Xi Sigma Pi: Research Grant Winners + New Officers!

After a highly competitive proposal and review process, the Xi Sigma Pi forestry honor society is very pleased to announce the winners of its annual research grants—two for graduate students, and one for an undergraduate—totaling $2,200 in funding for the next year!

Lesly Franco

The top graduate student proposal came from master’s student Lesly Franco, who is working with Professor Ernesto Alvarado, for her project, “PM2.5 concentrations during prescribed burns and possible health effects.” She was awarded $1,000 to help her analyze data collected from prescribed burns and determine if spikes in PM2.5 concentrations during the burns are associated with increased deaths.

Master’s student Mitchell Parsons, who is working with Professor Laura Prugh, was awarded $500 to assist with his project, “Trophic relationships of reintroduced fishers in the South Cascades.” He plans to use stable isotope analysis and isotopic signatures to assess the presence and stability of diet specialization of reintroduced fishers in the South Cascades, and their degree of individual specialization, in order to better manage wildlife reintroductions in the changing landscapes around the world.

Hannah Booth

For her undergraduate proposal, Hannah Booth won $700 for her project, “The relationship between wildfire and the cascading impacts of predators on plants.” Working with Professor Aaron Wirsing as her faculty advisor, Hannah will explore how wolf presence and fire shape patterns of deer herbivory and plant responses, in order to show how abiotic forces such as fire affect predator-prey interactions and their relationship with plant communities.

Congratulations to the 2017 research grant winners, and the many other excellent proposals the committee reviewed!

Also, on Friday, May 19, Xi Sigma Pi inducted its new officers for the 2017-18 year, including Hiruni Jayasekera as forester; Danyan Leng as assistant forester; David Diaz as secretary; Lesly Franco as treasurer; Aoifa Fae as ranger; and Fabiola Pulido as the continuity officer!

SEFS Researchers Partner with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and four researchers from SEFS—including Professors Josh Lawler (PI) and Aaron Wirsing, Affiliate Professor Peter Dunwiddie and postdoc Michael Case—have teamed up on a new research project, “Evaluating Flora and Fauna Diversity in the John Day/Willow Creek Project for Special Status Species Protection.”

2016_12_army-corps-of-engineersWith $284,968 in funding, the project in northwest Oregon aims to:

1)   Inventory and identify terrestrial animal and plant species and their habitats. This comprehensive inventory will include native and non-native and invasive, threatened and endangered, noxious and nuisance plants and wildlife on 13,600 acres of project lands;
2)   Delineate and identify dominant ecological communities, including abiotic components;
3)   Assess the status, health and viability of resident wildlife and plant populations and their habitats, including special status species, as well as biological diversity and environmental health of ecological communities;
4)   Provide qualitative and quantitative information about the identity, location and abundance of state and federal classified invasive and noxious species within dominant ecological communities;
5)   Develop an integrated pest management plan.

The relevant data will be entered into a GIS database and generate a series of maps to show a detailed, scaled overview of ecological communities, species habitats, and general habitat conditions.

Funding for the project is made available through a cooperative agreement (W912HZ-16-2-0031) under the Pacific Northwest Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (PNW CESU), a partnership for research, technical assistance and education to enhance understanding and management of natural and cultural resources.

Next Thursday (12/8): IFSA to Host Forestry Panel

On Thursday, December 8, at 5 p.m. in the Forest Club Room, the UW local committee of the International Forestry Students’ Association (IFSA) is hosting a panel, “On the Comparison of American and European Forestry Methods.”

Featuring two SEFS undergrads who recently traveled to a forestry conference in Austria, as well as Professors Greg Ettl and Aaron Wirsing, the panel will explore aspects of forest management that lead to success across nations. The event is free and open to the public, and there will be a light reception afterward.

Visit the IFSA Facebook page or email jamesaugust@gmail.com for more information. Check it out!


Notes from the Field: Kyrgyzstan

This September, Professor Aaron Wirsing joined his doctoral student Shannon Kachel in Kyrgyzstan for a couple weeks of field research. Working in collaboration with Panthera and the local managers of the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve in the Tian Chan Mountains, Shannon is exploring interactions between snow leopards and wolves, which compete for prey (argali and ibex) amid the regions’ towering peaks.

Doctoral student Shannon Kachel.
Doctoral student Shannon Kachel.

“During my stay, we weathered a tornado, forded rushing rivers on horseback, and hiked hard every day in a truly herculean effort to capture and collar these elusive carnivores,” says Aaron. “I left the field camp without seeing a leopard, but not without indelible memories of stunning alpine scenery and the bumps and bruises to show for some truly challenging field work at 3,000 meters (~10,000 feet). I am also happy to report that, merely a week after my departure, Shannon and company captured their first snow leopard of the season, a male!” (Read more about their first successful collaring last fall.)

