Emeritus Spotlight: Dave Manuwal

“I’ve known what I wanted to do for an awfully long time, probably more than 60 years,” says Professor Emeritus Dave Manuwal of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). Growing up in South Bend, Ind., he remembers when his parents bought a cottage on a lake in southern Michigan. One of their neighbors had a bird bath, and he loved watching all the colorful visitors—cardinals, orioles, blue jays—come there to splash and drink. “I watched them and thought, ‘Wow, these are cool animals!’”

Dave ManuwalManuwal quickly realized he had a real knack for ornithology. If he heard a bird song once, he could remember it, and by the time he finished high school, he says he knew virtually all the birds you could find in Indiana. But he can trace it all back to those first trips to Michigan. “I was 9, 10 years old,” he says. “I never really wavered since then.”

Now, after 41 years as part of the SEFS community, Manuwal is officially retired and no longer teaches, but you’ll find his indelible fingerprints all over this school and the history of the wildlife program. We caught up with him the other day to learn more about his lifetime of teaching and studying birds and forest ecology.

Career Beginnings
Manuwal went to the same high school one class below SEFS Professor Bruce Bare, and they both stayed in Indiana and attended Purdue University. Bare decided to study forest production, and Manuwal earned a degree in wildlife conservation in 1966 (years later, as it happened, they would have offices next to each other at the University of Washington).

Before graduating, Manuwal had landed a job as an undergraduate research assistant in Manitoba, Canada. Another researcher there—a graduate student at the University of Montana—told him that if he was interested in studying wildlife after Purdue, he really ought to contact Professor Richard (Dick) Taber.

Dick Taber

This past August, Manuwal spent several hours catching up with Dick Taber, now 92, under a huge ponderosa pine tree in the Lubrecht Forest, where Taber initiated several studies back in the 1950s and ‘60s. “The Richard D. Taber Outstanding Wildlife Conservation Student Award,” which Manuwal created, is given each spring to an exemplary SEFS wildlife student.

So he did. Manuwal wrote Professor Taber and expressed his interest in continuing his ornithological studies in Montana. Taber accepted him as a graduate student in 1966, and off he headed to Missoula to earn a Master’s in Wildlife Management.

Two years later, word of mouth once again steered Manuwal farther west. By that time, he had developed an interest in studying marine birds, and two members of his master’s committee suggested he consider contacting Professor Thomas Howell at the University of California at Los Angeles. So he wrote Howell, expressed his interest and ended up getting accepted there as a doctoral student in zoology.

When he completed his Ph.D. work in 1972, Manuwal didn’t have long to savor the peace. One of the last jobs he had applied to that summer was for an assistant professor of wildlife science with the College of Forest Resources (now SEFS). He was offered the position but was hesitant at first because he still wasn’t sure he wanted to teach. As an undergrad at Purdue, in fact, he says he was “deathly afraid of standing in front of people.” That pretty much held until he started graduate school and was appointed as a graduate teaching assistant. “All of a sudden I realized, ‘I know this stuff,’ and then I wasn’t afraid to talk about it.”

But did he want to make a career doing it? He’d find out awfully fast, because when he accepted the position he learned he’d be teaching his first class within a few weeks of arriving on campus. “It was pretty scary,” he says, and he still vividly remembers that first lecture in September 1972.The course was WS 401, a “Wildlife Biology” class for wildlife science and fisheries majors—and Manuwal was almost starting from scratch. “This was long before the advent of the personal computer,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in journals and libraries, and it took me almost seven hours of research to create those lectures.”

Dave Manuwal

Manuwal organized the first SEFS field trip to Yellowstone National Park back in 1994. “I felt our students needed a broader wildlife experience than what they could get in western Washington,” he says. The annual weeklong trip continues today, now led by professors John Marzluff, Monika Moskal and Aaron Wirsing.

As the 65 or so students filed into Winkenwerder 201 on the first day, Manuwal sat inconspicuously in the second row and listened to some of the chatter speculating about the new wildlife professor. Nobody had seen him yet, and of course he didn’t have an online profile to search. “I was 29 years old and looked pretty much like the majority of the male students,” says Manuwal. “When the bell rang, I got up and walked to the podium. One of the students who had sat next to me rolled his eyes as if to say, ‘Oh no!’”

Alaskan Adventures
The next summer, from June to August 1973, Manuwal was invited to take part in the Noatak Expedition in Alaska’s Brooks Range. The federal government knew very little about the new Noatak National Preserve, and Manuwal was part of an 11-man crew to catalog wildlife in the Noatak River Basin. They traveled by float planes into incredibly isolated and unexplored wilderness areas, where they encountered wolves, grizzlies, caribou, many species of tundra birds, and hordes of mosquitoes on calm days. They worked long hours with nearly constant daylight, and even got caught in a snowstorm in August. “That’s the way it is in the Arctic!”

A few years later, Manuwal secured funding to return to Alaska to study seabird colonies and island vegetation in the remote Barren Islands from 1976-1979. There were five people in the research crew, including Manuwal’s wife Naomi, who earned a bachelor’s in biology from California State University at Northridge, and later a master’s in forest ecology from the College of Forest Resources. Their team focused on the biology of Fork-tailed Storm Petrels, Rhinoceros Auklets and Parakeet Auklets (hence the “auklet” in Manuwal’s email address). They were trying to obtain basic information on the ecology and population sizes of birds nesting there in case of an oil spill—and their data proved helpful in understanding the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill, which reached as far as the Barren Islands.

Dave Manuwal

In the late 1970s, Manuwal got to take part in several seabird studies in Alaska, British Columbia and Washington, including on Smith Island (pictured here). “Being in these seabird colonies is a unique environment,” he says. “There’s a tremendous about of activity, birds are coming and going all the time—lots of noise, especially in a big gull or tern colony.”

