In the early 1960s, at the Cedar Creek Natural History Area, a biological field station for the University of Minnesota, a radio-tracking system kept watch on denizens of the wild. At various times, the system—made up of two rotating yagi antennas on 100-foot towers placed one-half mile apart—tracked the whereabouts of thirty-five red foxes, five white-tailed deer, three raccoons, six cottontail rabbits, and nine snowshoe hares. The system could record the simultaneous location of every instrumented animal at forty-five-second intervals over a twenty-four-hour period. Humans quickly proved to be the constraint in the system. It took “film reading girls” six to eight hours to transfer every twenty-four-hour record to a base map (p. 35).
What were the institutional forces, disciplinary questions, and management concerns that drove this obsessive surveillance of nature? And how were human interactions with wildlife transformed in the process? In Wired Wilderness, Etienne Benson offers a thoughtful look at how radio-tracking technologies came to alter the practices of wildlife biology and management in the post–World War II period. In the opening chapter, “Cold War Game,” Benson provides a much-needed analysis of how “electronic technologies of the Cold War and the space age,” coupled with funding from agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission and the Office of Naval Research, infused fields like wildlife ecology with an engineering vision. While this vision could provide new perspectives, it was easy to lose sight of the animal as a living being, and instead see it only as “a data machine” (pp. 5, 31).
The following three chapters focus on case studies detailing different wildlife controversies in which radio-tracking came to play a prominent role. In “The Poetry of Wilderness,” Benson focuses on a heated and public debate in the 1960s and early 1970s over grizzly bear tagging and research by John and Frank Craighead in Yellowstone National Park to analyze the enduring challenges of managing wilderness ideals. The next chapter investigates the diplomatic subtleties of international scientific research and wildlife conservation through the exportation of American radio-tracking technology to Nepal. In the Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project, American researchers found themselves subject to accusations of scientific imperialism. There they confronted issues of knowledge and power that, at first, they were ill-prepared to understand or negotiate. In the final case study, Benson provides a compelling analysis of the intertwined networks of biologists, the military, and oceanaria in marine mammal research. Here, he [End Page 242] focuses on the obstacles scientists faced in conducting tagging experiments in the wake of growing public sentiment for dolphins and whales and an expanding federal regulatory apparatus for marine mammal protection.
The plot of Wired Wilderness revolves around the tension between intervening and knowing. What level of technologically mediated intimacy have biologists and the public been willing to accept in the alleged effort to save a species from extinction? In a voyeuristic culture, where inquiring minds want to know, when do the rights of individual animals supersede scientific curiosity? As marine biologist Kenneth Norris observed, “How much manipulation should society allow in the name of discovery, or even of the protection of the animal themselves?” Benson is at his best in illuminating this fundamental tension, which often has driven a wedge between animal rights and wildlife conservation. Yet as he suggests in the concluding chapter, the “virtual intimacy” achieved between individual animals and mass audiences through the proliferation of tracking data available on the web now helps to sustain a celebrity culture of animals, and, I suggest, animal rights.
Wired Wilderness opens a window onto one aspect of a much more expansive landscape, which environmental historians and historians of technology have yet to fully explore—namely, the logic and technologies of monitoring and surveillance that became instrumental to the infrastructure of postwar environmental science. Wired Wilderness is an important addition to an emerging picture on how and why efforts emerged to keep a pulse on the planet.