Wildlife

August 2021

This month, wildlife runs freely through our feature stories. We showcase a Research Wildlife Biologist whose insatiable curiosity shapes his workday as well as his leisure time, research employing environmental DNA to establish the distribution of lake sturgeon, and a partnership exploring whether climate adaptive forest management strategies can mitigate negative impacts on moose populations in Minnesota.

Environmental Education

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Featured Scientist

Scott Stoleson

Scott StolesonAs a 4-year-old, Scott Stoleson carried a steady stream of snakes and spiders into his family’s living room to share them with his mother, who supported his fascination with nature but was less-than-enthusiastic about the in-home show-and-share. His parents’ support, and the support of a long line of people, beginning with an elementary school principal who taught Stoleson the word “ecology” and encouraged his interest in birds, helped Stoleson convert intense curiosity into a career in science.

Most of Stoleson’s career as a scientist has been based on his work in the Northeast, but before that, he worked as a field technician in the Galapagos Islands, did graduate work in the savannahs of Venezuela, and did post-doctoral work in the New Mexico desert. 

As a research wildlife biologist for the Northern Research Station in Irvine, Penn., Stoleson has studied birds and the communities in which they live, including the species they consume, species that consume them, and the habitats in which they live. “I am interested in everything,” Stoleson said. He is currently part of a study investigating wood turtles, a species that is classified as being of high conservation concern due to pressure caused by habitat fragmentation and their popularity as pets.

As you talk to Stoleson about his career, you will hear an almost equal report on wildlife he has studied and people who have provided guidance and connections throughout his career. Today, he is taking a turn at mentoring young people, including a young woman who worked for him in her first field technician job; he met her when she was a high school student volunteering for an annual bird banding event that Stoleson conducts. He served as an advisor on her graduate studies; today she is a college professor and a research collaborator.

Years of research have not abated Stoleson’s curiosity. In his free time, he has become interested in fungi, a kingdom that is neither plant nor animal and about which very little is known.  “We know just a fraction of what is out there,” he said. “We’re just learning what the species even are.”

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Featured Product

Applying New Technologies Support Conservation of Ancient Fish

Screenshot of Climate Change Tree Atlas 4.0.Lake sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens, are living dinosaurs swimming in the freshwater of the Great Lakes.

Though once abundant, their population is estimated to be just 1 percent of its historic levels caused by overfishing, dam construction, and habitat loss due to increased river sedimentation and industrial pollution. A Northern Research Station scientist and collaborators are using a breakthrough technology, environmental DNA (eDNA), to help determine lake sturgeon distribution so managers can target areas for conservation.

The oldest and largest native fish species in this region, lake sturgeon first appear in the fossil record an astounding 200 million years ago. Growing to up to 9 feet long and weighing upwards of 300 pounds, this gentle giant is also extremely long-lived with females reaching more than 150 years old.

While efforts are underway to restore this iconic species across the Great Lakes, informed conservation planning requires accurate information about lake sturgeon distribution in rivers, streams, and lakes. Until recently, gathering such information over a large region was a daunting, expensive, and time-consuming task. Now, researchers with the Northern Research Station, in collaboration with the Hiawatha National Forest and University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point have a new tool in hand: eDNA.

Environmental DNA is a breakthrough technology in fish and wildlife monitoring that ties traditional field-based ecology to advanced computational tools and exacting molecular methods. All living beings shed body cells (dry skin or scales in the case of fish), so eDNA technology can detect DNA from just a couple of cells in an environmental sample. This technology can reveal important information on species presence quickly and more cost-effectively than traditional sampling techniques. So, if a lake sturgeon has been swimming upstream, a downstream water sample can confirm its presence.

Deahn Donner, Research Landscape Ecologist with the Northern Research Station is leading this effort with Lucas Langstaff, Fisheries Biologist, Hiawatha National Forest. “Our goal is to build a predictive spatial distribution model to support science-based decision making for identifying and prioritizing areas for lake sturgeon spawning habitat restoration and protection within rivers on the Hiawatha National Forest,” said Donner.

“This collaboration allows us to combine resources and expertise in order to utilize new technology and advanced methods to manage and protect lake sturgeon habitat,” said Langstaff. “The Forest Plan for the Hiawatha National Forest has goals to restore lake sturgeon in the Whitefish and Sturgeon Rivers, and this project is putting us on the right path to make that happen.”

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Featured Partnership

Partners Work Together to Keep Moose in the Northwoods

Brown moose on brown grass field during daytime.

Moose hold an iconic status in Minnesota and are recognized for their intrinsic ecological value as well as their importance in shaping the cultural identity, recreational economy, and hunting heritage of the state. Moose in Minnesota, however, need help. Parasites and disease, food availability, habitat quality, and changing environmental conditions brought on by a warming climate are some of the possible factors that have contributed to their over 60% decline in numbers over the past decade. In recent years, summer temperatures have increased, and winters have experienced less snow creating conditions within moose range more favorable to white-tailed deer. Deer carry a parasitic brainworm that while harmless to deer, is fatal to moose. Heat stress and booming tick populations – also brought by climate change — further exacerbate the problem. What actions can forest managers take to improve moose habitat in the near-term, while also planning for future forest conditions?

Deahn Donner, Project Leader and Research Landscape Ecologist with the Northern Research Station has partnered up with the US Geological Survey (USGS) Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, Superior National Forest, Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources (DNR), Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, 1854 Treaty Authority, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Voyageurs National Park to examine how climate adaptive forest management strategies can mitigate negative impacts on moose while reducing contact with deer. Through this partnership, forest managers and moose experts have come together to identify the key broad- and fine-scale moose habitat characteristics that can be managed at operational scales and how forest management techniques, such as timber harvesting and prescribed fire, can support healthy moose populations.

“We can use the information gained through this partnership to demonstrate the effects of different public and private land owner strategies on forests within the broader context of changing climate influence on forests that can then be used to project the future distribution and abundance of Minnesota’s moose population,” said Donner.

“Much of northern Minnesota is a patchwork of ownership – state, federal, county, tribal, and private,” said Dr. Michelle Carstensen, Minnesota DNR, Wildlife Health Program Supervisor. By working together, partners are strategically identifying areas across multiple land ownerships where management actions can lead to improved moose foraging and cover habitat under both current and future forest conditions. Carstensen notes that “by taking an all-hands-on-deck approach, we’re taking our best shot in ensuring the long-term persistence of moose in Minnesota.”

“A priority of the Superior National Forest is to be working together across the landscape in an ‘all-lands’ approach to managing for moose habitat,” said James McFarland, Ecosystem Staff Officer on the Superior National Forest.  An all-lands approach will be critical for success of maintaining this iconic species on this landscape.  “Through further understanding the impacts to habitat quality and disease, from the effects of climate change, we as land managers can make more effective decisions towards improving conditions for moose.”  The Superior National Forest hopes to leverage what is learned to use our available tools, funding and partnerships to identify shared areas of interest to create the most favorable conditions on the landscape across ownerships.  

Funding for this project was provided by the USGS’s Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Last updated: 07/30/2021