Aaron Johnston, who earned his Ph.D. from SEFS in spring 2013, was recently awarded a prestigious, two-year postdoctoral research position with the U.S Geological Survey’s Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program! Johnston studied competition between eastern and western gray squirrels in the Puget Sound lowlands for his dissertation (working with Professor Emeritus Steve West), and he will be moving to Bozeman, Mont., after the winter holidays to begin the fellowship.
Selected through a competitive proposal process, Mendenhall Fellows help USGS staff conduct concentrated research around a number of important areas. Johnston’s proposal, “Extinction dynamics and microrefugia of the American pika,” will pair him with Dr. Erik Beever in Bozeman to explore the effects of climate change on pikas in the Cascades and Northern Rockies, though he hasn’t finalized his study area yet. He’ll have a research budget and be able to bring on a couple assistants to help with the project.
American pikas (Ochotona princeps) are a smaller relative of rabbits and hares. They’re an herbivorous alpine species that spread south with the last ice age, and now they’re holding on in high-altitude mountain areas in western North America. Their dependence on colder temperatures and preferred habitat—talus fields and rock piles at or above the tree line—has generally restricted their range to “sky islands” at the tops of mountains, where movement from one region to another can’t happen quickly, if at all. As a result, a warming climate threatens to shrink or eliminate the habitable range of pikas in the coming decades, and some estimates already suggest that 40 percent of American pikas in the Great Basin have disappeared in the last century, with the remaining populations retreating to even higher elevations.
Johnston says there are competing hypotheses about why this large-scale extinction is occurring. One widely supported theory revolves around the fact that pikas can’t survive prolonged exposure to high temperatures (more than a couple hours above 80 degrees, in fact, can kill them). Yet in a few regions, where temperatures far exceed that maximum—such as Craters of the Moon and Lava Beds national monuments—some pika populations have found a way to survive using microrefugia to escape the heat. Other hypotheses focus on phenology, and whether changing temperatures will reduce available vegetation for pikas, or if warmer winters will reduce available snowpack for insulation and expose pikas to extreme cold.
To address these questions and help design effective conservation strategies, Johnston’s project will involve modeling and mapping pika habitat topography using LiDAR. He’s been working in Professor Monika Moskal’s Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Lab, and he sees powerful applications of LiDAR for wildlife management. “I think it’s a really exciting new technology that has enormous potential we’re just starting to realize,” says Johnston.
Project Summary The objectives of this study are to:
1. Develop broad-scale maps of talus at high-resolution through fusion of LiDAR and multispectral imagery;
2. Develop predictor variables for untested hypotheses about substrate, snowpack and phenology;
3. Evaluate regional variation in extinction mechanisms by incorporating new data on extirpations outside of the Great Basin; and
4. Evaluate differences in habitat and connectivity maps created by models with and without microclimate and microhabitat variables.
This project will use limited field work to characterize substrate at selected sites for development of talus maps, and supplement existing data on pika persistence at historical sites of occurrence. Results of this study will increase understanding of pika responses to climate change, inform conservation strategies, and provide map products widely applicable to many research areas, including wildlife ecology, plant ecology, geomorphology, hazard assessment and hydrology.
Congratulations, Aaron, and good luck with this tremendous opportunity!
Julie Hower, a senior Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) major, split her childhood between the two coasts: first out west in the Los Angeles area, and then back east near Tampa, Fla., for her high school years. By the time she started looking at colleges, though, she felt the call of the West once again.
“Because I grew up in LA,” she says, “my dad would take me to Yosemite and Sequoia, so I really missed the West Coast.”
She considered a number of schools, including a few in California, but a University of Washington campus tour in 2008 sealed it for her. “It felt like a great fit,” she says.
Hower arrived on campus originally interested in studying marine biology and fisheries, but later in her freshman year she attended a seminar with Professor Aaron Wirsing involving his research with tiger sharks and dugongs, and wolves and elk. She loved the concept of predator-prey ecology and quickly shifted her focus to the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). “I knew I wanted to be a wildlife major,” she says.
