Notes from the Field: Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains

From September 16 to 22, Professor Laura Prugh and her new postdoc, Madelon Van de Kerk, headed to the field in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. They were deploying remote cameras and snow stakes to monitor snow conditions as part of Laura’s NASA ABoVE project involving Dall sheep.

Laura feeling the chill of late September in , the largest national park in the United States.

The largest national park in the country, Wrangell-St. Elias features terrain that ranges from sea level up to more than 18,000 feet.

A major goal of this study is to determine how snow conditions affect Dall sheep movement and survival rates. So they put up 22 snow-monitoring stations in an area of the park where their agency collaborators will be putting GPS collars on sheep later this fall. Each monitoring station consists of a camera mounted on a t-post that will take a photo of a snow stake every hour all winter. Their ground-based snow monitoring will be used to improve a model of snow conditions based on satellite remote sensing and meteorological data. Then, combining this model with the GPS location data from collared sheep will allow the researchers to determine—for the first time—how snow conditions like depth and hardness affect Dall sheep movements.

Joining Laura and Madelon for the fieldwork were her co-PI at Oregon State University, Professor Anne Nolin, and Anne’s doctoral student, Chris Cosgrove. The four of them flew to the Wrangells in a small plane—a Piper Super Cub—to reach their little cabin, well above the tree line on a large, alpine mesa. They then set up the snow-monitoring stations along elevational transects, which Laura says was extremely challenging work due to steep and rocky terrain. Their packs were also quite heavy and awkward, weighing more than 40 pounds, as they had to pack around the steel t-posts, PVC snow stakes, cameras and two 16-pound post drivers.

“We all had pretty sore muscles,” says Laura, “but it was worth it! The scenery was breathtaking, weather was great, and we saw lots of sheep, pikas, ptarmigan and some arctic ground squirrels.”

Take a look at a gallery of photos from their trip, and also a great little video of Laura explaining the project while on site last month!

Photos and video © Laura Prugh.

The Wrangells team (left to right): Madelon Van de Kerk, Chris Cosgrove, Anne Nolin and Laura Prugh.

The Wrangells team (left to right): Madelon Van de Kerk, Chris Cosgrove, Anne Nolin and Laura Prugh.

 

SEFS Involved in Four Major NASA Grants

As part of its Terrestrial Ecology Program, NASA recently launched the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). It’s a major field campaign in Alaska and western Canada—starting this year, and lasting 8 to 10 years—with the goal of better understanding the vulnerability and resilience of ecosystems and society to a changing climate in Arctic and boreal regions. In 2015, NASA awarded grants to 21 projects as part this campaign, and four of the proposals involve researchers at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS)!

A Dall sheep ram.

Dall sheep ram.

New faculty member Laura Prugh had two proposals funded, including one as the principal investigator (PI) and another as a co-PI. The first, “Assessing alpine ecosystem vulnerability to environmental change using Dall sheep as an iconic indicator species,” will involve synthesis and modeling of Dall sheep population and movement data throughout their range, developing new remote sensing layers of snow characteristics, and conducting fieldwork in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The research will be funded for $1 million over four years.

The second project, “Animals on the move: Remotely based determination of key drivers influencing movements and habitat selection of highly mobile fauna throughout the ABoVE study domain,” will synthesize and model movements of moose, caribou, wolves and grizzly bears throughout Alaska and western Canada. Prugh’s role in this research will be to model the wolf and bear movements, and there is a $200,000 sub-award in the grant for her to hire a postdoc for two years to lead that work.

Professor David Butman is a co-PI on a third proposal, “Vulnerability of inland waters and the aquatic carbon cycle to changing permafrost and climate across boreal northwestern North America,” that focuses on changes to carbon biogeochemistry in lakes as a result of thawing permafrost. Specifically, the project aims to evaluate potential impacts in boreal and Arctic regions as permafrost thaw, climate warming and fire change the “plumbing” that controls water movement and distribution. The total award for this proposal is around $2.1 million, with $1.2 million coming from NASA and the other $900,000 coming from the U.S. Geological Survey. Of that total amount, around $110,000 will come to SEFS from NASA to fund a student for two years, and $30,000 will come from the USGS for summer support for Professor Butman.

The fourth SEFS project involves co-PI Hans-Erik Andersen, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station and an affiliate professor with SEFS. This proposal, “Fingerprinting Three Decades of Changes in Interior Alaska (1982-2014) Using Field Measurements, Stereo Air Photos, and G-LiHT Data,” will explore changes in vegetation cover and composition over time to characterize the vulnerability and likely future trajectories of these landscapes under projected warming and scenarios of future disturbances. The project is funded at $334,564 over three years.

To have nearly 20 percent of the funded proposals in 2015 involve SEFS is a fairly remarkable percentage, and we’re excited to see how these projects progress!

Photo by © Steve Arthur.

New Faculty Intro: Laura Prugh

This past spring, we were thrilled to hire two new wildlife faculty members, Professors Beth Gardner and Laura Prugh. Though Gardner won’t be joining us until spring 2016, Prugh has already arrived in Seattle and is getting a jump on organizing her research program and lab for the fall. She and her husband moved down with their 4-year-old daughter earlier this summer, and they’re renting a place in Green Lake while they get to know the city. She has set up a temporary office space in Professor Aaron Wirsing’s former lab, which will be her lab starting in the fall. She’ll then move into her permanent office space in Winkenwerder 204.

