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Radio telemetry for black-footed ferret research and monitoring

January 1, 2006

By 1973, radio telemetry was regarded as an important potential tool for studying the elusive, nocturnal, and semifossorial black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), but fears of using invasive techniques on this highly endangered mammal caused delays. We began radio collaring ferrets in 1981. Use of radio telemetry on ferrets proved to be both challenging and rewarding. We document two decades of development and use that led to the present radio-tagging techniques and methods for radio tracking. The 7-g radio collar commonly used after 1992 was smaller and lighter, relative to mass and size of subjects, than collars used in studies of other Mustela. Other important developments were a Teflon® coating to shed mud, a highly flexible stainless steel cable for whip antennas, and a nondurable wool collar. Although collar-caused neck abrasions have continued to occur sporadically, a retrospective assessment of minimum survival rates for 724 reintroduced ferrets (392 radio tagged), using data from spotlight surveys, failed to detect negative effects of radio-collars. In a South Dakota study, ferrets that were found to have hair loss or neck abrasions when collars were removed did not exhibit movements significantly different from those of radio-tagged ferrets with no evidence of neck problems. Prototype transmitters designed for surgical implantation had insufficient power output for effective use on ferrets. Early attempts at tracking radio-tagged ferrets by following the signal on foot quickly gave way to following movements by triangulation, which does not disturb the subjects. The most effective tracking stations were camper trailers fitted with rotatable, 11-element, dual-beam Yagi antennas on 6-m masts. We used radio telemetry to produce 83,275 lines of data (44,191 indications of status and 39,084 positional fixes via triangulation) for 340 radio-collared ferrets during the reintroduction program. Tracking by hand and from aircraft augmented triangulation, allowing us to locate animals that dispersed long distances and enabling us to determine causes of mortality. Justifying further use of radio telemetry on black-footed ferrets requires careful consideration of costs and benefits.

Publication Year 2006
Title Radio telemetry for black-footed ferret research and monitoring
Authors Dean E. Biggins, Jerry L. Godbey, Brian J. Miller, Louis R. Hanebury
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Index ID 70180913
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center