Undergrad Spotlight: Julie Hower

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.

Julie Hower

“Each national park is different, but Yellowstone is something else,” says Hower, who has also worked on summer projects at Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks.

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.

Julie Hower

Hower sizes up a wolf track in Yellowstone.

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.

Julie Hower

Her crew once spotted a grizzly and a wolf in the same area, and Hower says they were jumping up and down with excitement—albeit from a safe distance.

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.”

Julie Hower

After a winter of surveying the wolves from a distance, Hower got to see 889F saunter across the road right in front her on her last day in the park.

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.”

Photos © Julie Hower.

Julie Hower

Video: The Ecology of Fear

Want to know how wolves are shaping local ecosystems in the forests of eastern Washington? Then check out this great new video from QUEST, which features Professor Aaron Wirsing, one of his graduate students, Justin Dellinger, and some of their research exploring why wolves and other top predators are crucial for healthy ecosystems and biodiversity.

A collaboration of six public broadcasters around the country, QUEST is a multimedia series that addresses pressing sustainability topics through articles, videos, radio reports, television broadcasts and educational materials.

In this seven-minute segment, you’ll get to see some fun footage from “deer cams” that provide a unique perspective on predator-prey relationships—not to mention some of the incredible field research going on here at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. Take a look!

Wildlife Science Seminar: Winter 2014

This afternoon, the Wildlife Science Seminar for the Winter Quarter kicks off with Professor Aaron Wirsing of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). Professor Wirsing will introduce the course and then give the opening talk, “Noninvasive exploration of brown bear behavior along salmon spawning streams in the Wood River Lakes System, AK.”

You can catch the seminars on Mondays at 3:30 p.m. in Kane Hall 130. The public is invited for each talk—there will be eight total—and students may register for course credit (undergraduates under ESRM 455, graduate students under SEFS 554).

Check out the full schedule below, and mark your calendars!

Wildlife Science SeminarJanuary 6
“Noninvasive exploration of brown bear behavior along salmon spawning streams in the Wood River Lakes System, AK.”
Professor Aaron Wirsing, SEFS

January 13
“Linking large carnivores to Yellowstone’s ecosystem via trophic cascades.”
Professor Emeritus Robert Beschta, Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, Oregon State University

January 20
No class

January 27
“The big bad wolf and baby stealing dingo: a cross continent comparison of two controversial top predators.”
Dr. Thomas Newsome, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, Oregon State University

February 3
“Occupy Elwha: Monitoring wildlife distributions relative to dam removal in the Elwha Valley.”
Dr. Kurt Jenkins, Research Wildlife Biologist, USGS-Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, Olympic Field Station, Port Angeles, Wash.

February 10
“The Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project—Using noninvasive survey methods to study carnivores in the North Cascades of Washington.”
Dr. Robert Long, Senior Conservation Fellow, Field Conservation Program, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, Wash.

February 17
No class

February 24
“A whale tale: The near extinction and partial recovery of Antarctic blue whales.”
Professor Trevor Branch, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington

March 3
“Wildlife Management in Alaska: Native Rights and Western Priorities.”
Professor Robert Anderson, University of Washington School of Law

March 10
“Carnivore conservation’s bigger picture: consequences of wildlife decline in West Africa.”
Professor Justin Brashares, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley

The Bear Essentials

When you think about salmon in Alaska, you might picture grizzly bears standing in a gushing stream and snapping up spawning fish as they leap against the current. (Even a Steamfresh® Chef’s Favorites frozen dinner commercial plays off this image, as does this John West Red Salmon clip).

But for all the iconic footage of salmon runs, this annual rite of passage and predation has gone largely unstudied from the point of view of individual bears—especially outside of easily observable areas.

The challenge is that observations of bears are generally too few and too close to reveal natural feeding behavior, so most of what we know about the bear-salmon relationship comes from fish carcass surveys: We see what’s been eaten, but not always who did the eating, or how often or where or when. That leaves a lot of unknowns, including how many bears hunt along salmon spawning-streams, and whether bears return to the same stream year after year.

To answer these questions and others, two units in the College of the Environment—the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS) and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS)—have launched a coordinated research project.

Professors Wirsing and Quinn

Professors Aaron Wirsing, left, and Tom Quinn. Since 1993, Quinn’s research has explored a number of dimensions of the salmon-bear relationship, including the effects of stream characteristics on bear predation rate, size selectivity, density dependence, evolutionary consequences and links to nutrient cycling.