In the next few years, she took advantage of a wide range of field courses, including Spring Comes to the Cascades (ESRM 401) with Professor Tom Hinckley, and Wildlife Research Techniques (ESRM 351) with Professor Steve West. Then she took “Wildlife Conservation in Northwest Ecosystems” (ESRM 459), which begins during spring break with an intensive week in Yellowstone National Park. Led by Professors John Marzluff, Monika Moskal and Wirsing, the course focuses on a range of wildlife and management issues in the park, including corvid distribution and wolf predation.
The experience really resonated with Hower, and this past winter she signed up to take part in a long-running study of the wolves in Yellowstone as part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
Back in 1995 and 1996, after decades of wolves being completely absent from the ecosystem, 31 were reintroduced to the park. Since then, the Yellowstone Park Foundation has worked with the National Park Service (NPS) to research and closely monitor the wolves, including carrying out two 30-day winter surveys every year—one at the start of the season, and one at the end. Technicians receive a small stipend and free housing, and they operate as volunteers for the NPS.
This year marked the 19th winter of observations. From the beginning, one of the project leaders has been Rick McIntyre, a biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project who’s been involved with monitoring the park’s wolves since 1996. McIntyre is famous for the countless hours he’s invested in these observations, at one point logging more than 3,000 consecutive days heading out to look for wolves. The survey crews who work with him don’t quite have to match that standard, but they don’t fall too far off that pace.
Each volunteer is assigned to follow one specific pack. Hower and the other members of her crew—which included two graduate students, one from South Dakota and another from Wisconsin—were charged with tracking the seven wolves of the Junction Butte Pack.
For 30 days in March, their weekly schedule involved six days in the field and one day off. Using radio telemetry, they’d drive through their pack’s territory along the main park road and try to locate the wolves, and then hike out for a closer view when they zeroed in on the pack. Their job was to record a number of behaviors, including monitoring interactions with elk, bison and bears, as well as predator-prey encounters: the chase and the attack, noting which wolves did what, whether it was a pup that initiated or the alpha took the lead. They also performed field necropsies of prey to determine the age, sex and condition of the individual.
They’d routinely put in 13-hour days, topped off by some paperwork at the end of it. “It’s not a glamorous job,” says Hower, “and the days get very long and tiring. But it’s an awesome and rewarding experience seeing these amazing animals in the wild.”
Of course, finding the wolves in the first place was no easy task. “A lot of people have this ideal that you’re going to see wolves every day,” she says. Yet you’re talking about tracking 80 or so wolves—or actually seven, in the case of this one pack—ranging through Yellowstone’s nearly 3,500 square miles.
Numbers aren’t the only challenge, either. During Hower’s first week in the park, the temperature was about -22 degrees, and the wind was howling with 50-60 mph gusts. Toting their equipment, her crew spent hours hiking to the top of a ridge in pursuit of the wolves, and they didn’t get their first glimpse until the third day. They set up their tripod and spotting scopes, hands shaking in the bitter cold, bracing against the wind and hoping they weren’t blown off the mountain—but they had finally located the pack. “It was a grand introduction,” she says.
From then on, Hower never got tired of seeing the wolves. The excitement was fresh each day, because during the undisturbed quiet of a Yellowstone winter, you never know what’s lurking around the next bend.
“On my very last day, I was getting ready to leave the park and drive back to Seattle, and I decided to reminisce with a drive out to the Lamar Valley,” she says. “Right as I made the turn out of the Tower Ranger Station, a wolf crosses in front of my car about 10 feet ahead of me.”
It was a female, 889F, that used to be part of the Junction Butte Pack but had separated in February to go with a lone male, 755M. “I was just in shock and laughing,” says Hower. “I couldn’t believe it was happening as I was ready to leave the park.”
That was a fine send-off after five incredible weeks in the park, and she’s now back on campus wrapping up her final quarter before graduation this June. Graduate school might be down the road, yet for now she wants more field experience. In fact, she just accepted a position as a Wildlife Biological Sciences Technician with Helena National Forest, where she’ll be surveying wolverines, Canada lynx and snowshoe hares. She’ll be living in Lincoln, Mont., and can’t wait to get started shortly after graduation.
Given her many field courses and hands-on research training, as well as field tech jobs and internships at Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park, Hower has put herself in an excellent position to thrive as a wildlife researcher—and she’s already well on her way!
