameras provide a non-intrusive means of collecting species-specific information.

These less intrusive approaches to monitoring eliminate the need to physically capture wildlife, lowering the risk of injury. They’re also better at helping rangers to understand the relationships between humans and wildlife, including how animals respond when human activities infringe on their habitat. 

Differences aside, there's one thing all of these strategies have in common: their main aim is to protect and maintain animal populations and their habitats, a primary role of parks and protected areas around the world.