Led by SAFS Professor Tom Quinn and SEFS Professor Aaron Wirsing, this new study is investigating coastal brown bear (Ursus arctos) abundance and behavior along sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) spawning streams in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Their project draws from decades of existing salmon research and introduces a completely new perspective by exploring individual brown bear behavior, including monitoring bears through remote cameras and collecting hair samples for DNA analysis.

The research team is housed at the Fisheries Research Institute, a program within SAFS, and based in the village of Aleknagik. In addition to Professors Quinn and Wirsing, the crew includes SAFS graduate student Curry Cunningham and Professor Lisette Waits from the University of Idaho.

Their work began in 2010 by placing the first cameras along salmon-spawning streams in the Wood River Lakes System. In July 2012, they then deployed barbed wire across three streams to begin snagging tufts of hair from foraging bears. This past summer, they expanded the research area and deployed two barbed wires each on six streams. One wire per stream is paired with a remote camera trap to document what happens when bears encounter the wires. The wires are set just high enough—55-60 centimeters—for bears to step gingerly over them, often leaving small tufts of hair behind (when good samples are collected, they call it a “good hair day”). The hairs, in turn, yield DNA samples that help researchers identify individual bears.

Hair Tuft

A tuft of brown bear hair snagged on a wire.

The study is designed to be noninvasive, so among the questions to answer was whether the wires would impact or otherwise disrupt bear behavior and hunting. Judging from the camera images so far—including many taken at night (see slideshow below)—the bears appear largely unconcerned with the wires, often stepping over and under multiple times in a single encounter (in the process, of course, leaving collectible tufts of hair).

In the first year of hair sampling last summer, the team collected 74 tufts from wires along Bear, Happy, and Hansen creeks. They have analyzed 41 of the samples so far and have successfully identified 15 different individuals—eleven females, four males, and all brown bears.

Field work is just winding down for this summer (at left, check out a slideshow of photos Professor Wirsing took a few weeks ago). They plan to continue the project for a few more years, and as researchers sort through several hundred new samples to analyze, they’re excited to open this window into a largely unseen and unstudied realm of bear behavior.

“Outside of a few highly visible areas, such as the McNeil River, the behavior of brown bears foraging on salmon has been largely shrouded in mystery,” says Wirsing. “We hope our work will reveal how feeding and social behavior of individual bears are shaped by the arrival of migrating salmon—and by extension how coastal brown bear populations might be affected by changes to the size and timing of salmon runs.”

***
Super Salmon
In the short video clip below, Professor Wirsing captures sockeye salmon swimming up Hansen Creek, which in some places is only a couple inches deep as it approaches Lake Aleknagik. You’ll get a glimpse—a tiny glimpse, mind you—of the herculean effort it takes for salmon to reach their spawning grounds. Their exertion is nothing short of heroic during this brutal slog. After all, even when they manage to dodge the maw of a hungry grizzly, they still have to muscle their way through narrow, shallow streams to reach their final destinations. In some cases, a few of the larger males get too fatigued to maneuver through the shallowest sections and end up stranded. Those beached souls then sometimes have to suffer through gulls pecking their eyes out as a final insult. No question, it’s an unforgiving business.

Slideshow photos, hair tuft and salmon video © Aaron Wirsing; all other photos © Tom Quinn.

Alumni Spotlight: Christina Galitsky

Christina Galitsky

After nearly a decade as an engineer, Galitsky changed course and headed to graduate school to study wildlife ecology at SEFS.

“Ecology is so much harder than engineering, despite what the majority of the population might think,” says Christina Galitsky, who recently earned a Master of Science from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). She would know: After nearly a decade as an engineer, Galitsky moved to Seattle in 2009 to begin graduate study in wildlife ecology—trading factories for field work, and lab goggles for binoculars.

What prompted this turnabout was many years in the making, and it started with a simple desire to feel more energized by her work.

Originally from Allentown, Pa., Galitsky moved to California in 1996 to attend graduate school at Berkeley. She had always excelled at math and science and felt it was a natural fit to study chemical engineering. After school, she spent the next nine years as a full-time engineer, first with an environmental consulting firm in Oakland and then with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Her work involved solving basic engineering problems for some of the poorest people in the world. No question, she says, the projects were immensely important and rewarding. Yet she got to a point where she’d be in a meeting and watch her colleagues be giddy and raving about a tiny engineering tweak, like getting a minute increase in efficiency, and she realized she wanted to share that same pulse of excitement with her job someday—and it wasn’t going to happen as an engineer.