Prior to returning to Seattle, Aaron also enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime visit with his father, Robert, in the Kyrgyz capital city of Bishkek. Through an incredible coincidence, Robert—a recently retired professor—was doing his own research in the area, and they were able to rendezvous for two nights (though it took nine hours, in turns by horse and by car, for Aaron to reach the rendezvous point!). The highlight, says Aaron, was a trip to Ala Archa National Park, which offers majestic alpine vistas just 40 kilometers outside of the city.

Photos © Aaron Wirsing.

Aaron, left, with his father Robert Wirsing.
Aaron, left, with his father Robert Wirsing.


Alaska Bear Project: Year Five

Now in its fifth year (and counting), the Alaska Bear Project continues to build momentum. Working in collaboration with Professor Tom Quinn from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Professor Aaron Wirsing just returned from Bristol Bay, Alaska, where researchers have been non-invasively studying brown bears hunting along six sockeye salmon spawning streams since 2012. Thus far, they’ve collected more than 2,000 hair samples for genetic analysis using barbed wires strung across the streams, and detected 121 individual bears.

Professor Aaron Wirsing, left, and Professor Tom Quinn on the tundra near one of their bear wires on Whitefish Creek.
Professor Aaron Wirsing, left, and Professor Tom Quinn on the tundra near one of their bear wires on Whitefish Creek.

This year, for the first time, they’ve also been collecting video using motion-activated trail cameras deployed in conjunction with the wires, and elsewhere, on each stream. They’ll be analyzing the videos to explore bear behavioral responses to the wires (e.g., do they learn to avoid them?), and to track the timing and location of different bear behaviors, including foraging and traveling. Working with Anne Hilborn, a doctoral student in Professor Marcella Kelly’s lab at Virginia Tech, they’re also using the videos as a means to better communicate their work and findings to the public.

Below, check out one of their videos from this summer, which provides a great example of the type of footage they’re collecting: a brown bear mother passing by with two cubs!

Photo © Blakeley Adkins; video © Aaron Wirsing.

Grizzly Mom with Two Cubs

Professor Wirsing Helps Launch Interactive Video Lesson

Last week, in collaboration with Dr. Michael Heithaus from Florida International University and Patrick Greene from SymbioStudios, Professor Aaron Wirsing helped complete and launch an interactive video lesson based on the Washington Wolf Project.

Funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the lesson is designed for use at multiple grade levels—from elementary to high school—and facilitates learning about ecosystems, animal behavior, the importance of predators, and how ecosystems and animals respond to environmental changes by allowing the students to be the scientists. The video, which focuses on how wolves are impacting deer behavior in Washington, spurs students to form their own hypotheses about the research, and it also includes a teacher packet with suggestions for how to extend the exercise and differentiate instruction.

Aaron says they anticipate the video will reach thousands of students as part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s ScienceFusion program, which aims to build inquiry and STEM skills.

It’s a pretty fun lesson—only about 8:30 minutes long—so take a look!

2016_06_Interactive Video

A Sabbatical Sojourn in Australia

Professor Aaron Wirsing just returned from a sabbatical sojourn in Australia, where he spent six weeks as a visiting professor at the University of Sydney. Hosted by SEFS Affiliate Assistant Professor Thomas Newsome, Aaron says the trip turned out to be quite the adventure.

Along the way, he logged more than 4,000 kilometers on the ground, highlighted by an epic drive from Alice Springs to the Tanami Desert along the legendary Tanami Track, which most Australians never see. He also paid visits to Melbourne for a guest lecture at Deakin University, and to Yulara for some hiking in the iconic Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Wildlife abounded at every turn, including a flood plains monitor (the biggest lizard he’s ever seen), a host of small marsupials in the Simpson Desert, and numerous dingoes.

For a more detailed account of his travels, and loads of additional photos, you can check out his research blog!

Photo © Aaron Wirsing.

2016_05_Aaron in Australia


2016 McIntire-Stennis Research Grant Winners

This fall, the SEFS Research Committee awarded five Graduate Research Augmentation Grants through the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Research program, totaling $72,209 in funding.

This special round of grants was designed to support graduate student research, with awards targeted for Spring 2016 or Summer 2016 (and with all funding to be spent in full by September 30, 2016). Read more about the funded projects below!

