Black bears in Yosemite

in Every Job Is A STEAM Job

Tech in the Wild: How Park Rangers Use Technology to Protect Wildlife

Every Job is a STEAM Job is our series looking at why your kids will need tech literacy and coding skills to succeed in their future careers, no matter where those careers take them. In our introduction to the series, we looked at how technology is changing fashion, the restaurant business, professional sports, and more. Today, we’re taking a close look at the professionals protecting our national parks.

When connecting with nature, most people think about setting aside technology, or at least taking out their earbuds to listen to birdsongs instead.

Although there’s definitely something magical about watching a sunset over the mountains or seeing a deer with her young, technology doesn’t have to be banished from the experience. In fact, technology plays an important role in how National Park Service Rangers help protect the environment and learn about animal populations.

Here are 10 examples of park rangers embracing technology, plus how you can get involved with the park services to preserve our natural treasures.

1. Creating Safer Guest Interactions

Today’s park rangers rely on GPS, AI sensors, and a litany of recording technology to keep an eye on animal populations. Not only does this protect wildlife, but it keeps park guests safe.

Park rangers use GPS tracking devices to monitor black bears in Yosemite National Park — which is an especially important task because black bears can present a real danger to park visitors. They’ve even been known to smash windows and rip open car doors to see if there’s food inside.

“In 1998, there were 1,600 encounters with bears. Now, there are fewer than 100 every year,” Ezra David Romero reports for NPR. With the help of public education and park rangers tracking bears with GPS collars, the number of aggressive incidents is down, and fewer bears are being killed because they get too close to people.

Both the human and natural world benefit from the rangers’ oversight.

2. Using Data to Track Animal Populations

Black bears are far from the only animals that rangers track. Amelia Urry at Grist spoke to one ranger, for example, whose job was counting marmots all day. While hiking and mapping these creatures is fun, the fieldwork tends to be slow and unreliable.

But thanks to the ability to capture constant footage from all across the parks, park rangers are collecting more data than ever without overexerting their resources (or themselves). Today’s park rangers are data scientists and analysts just as much as they’re biologists and wildlife protectors.

“Sending field researchers out to count seabirds or listen for frog calls is expensive and limited — a human scientist needs to sleep at some point,” she writes. “A microphone, on the other hand, needs nothing but a fresh set of batteries and an empty memory card.”

3. Connecting with Guests to Encourage Safety

Working as a park ranger means communicating with visitors about the safety and wildlife in the park. The National Recreation and Park Association explains that technology (something that used to be viewed as a distraction from nature) is used by park staff to connect with guests in faster and more effective manners.

“Beyond administrative solutions, technology is also changing how parks engage park goers and encourage interaction with nature,” Karen Zgonc writes. “In the past, technology in parks was considered taboo and often criticized, but now geocaching, self-guided trails with QR codes, live streaming, free Wi-Fi, education technology, and virtual hikes are all examples of ways a park can use technology to enhance a connection to nature.”

The more information rangers have, the better they can protect their charges — both human and animal.

Elephants in Africa

4. Finding Poachers in the Dark

Ideally, animals could live safely in parks and preserves without fear of poachers. However, this isn’t always the case. Across Africa and Asia, many rangers need to use technology to stop hunters and protect these delicate ecosystems.

Poachers typically operate under the cover of darkness to kill protected animals like rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks. Today, technology is changing that.

Infrared cameras, artificial intelligence, and drones are just a few forms of technology that rangers are using to spot poachers, Sean Patrick Farrell reports at Wired.

Infrared technology is particularly useful, as anything living appears as a white shape on the screen — and it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a hippo and a man with a gun. Unfortunately, as park rangers adopt this technology, so do the poachers, who use it to find animals and avoid rangers. This makes technology an arms race to see who has the most effective tools.

5. Protecting Wildlife for Future Generations

Technology isn’t just making it easier for park rangers on the ground. It’s also giving rangers a high level view of their parks, animals, and the people protecting them.

Emily Freer at Intelligent CIO writes about how the Domain Awareness System (DAS) maps the positions of radios, aircraft, vehicles, and animal sensors so rangers can watch their movements from the office on a real-time dashboard.

When the system is fully-functional, it will protect 90,000 square miles of land. DAS has been integrated with other tools and is used in 46 countries to track and monitor the local wildlife. It also powers the “Save the Elephants Tracking App,” which many rangers use to follow these living giants across Africa.   

6. Identifying Poachers to Police Officials

In many ways, working in Africa’s national parks is similar to working as a crime-scene detective.

Adam Cruise followed Kruger National Park’s Senior Investigator for Environmental Crime Investigations to see a poached rhino earlier this year. The team takes photos of the scene, looks for evidence left by the killers, and even sends the bullets used to a lab for ballistic analysis.

In December 2016, the park launched a surveillance system called Postcode Meerkat, funded by the Peace Parks Foundation.

“Rangers, the South African Police, and National Defence units make use of radar and electro-optic movement-detection sensors to detect abnormal movements within the park during the night,” Cruise writes.

Since the launch, dozens of poachers have been caught and no rhinos have been lost within the detection area.

Bryce Canyon in Utah

7. Giving Visitors Virtual Tours When they Can’t Visit In Person

While technology is important for stopping poaches and tracking animals, it can also be used to encourage citizens to learn more about the natural world around them.

In 2016, the National Parks Service celebrated its 100th birthday with celebrations across the country. As a birthday gift, Google used 360-degree video and VR technology to create virtual tours of five national parks, including the Dry Tortugas in Florida, Bryce Canyon in Utah, and the Kenai Fjords in Alaska.