Laura Prugh doing wolf captures in Denali in 2014.

Laura Prugh doing wolf captures in Denali in 2014.

Originally from Gaithersburg, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., Prugh joins the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) as a wildlife ecologist—with a special interest in the quantitative analysis of species interactions—after 3.5 years with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She earned a bachelor’s in biology from Earlham College in Indiana, and then her Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where she studied coyote-prey relations in Alaska with Professor Charlie Krebs as her advisor. Prugh continued on at UBC for a postdoc with Professor Tony Sinclair, and she then headed to California for a postdoc position with Professor Justin Brashares at UC Berkeley.

Since arriving on campus, Prugh has been settling in and taking a couple trips back to Alaska, where she still has five graduate students finishing up their degrees. Two new grad students, along with a postdoc, will then be starting with her at SEFS this fall, and she will be carrying over a few of her long-term research projects. In particular, Prugh has a study in Denali looking at how wolves affect smaller carnivores like coyotes, foxes and lynx (she just submitted a proposal to continue and expand that research). And she has another project in California looking at grassland community dynamics related to precipitation and climate change—basically how kangaroo rats alter the impact of climate change on plants in the ecosystem.

She has begun preparing for her new courses, as well, which will start this spring with ESRM 351 (Wildlife Research Techniques), and then ESRM 150 (Wildlife in the Modern World) the following fall.

Trapping giant kangaroo rats as part of an ongoing study in California.

Trapping giant kangaroo rats as part of an ongoing study in California.

Future Research
As she gets to know more students and colleagues at SEFS, Prugh is excited to develop new collaborations and projects. One of those research interests with great potential applications locally relates to how cougars might affect deer-vehicle collision rates on Washington roads.

In her graduate course last year, she had her students organize a hypothetical research study to test whether the presence of cougars could reduce deer collision rates, and then model the likely economic implications of those reductions. They pulled together all sorts of data, from actual deer-vehicle collision rates in North and South Dakota, to deer population models and cougar predation rates, and ran a number of simulations. They also brought in an economist to calculate the potential savings of seeing fewer accidents. “It was pretty substantial,” she says.

One of the most promising results came from doing before-and-after analyses in some counties in South Dakota where cougars had recolonized in the past 10 years. Prugh says they found that cougars, once established, reduced deer collision rates by about 10 percent, which resulted in savings of $1.1 million annually. “That was really interesting,” she says, “but because it was such a large-scale and hypothetical situation, there were a lot of details we couldn’t look at, like traffic on roads, and variation and density in cougar movements.” (She has a paper on this research in revision with PNAS.)

Now, she’d love to follow up that initial work with a more detailed case study in Washington, where local partners—including Brian Kertson, a wildlife research scientists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (and a SEFS affiliate professor)—have already generated a wealth of data with collared cougars and deer.

Prugh’s arrival in Seattle earlier this summer felt a little different than when she moved to Fairbanks her first January, when it hovered around -40 degrees the whole month.

Prugh’s arrival in Seattle earlier this summer felt a little different than when she moved to Fairbanks her first January, when it hovered around -40 degrees the whole month.

With other research, Prugh is looking to start some work on the Olympic Peninsula to see whether coyotes—enabled by warmer winters and easier access to alpine areas—are driving the decline in Olympic marmots. She will also be setting up a non-invasive genetics lab within the school as a shared facility that will be available to students and faculty to use for genetic research.

Outside of Washington, Prugh just found out she’s been awarded two new grants from NASA’s Terrestrial Ecology Program as part of the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). She will be the principal investigator (PI) for one project, “Assessing alpine ecosystem vulnerability to environmental change using Dall sheep as an iconic indicator species,” which will involve synthesis and modeling of Dall sheep population and movement data throughout their range, developing new remote sensing layers of snow characteristics, and conducting fieldwork in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The research will be funded for $1 million over four years.

The second project, for which she will be a co-PI with Professor Natalie Boelman of Columbia University, will synthesize and model movements of moose, caribou, wolves and grizzly bears throughout Alaska and western Canada. Prugh’s role in this research, “Animals on the move: Remotely based determination of key drivers influencing movements and habitat selection of highly mobile fauna throughout the ABoVE study domain,” will be to model the wolf and bear movements, and there is a $200,000 sub-award in the grant for her to hire a postdoc for two years to lead that work.

In the meantime, Prugh is planning a family camping trip to the Olympic Peninsula, and then heading back to Alaska at the end of August to do more hare pellet counts. So keep an eye out for her this summer, and please join us in welcoming her to the SEFS community!

Photos © Laura Prugh.

Prugh especially enjoys winter fieldwork and studying carnivores in the snow. “I love snow tracking,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite things; you can see everything they’re doing. In the summer, it’s like you have a blindfold on. But in the winter, every animal around leaves a track in the snow. You can see where wolves are rolling around or playing in the snow, all kinds of things. When I was doing my graduate fieldwork up there, I would even have nightmares of it raining and all the snow melting away.”

Prugh especially enjoys winter fieldwork and studying carnivores in the snow. “I love snow tracking,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite things; you can see everything they’re doing. In the summer, it’s like you have a blindfold on. But in the winter, every animal around leaves a track in the snow. You can see where wolves are rolling around or playing in the snow, all kinds of things. When I was doing my graduate fieldwork up there, I would even have nightmares of it raining and all the snow melting away.”