Christina Galitsky

In her free time, Galitsky is an accomplished rock climber, mountaineer, snowboarder and lover of all things outdoors.

Galitsky decided to take some time off work to figure out her next move. She spent a summer interning with the U.S. Geological Survey on the Olympic Peninsula and researched graduate programs and professors studying wildlife biology, conservation and related areas.

She soon discovered SEFS and was particularly attracted to the work Professor Josh Lawler was doing with climate change and landscape ecology. She wanted to be involved in research that would directly influence policy or on-the-ground management, and when she met Lawler and visited campus, she felt a strong connection. “At first it was his research, and then our conversations,” she says. “I really liked his lab and the way he has his students weigh in on potential next students, which I think is really unique and special. Josh was clearly passionate about what he does and wanted to make a difference in the world. I liked all of those things about him.”

After so many years in the workforce, Galitsky wasn’t eager to take out new student loans and debt, so she was relieved to find that Lawler had funding for another Master’s student. Plus, he was open to her doing field work, which became the heart of her graduate program.

For her thesis, “Effects of Local Vegetation and Landscape Patterns on Avian Biodiversity in the Threatened Oak Habitat of the Willamette Valley, Ore.,” she spent several field seasons meticulously documenting birds, learning to recognize species by sight and sound, patiently listening and watching for long hours.

Christina Galitsky

Galitsky out birding.

“I found field work really hard, frustrating and amazing, all at the same time, every day,” she says. “Getting to see the sunrise every day and hear the birds in the morning was great. But having to get up at 3 a.m., not so good.”

The stress of field work, too, was different from her previous office deadlines. If things don’t go right in a field season—if your research doesn’t come together, or you need to adjust your methods—you’re in school for another year. “There’s more urgency to figure out how to make it right,” she says.

Galitsky persevered, of course, and she credits her committee, which included SEFS Professors John Marzluff and Aaron Wirsing, for their critiques and encouragement in building her confidence as a researcher. Above all, she’s grateful for Lawler’s support as her advisor. “Working with Josh was the highlight for me,” she says. “He just blew me away with how understanding, helpful and encouraging he was. He always seemed to have time for me, and he really helped me through grad school, probably more than he knows.”

Now, her transition from engineer to ecologist is complete: As of May 1, 2013, Galitsky is the program coordinator for Tree Kangaroo Conservation at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Not quite two months into her new gig, she says she feels privileged to have found a home at the intersection of so many of her interests. “The tree kangaroo program has both a wildlife and a people component, which was exactly what I wanted,” she says. “I think that’s why this project hits home to me. It’s been really fun working in a place where everyone has the same passions about animals and conservation.”

Tree Kangaroo

This photo, taken by Bruce Beehler, captures an incontrovertible truth about tree kangaroos: their incredible stuffed-animal cuteness.

Tree kangaroos are found only in one small region of Papua New Guinea, and Galitsky hopes she’ll get a chance to travel there in the next year or two with her boss, Dr. Lisa Dabek. Her current position, though, is not as a field research biologist, and she’s been focusing on fundraising, program management and outreach. “I’m probably most excited about the outreach,” she says. “We scientists aren’t always the best communicators, and I enjoy the challenge of being the link between scientific research and the public.”

As she settles into her new role, Galitsky has no regrets about her past career. Her new work, she says, isn’t more worthwhile; it’s just more her. Unlike her years spent in cement plants or steel factories, where she felt invested if not inspired, these days she finally has her passions and profession in tune. How can she tell? This time, the line between work and play is awfully fuzzy.

“I still love going out and watching birds and trying to identify them, probably to the dismay of my boyfriend and everyone around me,” says Galitsky. “I can’t shut it off!”

Photos of Christina Galitsky © Matt Gerhart; photo of tree kangaroo © Bruce Beehler.

Tree Kangaroo (Photo by Bruce Beehler)

Thesis Defense: Kristen Richardson!

As part of the Wildlife Seminar this Monday, June 3, Kristen Richardson will be defending her Master’s Thesis, “Using non-invasive techniques to examine patterns of black bear (Ursus americanus) abundance in the  North Cascades Ecosystem.”