“I’m so happy I came up here,” she says. “It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.”
(Dear readers: This story is slightly longer than your typical blog post, so we beg your indulgence and recommend you find a comfortable seat, and possibly a fresh cup of coffee.)
Ask Steve West to point out his hometown on a map, and you’d better have a full United States atlas handy. He grew up in a military family, and though he was born in San Jose and later lived in Sacramento while his father fought in the Korean War, his family crisscrossed the country depending on the Air Force base where his dad was stationed. What West can pinpoint, though, is what he learned and picked up at just about every town along the way.
One of the family’s earliest stops, while West was still in elementary school, was Mineral Wells, Texas. It was the 1950s, and West remembers a special trip they used to take once a month. They’d pack him and his younger sister into the car for the 70-mile drive into Fort Worth, where they’d stop for cheese sandwiches at the Woolworths counter. After lunch, his parents would drop him off to spend half the day exploring the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
“They’d just turn me loose,” he says. “I’d muck around in that museum until sometime in early afternoon, and then they’d come back and pick me up and go home.”
His mom grew weary of sweeping dust from under the door every morning, and the Wests eventually moved on from Texas. But a seed had been planted, and wherever the family moved after that—from Texas to Illinois, New York to Georgia, Alaska to Alabama—West found sanctuary in museums and the wild areas around military bases, where he’d hunt for lizards, snakes, toads, frogs and scores of other critters. He was developing a lifelong love of wildlife and science, and the giddy excitement of wondering what’s hiding under the next rock.
Through his undergraduate and graduate days, and from the moment he first joined the College of Forest Resources as a professor of wildlife science in 1979, he never lost an ounce of that childhood curiosity. In his field research courses, you could always find him up to his knees in a pond hunting for frogs at night, trapping small mammals and bats, turning over leaves and logs or freezing his knuckles searching for salamanders in a mountain stream. He did it all with a twinkle in his glasses and a devious grin—a good-natured challenge to his students that if he could do it, so could they. Science, after all, is a whole lot of fun.
He’s now officially retired, but you’ll see that same glint in his eye anytime he’s talking about a local beer festival or prepping a wine tasting for a school event; if he’s brimming with optimism about Husky sports, or telling stories from his glory days in the field. Get him to reminisce about close calls (“In my 34 years here, I never killed a student, so that’s a plus”), or gags involving rattlesnakes, tall fishing tales and other hijinks with Professor Emeritus Jim Agee, with whom he co-taught Wildlife Research Techniques (ESRM 351) for many years.
What you’ll learn, above all, is that he’s been through enough scrapes and adventures to fill several entertaining volumes. And while we don’t have the time or space to capture the whole Steve West story, we did catch him on one of his weekly visits to campus—when he pops in to water his plants or catch a seminar—to pull out a few of his formative moments and favorite memories.
In 1959, after a “sentence of three years” in Warner-Robbins, Ga.—where West picked up little league baseball and spent summers swatting away torrents of ferocious gnats—the family was all packed up for an exciting transfer to Germany. But the assignment fell through at the last minute, and they were abruptly rerouted to Fairbanks, Alaska, only a year after it had become a state.
West was in middle school at the time, and he remembers there was not a lot to do but fish and play baseball, which was fine with him. “Alaska was a raw place,” he says. “We were there before everyone caught all the local fish, so the challenge was getting the lure out of the water before you caught something.”
He had similar success on the mound, as his team won the Alaska state championship in the run-up to the Little League World Series. West had pitched the winning game, and when they moved on to the regional, they beat Nevada but lost to Washington. Despite the disappointment, though, West was undefeated as a pitcher!
The High (School) West
There’s a Forrest Gump serendipity to much of West’s childhood, and the family’s next move —trading the frosty wilderness of Alaska for the steamy summers of Montgomery, Ala.—dropped them into the Deep South at the boiling point of the civil rights movement.
West was just starting 10th grade at Sidney Lanier High School, home of “The Poets.” (Their crosstown rivals were the Robert E. Lee Generals, so victories for the Poets naturally gave truth to the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”) “For the first two years, you had to go to a different part of town to see a black person,” says West. “It was totally segregated.”