Awarded Projects

1. Nisqually Garry Oak Habitat: Cultural and Ecological Considerations for Successful Restoration in the Nisqually Tribal Reservation

PI: Professor Ernesto Alvarado, SEFS
Co-PI: Professor Steve Harrell, SEFS

Garry oak (Quercus garryana) ecosystems are a designated Priority Habitat for management in Washington State (Larsen and Morgan 1998). Although there are many research projects that examine how to restore Garry oak ecosystems for the purposes of establishing more habitat for endangered and threatened species like the golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) and Mazama pocket gopher (Thomomys mazama), respectively (Larsen and Morgan 1998), there are few studies that look at restoration for the objective of developing an environment for the purpose of cultural restoration, specifically agroforestry. We intend to evaluate whether Garry oak ecosystem restoration for the intended purpose of cultural activities (traditional medicinal and edible plant harvests, inter-generational education) will greatly change the components of the restoration and management plan of the Garry oak ecosystem.

Award total: $13,232

2. How Do Conclusions About the Effectiveness of Fuels-reduction Treatments Vary with the Spatial Scale of Observation?

PI: Professor Jon Bakker, SEFS
Co-PI: Professor Charles Halpern, SEFS

Restoration of dry-forest ecosystems has become a prominent and very pressing natural resource issue in the western U.S. Although mechanical thinning and prescribed burning can effectively reduce fuel loads in these forests, scientists and managers remain uncertain about the ecological outcomes of these treatments. This uncertainty reflects the short time spans of most restoration studies and a limited consideration of how ecological responses vary with the spatial scale of observation. This funding will support graduate student research that explores how ecological responses to fuels-reduction treatments vary with the spatial scale of observation, and will complement ongoing research on the temporal variability of responses.

Award total: $15,114

3. Growth and Physiological Response of Native Washington Tree Species to Light and Drought: Informing Sustainable Timber Production

PI: Professor Greg Ettl, SEFS
Co-PIs: Matthew Aghai, third-year Ph.D. student at SEFS; Rolf Gersonde, affiliate assistant professor with SEFS and Seattle Public Utilities Silviculture; and Professor Sally Brown, SEFS

Intensive management of the conifer-dominated forests of the Pacific Northwest has resulted in millions of acres of largely mono-specific second- and third-growth forests. These forests have simple vertical structure and low biodiversity, and consequently much lower value of non-timber forest products. Research on establishment of underplanted trees in partial light is needed to increase structural and compositional diversification of Douglas-fir plantations undergoing conversion to multispecies stands. However, the ecology of seedling establishment under existing canopies is poorly understood. The general aim of our research is to address the need for improved structural diversity in managed forest systems through a better understanding of species-specific performance potential of underplanted seedlings. This proposal extends ongoing research; in this phase we will document physiological differences in seedling performance.

Award total: $17,004

4. A Novel Reactor for Fast Pyrolysis of Beetle-Killed Trees

PI: Professor Fernando Resende, SEFS

In this project, we will optimize the production of pyrolysis bio-oil from beetle-killed lodgepole pine using a technique called ablative pyrolysis. We developed a novel and unique system for pyrolysis of wood that has the capability of converting entire wood chips into bio-oil. This characteristic is important for mobile pyrolysis units, because it eliminates the need of grinding wood chips prior to pyrolysis.

Award total: $15,887

5. Modeling the Effects of Forest Management on Snowshoe Hare Population Dynamics in Washington at the Landscape Scale

PI: Professor Aaron Wirsing, SEFS

The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is already listed as Threatened in Washington and, following an ongoing status review, likely to be designated as Endangered because much of its habitat has been lost to a series of large wildfires since 2006. Lynx subsist on snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus), and it is widely acknowledged that habitat quality for lynx is tied to the availability of this prey species, so forest management with the goal of promoting lynx conservation requires an understanding of the relationship between silvicultural practices and hare abundance. Accordingly, we are requesting summer 2016 funds to complete the third and final phase of a graduate research project whose objective is to assess the impacts of forest management on hare numbers across a large landscape in north-central Washington. By sampling a network of snowshoe hare fecal pellet transects spanning protected and harvested portions of the Loomis State Forest for a third consecutive summer, we will produce a model of hare relative abundance that will enable managing agencies to tailor their harvest plans such that they promote snowshoe hare availability and, as a result, lynx population persistence.

Award total: $10,972

SEFS Student Leads First Snow Leopard Collaring in Kyrgyzstan

SEFS doctoral student Shannon Kachel recently led the capture and first successful satellite collaring of a snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in Kyrgyzstan! The female, estimated to be between 6 and 7 years old, was caught near the border with China in the Sarychat-Ertash Strict Nature Reserve in the Issyk-kul Province of Eastern Kyrgyzstan.

© Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU
Camera trap photo of a snow leopard in Kachel’s study area.

The news was particularly exciting since snow leopards are among the most secretive and least studied of the big cats. They are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and scientists estimate that only 4,500 to 10,000 adult snow leopards remain in the wild. The exact number is difficult to pinpoint, though, since few leopards are ever seen. That’s why the GPS collaring is such an important breakthrough, as it will open an unprecedented window into the leopard’s movements and range—and also help with broader conservation efforts in the region.

