Montana State University

MSU researcher builds better radio collar

July 28, 2004 -- By Jean Arthur, MSU News Service

John Winnie, Jr., a Ph.D. candidate at Montana State University, created an inexpensive GPS tracking devise to assist research on wolf-elk interactions. (Photo courtesy of John Winnie)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN--He has worked with muggers and gunners and now Montana State University doctoral student John Winnie, Jr. has invented his own elk-tracking device to lower research costs and improve tracking success.

High-risk adventure and a quest for scientific knowledge drew Winnie, an award-winning photographer, to MSU from Kalispell to work on a doctorate in ecology. Adrenaline and necessity had him buzzing around in helicopters helping "mug," or capture elk. He buckled radio-collar tracking devices on the kicking, bucking, ungulates that weigh up to 900 pounds.

"We were net gunning the animals from a bubble helicopter," said Winnie, now in his last year of doctoral studies. "The gunner fires a net onto an elk. The net flares out over the animal, and then the mugger jumps out of the helicopter onto the tangled animal to restrain it."

A biologist then places a radio collar on the animal, takes blood and fecal samples, estimates the animal's age from its teeth and finally, untangles it from the net--all in about a half hour.

"Everyone gets kicked," said Winnie. "It is exciting stuff, but when you consider the cost involved in studying wild animals in rugged terrain, it's mind boggling."

For four years, Winnie has worked with MSU ecology professor Scott Creel studying wolf-elk interactions in the Porcupine, Taylor and Teepee/Daly drainages between Bozeman and West Yellowstone.

To study elk behavioral and spatial responses to wolves, they needed high-tech, global positioning system collars that offered hourly tracking in addition to traditional radio collars, which require a person to use hand-held telemetry to track each animal.

"We wanted to determine where the elk were moving every few hours and needed GPS collars, which were a formidable $3,500 each," Winnie said. "The purchase would not only consume much of the research dollars, but the available collars often failed. So I decided to build my own."

At first, Creel was skeptical. He knew they needed a better device because the commercial units did not collect data well. Some had faulty drop-off mechanisms, which meant that even if the collar had worked properly, it could not be retrieved to download the data.

"John said, 'Look, if someone can sell a tiny handheld GPS for $150 and make a profit, then the components have to cost far less,'" Creel said. "John wagered that it had to be possible to make a GPS collar for way less than $3,500."

Winnie constructed two prototypes on his own time and money.

"Fortunately, the components were inexpensive," he said. "These units could acquire a position in about a minute and store 5,000 fixes on board. Once I had working devices and showed it could be done, Scott came up with the money to work on refinements and go into production."

"After testing dozens of lightweight aluminum boxes, plastic sleeves and exotic epoxy resins, John came up with a small, lightweight, self-contained package that we could simply
rivet to a regular radio collar," said Creel. "John tested trial versions by soaking them in buckets of water overnight, smashing them on the floor, and freezing them at minus forty degrees. When they stood up to that, we put them on the elk, and we've had 100 percent success."

They collected more than 20,000 locations from 18 elk over the last two winters and now know a great deal about the ways that elk respond to the risk of predation by wolves. They used traditional radio telemetry to find the wolves, which had radio collars too.

The researchers currently have nine GPS collars on elk and hope to complete their study next year. By then, Winnie can add "inventor" and "Ph.D." to his resume.

Note to editors: A related story, titled "MSU research: Bull elk oblivious to danger at dinner time" is available at

Contact John Winnie 582-0779 or Scott Creel at 994-7033