“Exploring the world is something that’s always been a bit of a luxury for those who can afford to travel, but technology is changing that,” Sarah Perez writes at TechCrunch. “With VR and 360-degree videos, you can now immerse yourself in virtual environments that give you a real sense of what a place is like, without actually being there.”

In fact, Google specifically focused on parks that are hard to get to or far away for most Americans to make their experiences more accessible for everyone.

8. Creating Education Tools and Hiking Companions       

The team at PopUp Play highlights multiple other ways the National Parks Service is fostering a love of the natural world through technology:

  • Most park educators carry iPads where they pull up trail maps, use field guides to identify wildlife and snap photos to document later. With just a few clicks, visitors have a wealth of information about the trail around them.
  • The Katmai National Park & Preserve posts webcams of their Alaskan bears catching salmon and roaming through their natural habitat. As with Google’s VR experience, you can feel as though you’re in Alaska without leaving the house.
  • Some parks have developed smartphone walking tours, where visitors can use their mobile devices to hear audio guides as they walk through the trails. This helps them learn even if they’re not interacting with a real park ranger.   

By highlighting how amazing our world is, the National Park Service is encouraging more people to get out and appreciate what they have to offer.

9. Identifying Native Pikachus and Jigglypuffs

Of course, some visitors are flocking to the parks on their own. Although many park rangers have biology degrees and are familiar with the local wildlife, many found themselves researching new animal species in the summer of 2016, when Pokémon Go debuted.

According to Daniel Nelson at Backpacker, national parks across the country have reported a surge of visitors looking to catch ‘em all as they wandered through the trails. Some lesser-known parks saw an increase of 400 visitors that month.

“This effort was on display at the National Mall, which has become a gamer-favorite for its wealth of in-app landmarks, called PokéStops,” Nelson writes. “Rangers will soon begin leading guided Pokémon tours across the grounds.”

Along with helping visitors find elusive Zubats, these tours help rangers make sure visitors aren’t wandering off the trails or getting in dangerous situations. The guides also talk about the parks themselves, in hopes of bringing people back after the Poké-craze dies down.

As more game developers invest in virtual reality, parks departments will have a better idea of what crowds to expect from them and how to take advantage of the technology.

10. Preserving Underwater Ecology

Our natural parks don’t just cover the land. They also protect the sea.

The robotics club of Clatsop Community College is working to learn more about what’s under the water with the help of the parks service and creative technology. Edward Stratton at The Daily Astorian reported on the group of students who created an underwater robot for the Maritime Archaeological Society to assist in shipwreck location.

The team has built a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to capture footage and complete dives that humans couldn’t before. One ship that they’re inspecting is the Santo Cristo de Burgos, a Spanish galleon wreck from the late-1600s that was carrying beeswax. To this day, beeswax still washes up on the local beaches, and guests are encouraged to turn it over to park rangers for analysis.

Students Can Take Steps Today to Become Park Rangers

There are many paths that students can take to become park rangers during their school years.

According to EnvironmentalScience.org, most park ranger positions require a four-year bachelor’s degree, typically in relevant fields like biology, forestry, or natural resource management.

By taking science classes and joining after-school clubs, students can foster a love of nature and prepare for college coursework. Today’s experiment identifying butterflies could be tomorrow’s master’s thesis.

Interning and Volunteering

Jacob W. Frank shared his story about becoming a park ranger with The Outbound Collective. He started with an unpaid internship to gain experience and then kept applying to find a paid position.

“There are a few different ways to land an internship, but the main ways are through partner organizations like the Student Conservation Association,” he writes. “Volunteering also works and both are great ways to view the agency from the inside, create some contacts, and possibly network into a paid position.”

Typically, more than 200 people are reviewed for a park ranger position before the service starts calling for interviews, so it is a highly competitive field. Eventually, Frank was hired to work at Glacier National Park and began his dream career.

Recruiting Top Ranger Talent

There is one other way to join the ranks of today’s rangers, but you need a keen sense of smell, four legs and a fur coat.

Last year, Montana Public Radio reported on Glacier National Park’s newest recruit, a two-year-old border collie named Gracie. As a “Bark Ranger,” Gracie herds mountain goats and bighorn sheep to keep these animals at a safe distance from humans.

Like any job, this required training before she was able to enter the field. Gracie spent several weeks learning to move sheep around pens to get to know her new charges. Gracie also works to teach people how to view the local wildlife safely.

Yosemite National Park

Forming Clubs to Improve Local Parks

While park rangers dedicate their lives to improving America’s natural resources, they’re always looking for creative new ideas to help connect with visitors.

The Acadia Youth Technology Team, which the Smithsonian highlighted as one of the top groups using technology to enhance parks, is a teen-run think tank dedicated to Maine’s Acadia National Park.

In the past few years, AYTT has created QR code labels for plants so people can identify them, captured time-lapse videos of sunrises and used 3D printing to create a model of an ancient walrus skull.

What started as four local high school students has turned into a movement to encourage more youth to connect with nature.

Getting Out and Enjoying Nature

One of the best ways to support park rangers and the National Park Service is to visit a park and connect with nature.

“In U.S. cities such as San Francisco or Washington, there are high school students who live near the Pacific Ocean or the Potomac River, respectively, but have never seen their waters,” Milton Chen, National Park Service board advisor, writes for EdWeek.

To close this nature-experience gap, President Obama created the Every Kid in a Park plan, which gave every fourth grader and their families a free national park pass. It also encouraged teachers to take their fourth grade classes to learn in the parks.

A few hours in a park, whether it’s to catch Pokémon or to look at bugs, can instill a fascination with nature and a desire to protect it. Today’s classroom visits are inspiring the next generation or park rangers, who will work to protect wildlife, stop poaching, and protect Earth’s delicate wonders.