Kachel, who is working with Professor Aaron Wirsing in the Predator Ecology Lab, is the principal investigator on a project involving a diverse range of international partners, including Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, and several Kyrgyz state agencies and research institutions. He and his research team had spent months trying for a successful capture, including suffering through several near misses. In the video below, for instance, a snow leopard investigates but ultimately shuns a snare on the right side of the frame. “That one is truly painful for me to watch,” he says. (The relevant footage ends around 43 seconds.)

So when Kachel was there for the actual capture of the female snow leopard, the experience was all the more unforgettable.

“When trapping snow leopards,” he says, “we continually monitor the status of the traps using radio transmitters that trigger an alarm when a trap is disturbed. At any hour of the night, we might be called on to hike out into sub-zero temperatures to release the animal as quickly as possible. On this particular night, I’ll admit that after my share of false alarms, I forced myself to keep my excitement in check for the long, dark hike up the canyon to the trapline. Even as I approached the final few meters to the trap, I still couldn’t see what we’d caught, until at the last minute, F1 (the cat’s designation) jumped up as far as the snare on her foot would allow her. She is the first wild snow leopard I’ve ever seen—after nearly nine months of studying the species in the field here in Central Asia—which made the experience all the more exhilarating. I didn’t really let it sink in until we had her safely collared and released.”

Kachel, left, listening for F1’s signal a few days after fitting her with the GPS collar, which will upload a location to his e-mail every five hours. “I wake up every morning eager to make sure she remains healthy and active—and awesome!”
Kachel, left, listening for F1’s signal a few days after fitting her with the GPS collar, which will upload a location to his e-mail every five hours. “I wake up every morning eager to make sure she remains healthy and active—and awesome!”

Kachel’s research is among only a handful of telemetry or satellite-based studies of snow leopards, and it is the first to focus on a population that exists independent of domestic livestock and the conflicts between large predators and grazing. Collaring this snow leopard, he says, will finally give researchers the opportunity to investigate snow leopard ecology in rare depth. Among other questions, they’ll get to explore the behavioral and numerical dynamics between snow leopards and their prey (mostly ibex and argali), as well as the dispersal patterns of subadult animals (tracks near the trap site suggest the leopard may have been traveling with three subadults on the verge of dispersing to find territories of their own).

Perhaps most critical for such a threatened species, this project will also give researchers a chance to answer the basic question of what kills snow leopards. It will help them build a more comprehensive understanding of direct threats to the species, and how to anticipate and account for the effects of human activities, like grazing and mining—as well as the risks climate change could pose in the snow leopard’s high mountain habitat.

Eventually, Kachel hopes to expand the study and collar the wolves that share the landscape with the snow leopards, and to investigate the direct and indirect effects of competition and coexistence between the two carnivores. He also would like to extend his project to neighboring areas to investigate interactions between snow leopards and human activities.

In the meantime, he can savor an incredible research accomplishment, which he says belongs to a wide range of partners.

“This truly was a team effort,” says Kachel. “I’m deeply grateful to the dozens of folks who have worked hard to make this dream a reality, and who put their trust in me to realize this vision—in particular Professor Wirsing here at SEFS, along with Tom McCarthy, Zairbek Kubanychbekov, Rana Bayrakcismith and Tanya Rosen Michel at Panthera.”

Camera trap photo of a snow leopard in the study area © Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU; Kachel listening for F1’s signal a few days after fitting her with the GPS collar © R. Berlinski/Toledo Zoo/Panthera; video clip of snow leopard © Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU.

Snow Leopard

Tribal Interns Assist Bear Study in Alaska

Based at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS), the Alaska Salmon Program conducts research on ecology, biocomplexity, fisheries management and other studies relating to Alaska salmon and their environment. Part of this research, led by Professors Tom Quinn from SAFS and Aaron Wirsing from SEFS, involves investigating coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos) abundance and behavior along sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) spawning streams in Bristol Bay, Alaska—including monitoring individual brown bear behavior through remote cameras and collecting hair samples for DNA analysis.

The program involves a number of partners, including the Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA), a consortium of 31 tribes whose mission includes providing educational opportunities to the native people of the Bristol Bay region. Each summer, BBNA research interns contribute to the Alaska Salmon Program, and this year Nadezdha Wolcott (below left) and Malcolm Upton assisted with hair sample collection as part of the noninvasive genetic component of the research.

“The bears were really active this year, the fourth of our study,” says Professor Wirsing, who recently returned from a field trip to Alaska. “So we really appreciated the interns’ help in collecting all of the hairs snagged on our barbed wires!”

Photo © Aaron Wirsing.