Her talk begins at 3:30 p.m. in Kane 130 and is open to the public, so come support the culmination of her research at SEFS!

And what will Richardson be talking about?

Kristen Richardson

Kristen Richardson removing survey sites on her last trip to the field.

From 2008 to 2011 a large, multi-agency project deployed barbed-wire hair-snag corrals to collect DNA samples from black bears (Ursus americanus) in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE) of Washington State. Using the genetic and detection data, Richardson examined the influence of human activities and habitat characteristics on bear abundance across heterogeneous landscapes of the NCE.

No other research to date in Washington State has examined the influence of habitat and anthropogenic variables on black bears across such a large geographic expanse, and the results of her study should help guide management of black bear populations in the NCE. This research is especially important given the challenge of maintaining viable populations of a long-lived species with relatively low fecundity.

Richardson’s committee chair is Professor Aaron Wirsing, and the other members are Bill Gaines and Josh Lawler.

Photo © Kristen Richardson.

SEFS Students Descend on Yellowstone

Yellowstone

Clear blue skies greeted the research crew on a morning snowshoe hike to a wolf kill site in the Lamar Valley.

Before the crack of dawn this past Saturday morning, March 23, a caravan set off on the long, long drive to Gardiner, Mont., at the edge of Yellowstone National Park. On board were 15 students and three faculty members from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), all heading out to spend roughly a week of field study in the northern Rockies as part of a spring course, “ESRM 459: Wildlife Conservation in Northwest Ecosystems.”

Led by SEFS Professors John Marzluff, Monika Moskal and Aaron Wirsing, the group will be using the Northern Range of Yellowstone National Park, between Gardiner and Cooke City, as a staging area to explore patterns of corvid, and especially raven, distribution; elk anti-predator behavior (vigilance); and wolf predation. The class also addresses regional management issues, including wolves and bison leaving the park.

It’s a glorious time to be trekking through the Yellowstone backcountry. The group has special access to remote research areas, tourists are few and far between, scores of bison are out hoofing through the snow, and students occasionally catch glimpses of wolves, grizzlies and other wilderness gems.

Yellowstone

Professor John Marzluff helps orient students during their first full day in the park.

Of course, it’s a working research visit, and students spend long days trudging through the park—often at the mercy of the elements, which at this time of year can be ornery, if not downright savage. Then, after they return to campus on March 30, they begin working on group projects based on data collected. They will present their findings to the public at the end of spring quarter.

But even in the worst weather conditions, when even your expedition thermals can feel threadbare and drafty, how could you say no to this kind of hands-on experience in the wilds of Yellowstone?

Photos of Yellowstone trip © Monika Moskal/SEFS.

Grad Student Spotlight: Carol Bogezi

Field work for graduate wildlife students often involves a great deal of patience. You might spend days tracking wolves or grizzlies before you catch a glimpse, or even have to wait months trying to spy your first lynx.

Carol Bogezi

Bogezi and her “big kitty.”

Not so for Carol Bogezi, a first-year Ph.D. student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). She struck pay dirt on her first time out, capturing a full-grown, 150-pound male cougar in the North Fork Creek drainage of the Marckworth State Forest, east of Duvall, Wash. She had set out to the study site with Dr. Brian Kertson, a SEFS alumnus and cougar expert who now works with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, when they came across the treed cat.

“When you see one in a tree, you think it’s just a big kitty,” she says. “But when you have it down and are measuring it in your hands, it’s really big!”

Bogezi grew up outside of Kampala, Uganda, and moved to Seattle this past September to begin graduate work with Professor John Marzluff. Back home, she had most recently been studying the habitat and distribution of crocodiles in Kidepo Valley National Park, and she had done similar work with elephants and lions. What drew her to the University of Washington was the chance to study in a totally new environment, and also to focus on the human dimensions of wildlife interactions and management. Studying cougars in western Washington was a perfect fit.

She’s still fine-tuning her research question, but Bogezi is especially interested in investigating how wildlife responds to human activities, such as logging or hiking, in natural areas. Also, as in the case with cougars, how do you mitigate conflicts—especially within her study area, which extends up to the Seattle suburbs and the Interstate 90 corridor? Or, in cases where perception can be more damaging than reality, can you change human attitudes toward wildlife and facilitate greater community understanding and tolerance of local species?