During his junior year, however, the first two black students arrived at his school of about 3,000 kids. The tension in town was relentless, he says, and the famous 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery passed a few blocks from his house. One of West’s neighbors, as well—and also a classmate and track teammate—was Richmond Flowers Jr.
Flowers’ father was attorney general of Alabama and an outspoken opponent of racial segregation (Governor George Wallace once even had him thrown in jail for refusing to keep a school legally segregated). West says the younger Flowers might not have survived his dad’s politics if he hadn’t been a premier athlete and star of the football team; he would go on to play football for the University of Tennessee, and then professionally for Dallas. There’s even a book out about the senior Flowers, Bitter Harvest, which has a forward written by former President Jimmy Carter.
After his days as a Poet, West headed back to California to attend college at Berkeley. His father had maintained residency in California, so even though he arrived during the first year the UC system charged in-state tuition, he still got quite a bargain at $113 a quarter.
He started his freshman year in 1966. San Francisco was alive with “Flower Power,” an age of social upheaval and revolution, and West sported the requisite long hair and beard (made all the more feral by his hair being blond and his beard red). “Coming from Montgomery,” he says, “it was the most stark social change you could imagine. It was fabulous being there, but socially I was maybe 30 years behind the times. I spent the first two years of college catching up on many things other than academics.”
On the school side, the first class that really caught his attention was animal ecology in the fall of his junior year. After the class was over, he went in and asked his professor, Dr. Oscar Paris, if there was another similar class he could take as a follow-up. Paris narrowed his eyes at West and asked, “You’re not another [expletive] med student, are you?” When West assured him of his ecological intentions, Paris suggested he try a two-quarter graduate-level course, “Analytical Field Ecology.” It would be field-intensive and limited to eight students, and acceptance into the course would be highly competitive.
As West showed up at the informational meeting, he quickly realized he was surrounded by 35 to 40 graduate students, including a couple who were teaching assistants for his own classes. Just as he was feeling pretty hopeless, in walked this imposing figure, about 6’2” with spectacles. It was Frank Pitelka, chair of the zoology department. Professor Pitelka gave a quick rundown of the course, then started walking around the room, orally interviewing each student—for all others to hear—about his or her qualifications and interest in the course. West could feel the growing inadequacy of his resume, and he assumed he’d get hugely embarrassed when his turn came. Yet when Pitelka got to West and heard his name, he cast a knowing glance over at Professor Paris, who nodded in recognition. Pitelka moved on without any further interrogation.
The class ended up getting filled with eight graduate students—and West. “I was running in place for six months to catch up,” he says. Between the field exercises, hypothesis testing, collecting data, writing up and analyzing, it was full-time work. But he was sold on wildlife research. “I learned more in those two classes than I did in everything else the four years I was there,” he says.
An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse
Feeling galvanized about his future, West decided to go to grad school. He wasn’t initially interested in teaching, so he envisioned getting a master’s and perhaps looking for a position with an agency or research program. He applied to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and though they lost his application for months, they ultimately offered him a spot in their program.
This was no ordinary offer, either. They were willing to pay him $12,000 a year, which in the 1970s was a lot of money for a graduate student, ultimately to earn a Ph.D. in wildlife management and then come work in the Institute of Northern Forestry, run by the U.S. Forest Service, as an animal ecologist, dealing with the population ecology of small mammals. They were literally going to create a position for him as a wildlife biologist and pay all the costs associated with his doctoral research. Then when he was done, he’d come back on their staff full-time.
That was too tempting to refuse, so he called up Professor Pitelka to see if he could do his doctoral work back at Berkeley. He even got exempted from the teaching requirement since he was heading in a different career direction to work for the Forest Service, and the primary focus of the Ph.D. program was to train professors and academics. “I used to give my officemates all sorts of grief,” he says. “I was making so much more than they were, and they had to teach all these courses.”
With few distractions, West completed his dissertation—on the relationship between small mammals and natural forests—in only three years, including his field work. It was the spring of 1977, he had handed in his dissertation to Pitelka and was waiting to hear from his future employers in Fairbanks. He was due to start work in July.
