UW Presence to Be Strong at ESA's Annual Meeting

July 27, 2012
Doctoral candidate Arthur Middleton will discuss how predators, such as wolves, affect elk behavior at the Ecology Society of America’s annual meeting Aug. 5-10. (Photo: Arthur Middleton)

More than 30 University of Wyoming faculty, staff and students will present their research findings at the 97th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America Aug. 5-10 in Portland, Ore.

A number of the research topics are relevant to Wyoming. Managing greater sage grouse nesting habitat; the reduction of elk calves in areas where large predators, such as grizzly bears and wolves, have been restored and/or reintroduced; rangeland assessment as it pertains to food production challenges; and the negative effect of the mountain pine beetle epidemic on the mortality of lodge pole pines in Medicine Bow National Forest are some of the subjects UW presenters will cover in either oral or poster presentations.

“I would definitely put the University of Wyoming in the high end (of presenter numbers), in the top 25 or 30,” says Liza Lester, communications officer for ESA. “UW is one of the big ecology schools.”

Approximately 4,000 individuals are scheduled to attend the annual meeting, dubbed “Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing and Sustaining our Ecosystems.” The gathering will take place at the Oregon Convention Center.

Examining Wyoming’s ecology

Arthur Middleton, a UW doctoral candidate in ecology who will graduate in August, plans to present an oral paper, which focuses on whether predators (wolves) affect the feeding behavior, nutrition and even reproduction of their prey, in this case, elk.  

“We spent four years studying this question in northwest Wyoming and, although we detected clear influences of wolves on elk behavior, these effects were not large enough to influence elk body-fat levels and pregnancy rates,” says Middleton, of Charleston, S.C. “Instead, we found that high rates of grizzly bear predation on elk calves -- compounded by drought impacts that reduce elk pregnancy rates -- better explain recent declines in the productivity of the elk in the northeastern portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Although wolves are clearly a contributing factor, their influence is by killing elk, not ‘harassing’ them.”

Rangeland assessment and its relationship to food production challenges is the subject of Kristie Maczko’s Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable (SRR) poster presentation.

Food production derived from U.S. rangelands will face challenges from changing land-use priorities, population growth, loss of open agricultural spaces, policy shifts and climate change, says Maczko, a research scientist with UW’s Ecosystem Science & Management Department. Climate change may include rising temperatures, variable rainfall patterns, frequency of extreme weather, severity of invasive species and pest infestations, and changes in livestock forage quantity and quality.

“Rangelands’ contributions to goods and services that people depend upon are often overlooked because of measurement complexities and inconsistent data,” she says. “The ability to accurately assess rangeland systems becomes more important as issues confronting food production continue to increase in the U.S. and around the world.”

Amarina Wuenschel, from Boise, Idaho, will present an oral paper that examines the links between ecological site differences and the characteristics of greater sage grouse nesting habitat.

“Ecological sites are being used by public land management agencies as the foundation for management,” says Wuenschel, a master’s candidate of rangeland ecology and watershed management in UW’s Department of Ecosystem and Science Management. “However, links to wildlife habitat are currently not well described.”

She says ecological sites are land classification units that describe soils, hydrology and vegetation, and provide a basis for understanding ecosystem function. During her research, Wuenschel examined vegetation components, such as sagebrush cover and height, which are important to sage grouse habitat. She compared those to non-nesting sites to learn if nesting habitat is more reliable on particular ecological sites.

Wuenschel learned that ecological sites may differ in being able to support nesting habitat and that some ecological sites within sagebrush ecosystems may be unable to produce the vegetation required in habitat guidelines.

Rangeland assessment and its relationship to food production challenges is the subject of Kristie Maczko’s poster presentation at the upcoming ESA annual meeting. (Photo: Agricultural Research Service)David Reed, a doctoral student in ecology within UW’s Department of Atmospheric Science, has been studying the ecosystem response to the pine beetle outbreak at a field site in the Chimney Park area in Medicine Bow. His paper focuses on measuring the net exchange of carbon dioxide, water vapor and energy between the ecosystem and the lower atmosphere.

After three years of measurements, Reed says he and other collaborators have seen large changes at the forest’s stand level. Stands that have low mortality show ecosystem processes that control water cycling and carbon uptake that are largely unchanged, he says. By comparison, in stands that have a high mortality, there is an increase in relative soil water and light that reaches the ground. This has caused improved conditions for understory growth.

“What this means is, that even though mortality rate is high (78 percent during summer 2011), we are seeing signs that the forest understory on the surviving trees in the ecosystem are taking up much of the slack from the majority of dead trees in the forest,” says Reed, of Portland, Mich. “In terms of carbon and recycling, there isn’t as large of a disturbance as predicted.”

An opportunity to share

According to its website, the ESA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of scientists founded in 1915. With offices based in Washington, D.C., its mission is to promote ecological science by improving communication among ecologists; raise the public’s awareness level of the importance of ecological science; and ensure the appropriate use of ecological science in environmental decision making by enhancing communications between the ecological community and policy makers.

“This conference offers an excellent opportunity to share information, develop partnerships and identify potential funding streams,” Maczko says.

“I think the value of research is increased, in part, by sharing it with diverse audiences and forums such as the ESA,” Wuenschel says.

Middleton, who will begin a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale this fall, says the annual meeting is significant because it allows UW researchers to report their predation findings from studying an intact large mammal system to other scientists conducting similar studies (on amphibians and insects) at smaller scales. In addition, the research is relevant to the conservation and management of large mammals in Wyoming and other states in the region, and could help those wildlife managers who are facing similar issues elsewhere, he says.

For a schedule of presentations, including those from UW researchers, go to http://eco.confex.com/eco/2012/webprogram/programs.html For more information about the annual meeting, go to http://www.esa.org/portland/pub.php

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