MONTE VISTA, Colo. (CBS4) – There’s groundbreaking research under way in southern Colorado. Scientists are using military technology to track Sandhill cranes.
The cranes stop off in Colorado as they migrate from Arizona and New Mexico to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Inside the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in southern Colorado, a congregation of migratory Sandhill cranes gathers. They draw tourists from across the nation.
“First part of February we start to seeing cranes come up from the south where they spend a good part of the spring here in the San Luis Valley,” Michael Blenden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.
This year, for the first time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teamed up with the U.S. Geological Survey for a high-tech surveillance mission.
“Part of the management of a wildlife species is determining its population trends, whether it’s increasing, decreasing or staying the same,” Blenden said.
In the most basic of terms, it is some of the first generation technology that the U.S. Army came up with for unmanned aircraft. Their technology has gotten so sophisticated that some small remote control planes were just sitting in a garage. So the USGS came along and said they’d put them to better use.
“We’ve been doing flights for about a year now. This is the third time we’ve been out at the refuge,” USGS pilot Chris Holmquist-Johnson said. “It’s sort of right now a proof of concept that we’ve started with trying to see what we can see with the systems that are on the plane.”
The government agencies used to fly a fixed wing plane and a biologist inside to count the cranes.
“This has a forward-looking camera and a Nader camera, which looks straight down,” Holmquist-Johnson said.
Now they say it’s a less expensive, quicker and more a environmentally-friendly option — not to mention they are recycling technology originally developed by the Department of Defense.
“We use a thermal infrared camera which allows us to take pictures at night while the birds are settled on their roosts,” USGS biologist Leanne Hanson said. “The cranes weren’t bothered by us flying over them at night.”
Scientists then count the number of birds that show up on the camera to get an accurate population count.
The experimental technology has worked so well the USGS plans to use it several other times later this year.