That’s when President Carter ordered a federal hiring freeze, and suddenly West’s job was stuck in limbo for at least a year. So he skulked back into Pitelka’s office. “I go back in and Frank starts laughing before I say anything,” says West. But Pitelka rescued him by saying he’d set his dissertation aside for a while—meaning West could remain at Berkeley as a graduate student until his job came through, with one major change from before: He’d have to start earning his keep as a teaching assistant.
After that, he taught every quarter. And when President Carter extended the hiring freeze another year, West got so much experience teaching he became a teaching associate. Yet when the hiring freeze got extended a third year, West couldn’t stand the purgatory any longer. He contacted the Institute of Northern Forestry and was released from his obligations there.
Right about that time, a position opened up at the University of Washington in the College of Forest Resources. Thanks to the teaching experience he had never intended to develop, West ended up landing the academic job he had never planned to get. He joined the faculty in 1979 initially as a research assistant professor, not tenure track, but eventually found his way onto the permanent wildlife faculty after the program’s founder—Dick Taber, who had been the last graduate student Aldo Leopold accepted —left for a position in Montana.
The Last Word
We’ve left out dozens of other breadcrumbs in West’s story, but we’d be woefully remiss if he didn’t mention the story of how he met his wife. Back at Berkeley, one of West’s TAs in a plant ecology class had been a graduate student named Pam Yorks. West remembers being particularly proud of one of his class projects, for which he earned an A, but he never got his paper back.
Years later, not long after West had accepted his position at UW, he ran into Yorks on the steps by a side entrance to Anderson Hall. “That was a big surprise to find her here,” he says. She had graduated with her Ph.D. in Botany from Berkeley and was teaching at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. After that, she and West would occasionally cross paths on campus when she was coming up for seminars—and she eventually returned that paper to him, confessing that she had held onto it to share with future students as an exemplary project!
Yorks later joined UW as a graduate student, earned a master’s in information science and became head librarian for the Physics/Astronomy library (along the way, she even did a stint in the forestry library in the basement of Bloedel Hall). They got married, had their daughter Tracey, and settled into Seattle for the long haul.
Now, after logging 30-plus years together on campus, they both retired this fall. They certainly haven’t mothballed their purple and gold, though, and you have a good chance of running into them at most major Husky sporting events, from women’s volleyball to basketball and football.
If you do run into West and want to toast his career and retirement, you could do worse than clink glasses with one of his favorite cocktails, The Last Word, which he says is the unofficial drink of Seattle. It’s a gin-based drink from the days of Prohibition that has experienced a bit of a cult revival locally. The drink itself has a lime-green color and a tart, intense herbal boldness (in large part from the Chartreuse). Some love it; others give up after a few sips. For West, though, it’s an assertive tribute to the senses, and it has just the kick to get some of his best stories flowing!
Nothing gets the nervous/excited juices flowing like more faces in the crowd, so come out and support Jesse Langdon tomorrow afternoon, Wednesday, April 24, as he defends his thesis, “Forecasting the impacts of climate change on terrestrial species and protected areas in the Pacific Northwest!”
Part of the Landscape Ecology and Conservation Lab, Langdon’s faculty advisor is Professor Josh Lawler, and his other committee members are Professor Steve West and Elizabeth Gray. He will be giving his talk in the Forest Club Room from 1-2 p.m., with snacks and refreshments provided.
It’s a great opportunity to support a fellow colleague and student, and to help commemorate his years of research and contributions to the SEFS community!
Jim Agee, professor emeritus with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, could tell quite a few stories from his time in the field with students and other faculty—and, as it happens, they have a couple of him, too.
Professor Steve West, who co-taught wildlife field techniques with Agee for several years, recalls an overnight trip to Babcock Bench, overlooking the Columbia River. After a day of setting traps for small mammals and some vegetation work, Agee retired early to his tent. West and several students headed out on a night drive to spy reptiles and amphibians that had come out to soak up the last heat from the road. They came across a dead two-foot rattlesnake that had been run over yet looked very alive. A couple students brought the snake back to camp and coiled it right outside Agee’s tent. The next morning when he poked his head out, Agee was not impressed. “He was really teed off, but it was hilarious,” says West. “We got him for at least 10 seconds.”
“What clued me in on the snake was that it was coiled up backwards,” says Agee, “but I still had to think about it—and on a full bladder!”