Beginning later this spring, she’ll get another opportunity to explore some of those questions in a separate joint research project with Marzluff and Professors Stanley Asah and Aaron Wirsing. The study, recently awarded funding by the Institute of Forest Resources at SEFS, will approach the management of wolves in eastern Washington—specifically, whether it’s possible, via rancher compensation or other economic incentive programs, to support a healthy and sustainable wolf presence in the state.

Carol Bogezi and Croc

Bogezi captures a crocodile during one of her research projects back in Uganda’s Kidepo Valley National Park.

Bogezi says the challenge with wolves is similar to situations she experienced in Uganda involving elephants damaging crops, or lions taking livestock. She recalls showing up to heated meetings with farmers who had lost animals, or who had their fields trampled, and sometimes they’d even come waving spears. “If it’s touching their livelihoods, that’s where there’s conflict,” she says.

But the issue with wolves could be more emotional than practical—in part, Bogezi believes, because we’re raised on stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” that teach kids to fear and even hate wolves. Whatever the root causes or potential solutions, though, Bogezi is excited to get out and learn firsthand what’s driving perceptions. “I want to find out what people really think about the wolves,” she says, “and get ideas from the ranchers themselves about how to manage this conflict.”

When she completes her graduate work, Bogezi hopes to return to Uganda and, if possible, continue working there with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). She would love to replicate her research here back home, and to help mitigate wildlife conflicts in other geographical areas around Uganda and Africa.

By then, she’ll be thoroughly field-tested, having handled crocodiles, held a full-grown cougar in her lap, and stared down spears in the line of research. Certainly makes you wonder what kind of challenge she’ll take on next!

Photos courtesy of Carol Bogezi.

Students to Investigate Raccoon Ramblings

Thomas and Klein

Terence Thomas and Amy Klein

Whether you’ve ever been startled by some late-night shuffling in a trash can on campus, or a scratching in the bushes by the bus stop, there’s a good chance you’ve spied a pair of glowing eyes in the twilight. Nighttime, after all, invites a host of critters into the open, and raccoons are one of the more familiar sightings for after-hours visitors.

But even if bumping into raccoons seems inevitable, are these encounters totally random? What do we really know about the habits of these nocturnal nibblers? Where are they foraging, and what are they finding? More importantly, are there statistical correlations between their presence and certain features of the landscape?

This winter, three seniors in the Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) program—Terence Thomas, Amy Klein and Ben Krabill—hope to shed some light on these questions.

Raccoon

Do you recognize this guy?

“You see raccoons all the time on campus,” says Thomas, “but we don’t know much about them—what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”

In search of some answers, they applied for and received a $250 Capstone Project Grant from the Director’s Office to help purchase camera equipment and other supplies for their senior project. They’re still fine-tuning their proposal, but the general plan is to use motion-sensor cameras to capture images of raccoons at night.

For 25 nights during the winter quarter, they’ll set up three cameras at different locations each night, from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m., providing three data samples every day.  As they sift through the collected images, says Klein, they’ll assess each camera site and evaluate factors such as nearby vegetation, distance to garbage cans or a water source.

They’re looking to identify a relationship between the physical environment on campus and raccoon distribution. “We’ll be very excited,” says Thomas, “if we collect strong statistical evidence that there are major features of the landscape that impact why raccoons are found in certain areas.”

Raccoons

Test runs with the cameras have already produced multiple sightings.

Their findings have potential to help in the future management of raccoons on campus, says Aaron Wirsing, a professor of wildlife ecology at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, who is advising the three students on the project. “By photographically documenting raccoons all across campus, their project should better our understanding of how this species uses urban environments, how certain human activities might attract raccoons, and how we might change our behavior to mitigate human-raccoon conflict.”

So, depending on the results of their investigation, the next time you stumble across a raccoon on campus, you might know why!

About the Grant

ESRM Senior Capstone students are encouraged to apply for Director’s Office financial support to defray costs incurred to complete their ESRM capstone. Funds are at three levels—$50, $150 and $250—and are awarded in Autumn, Winter or Spring quarters. Students must be registered for a capstone course (ESRM 494, 495 or 496) during the quarter of the award. The School Curriculum Committee will allocate the funds. Only one award is allocated per undergraduate student. The deadline is the second Friday of each quarter, and you will be notified of your award no later than the fourth week of the quarter. Learn how to apply for your own grant (login required).

Photo of Thomas and Klein © SEFS; raccoon images courtesy of Klein, Krabill and Thomas.