When he wasn’t rubbing surprise from his eyes, Agee spent three distinguished decades as a scientist with the National Park Service and a professor with the University of Washington. “Most people would call me a fire ecologist,” says Agee, and his career spanned a great many more fields along the way.
Agee, who lives with his wife in Woodinville, Wash., grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, which was close enough for him to bus home on the weekends. “I was thinking about going to Humboldt State, but my mom said if I got into UC Berkeley, I was going. So that’s where I went, and it was a good choice.”
It was certainly a fateful choice in terms of his career direction. “I took a course called ‘Range Management,’” says Agee, “and the guy teaching it was one of the pioneers in fire ecology, Harold Biswell.”
Biswell was one of the first scientists to talk about fires as a normal, even healthy part of forest ecosystems and management. Agee liked the idea and was hooked. He went on to earn a degree in forest management and then stayed on at Berkeley to study with Biswell for a Master’s in Range Management.
At the time, forest fires made for a controversial subject. Biswell had long studied the use of controlled burns to manage grasslands, which was a widely accepted practice. Yet when he turned his theory on forests, Biswell drew fierce professional criticism, says Agee, as he butted against a powerful assumption that forests and fire were simply not compatible. People tried to get him fired. Even the dean warned him to cool it with his forest fire talk.
Despite the pressure and attacks, Biswell continued to advocate for the use of fire in dry forests, and in the end his views became accepted by the majority. By the time Agee earned his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1973—as Biswell’s last graduate student, in fact—fire had finally become an accepted tool of forest management, for the most part. “Fire is still not used at the scale it should be or historically was,” says Agee, “but Biswell was one of the pioneers to get people thinking differently about it. And by the time I got a Ph.D., he was kind of a hero.”
After he graduated from Berkeley, Agee taught one quarter of a fire management course and then left to work for the National Park Service (NPS) in San Francisco. Agee stayed there for five years until he got a call about a park service job in Seattle with what was then known as the Cooperative Park Studies Unit. The program allowed the NPS to station scientists at universities and have access to labs and—especially important at the time—computers and other technology. In return, you would act like a regular faculty member and teach, advise students, go on field trips, and generally participate in the academic world of the school.
For Agee, that meant placement in 1978 at the University of Washington, where he worked his way up the professor ladder for the next decade. He felt a great spirit of collaboration, and he says his colleagues greatly helped advance his career as a scientist. Yet since he was still an NPS employee, he wasn’t eligible for tenure. So when the opportunity came, Agee officially transferred over to the university and became chair of the forest resources management division, which eventually morphed into ecosystem science and conservation.
In 1993, he stepped down as chair to become a “regular old professor” again. That was also the year he published Fire Ecology: Pacific Northwest Forests. Agee considers the book one of his proudest academic achievements, and the text remains popular in the field today.
In the classroom, Agee taught a wide range of courses, including fire management, forest protection, some silviculture, forest ecology and wildlife field techniques. One of his favorites, naturally, was a course in fire ecology. “We’d go over to eastern Washington and look at areas that had burned with prescribed fires or wildfires, and compare the two, and look at the response of animals and plants,” he says. “We’d involve field managers over there, and it was a great introduction to what the students were learning in the classroom.”
Among his preferred test grounds was nearby Fort Lewis. It used to be an artillery range, and the fort wanted to make sure their prairie land wasn’t going to catch fire from ordnance going off—so Agee would head over with a troop of students. “We’d go down and help them ignite prescribed fires, and then watch it burn and see what would happen to the various plants. It was a nice laboratory for us, and only about an hour away from campus.”
Agee says field trips were a part of almost every class, and he spent some 20 to 30 days a year in the field. “We had a lot of fun doing those things,” he says.
Yet after 30 years of teaching undergraduates and graduates—and organizing countless field excursions—Agee decided to retire in 2007. Though he’s not hauling students across the state anymore, he’s far from idle. He’s taken on several research projects and keeps plenty busy as editor of the journal Fire Ecology. “The time I spend on for the journal is just perfect,” he says. “Fills my time and keeps me active.”
It also spares him from waking up next to rattlesnakes, which has to be quite a relief.