A Gaggle of Grad Students
At the College of Forest Resources, Manuwal was now a colleague of his former advisor and mentor, Dick Taber, who had recently come over to start the wildlife program. “One day, I heard a commotion in Dick’s office,” he says. “I looked over there in time to see him rush out with a very agitated look on his face. That was the first and only time I saw him like that. Later, he came back and told me that one of the associate deans had accepted, on our behalf, 13 new graduate students.”

Despite a new policy of the wildlife faculty accepting their own graduate students, the acceptance letters had already been mailed; there was no going back. So at one point in the next year, Manuwal had 11 graduate students, and Taber had around 15. It was a pretty hectic time trying to find research support for all of those extra students, he says, but amazingly all of them made it successfully through the program. “That’s the phenomenal part of it. Kind of funny in retrospect, but it wasn’t funny at the time!”

The shock of that story may linger, but Manuwal would never trade the relationships he developed with his graduate students—bonds that have endured long past the last paper or degree. “Perhaps the highlight of my time at UW was interacting with my graduate students,” he says. “Helping them with their research, visiting them in the study areas, offering advice at important times.”

In total, he had 51 graduate students during his time with SEFS. Forty-nine of them completed degrees, and all but two of them entered the wildlife ecology/conservation field (one became a medical doctor, the other a computer specialist).

With so much invested in his students, he knew retiring wouldn’t be easy. Yet after four decades of teaching scores of courses, from wildlife research techniques to field ornithology to wildlife biology and conservation, Manuwal stood in front of his last class in the fall of 2012.

Dave Manuwal

In August 2008, the year he officially retired, Manuwal invited all of his former grad students to a reunion in Ocean Shores, Wash. Not all of them could make it, but some came from as far away as Virginia, North Carolina, Alaska, California and Hawaii. “That was a great time,” he says.

“That last lecture was hard,” he says, “and I didn’t realize how much I’d miss teaching. The day-to-day interactions with students, helping them understand some concepts we discussed in class, people coming in and talking to you about their career choices, what courses to take. I just miss all that—it’s hard to leave.”

Next Chapters
As an Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Science, though, Manuwal hasn’t exactly kicked up his feet just yet. His first move after retirement was to head back into the field as an affiliate professor with the University of Montana. It had been 40 years since he first collected data as a graduate student in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest, about 30 miles northeast of Missoula. His research had concerned songbirds associated with riparian vegetation along three streams where he had originally done surveys in 1967 and ’68, and then in 1980. This time, he wanted to see how bird populations might have changed, and also do a second study on the pattern of territory establishment along those streams.

So, just as he had done 40 years earlier, he borrowed a little trailer and placed it near his study areas. He had a black Labrador with him back then, and he brought a black Labrador with him this time. He also had his whole family participate in the study at various times, and they’re all authors on a manuscript he has in review right now. “That was a blast to go back there and do it again,” he says. “It was a good way to go out.”

Dave Manuwal

Manuwal with a class in the Skagit Valley.

But not all the way out. Back in Seattle, Manuwal has a new research project under way, but this time not involving wildlife. He’s been preparing a tribute to military veterans who became professional wildlife ecology and conservation professionals, whether in academia, government agencies or with nonprofits. He’s read more than 2,000 obituaries and talked to several veterans in person and by email, and he’s identified about 190 veterans so far. Manuwal placed an advertisement in several outlets to gather more information, and if you happen to know of anyone who might fit this description, he would love to hear from you.

Research, clearly, is in his genes, and he still exudes the same infectious energy and curiosity that has defined his career as a scientist and educator. Just ask his students, like SEFS undergrad Tara Wilson, who was in Manuwal’s final ESRM 350 class a year ago: “You could just tell he’s passionate about what he does, and that he’s excited to get us passionate.”

That seems like a fitting tribute—and a pleasant irony—for someone who was once terrified of  standing in front of an audience, yet ended up inspiring hundreds of students to share his love for birds, research and all things wild.

Photos © Dave Manuwal.

Alumni Spotlight: Brian Kertson

“I’ve always been fascinated by large carnivores,” says Brian Kertson, a wildlife research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “Not just because of the physical adaptations they have, which are remarkable, but because they have to go out, search, locate, capture and kill other animals—despite the fact those animals have spent hundreds of thousands of years developing tricks to get away from them. That’s a really challenging way to live your life.”

Brian Kertson

In his role as a large  carnivore researcher, Kertson often finds himself with unusually exciting dance partners.

You could argue the same about studying major predators. But that’s exactly how Kertson wants to spend his life, and he’s currently living his dream as a large carnivore researcher for the state.

Growing up in Woodinville, Wash., Kertson says he knew early on that he wanted to study wildlife. As part of a high school project, he remembers coming down to the University of Washington and visiting the College of Forest Resources (CFR). He ended up meeting Professor Dave Manuwal, head of the wildlife science program at the time, and Josh Millspaugh, a doctoral candidate who is now a professor of wildlife management at the University of Missouri.

Kertson talked with Millspaugh about his interest in wildlife and working outside, and that he was thinking of pursuing zoology in college. Millspaugh said that if Kertson really wanted to spend his career in the field and working hands-on with animals, he should consider training as a wildlife scientist.

As it happens, Kertson nearly opted for an entirely different form of training since UW had been recruiting him to play football as a defensive end or outside linebacker. Yet the call of the outdoors and wildlife research won out, and he decided to accept an academic scholarship, enrolling as a freshman at UW in the fall of 1997. “I declared a wildlife science major right out of the gate and never looked back,” he says. “It was a perfect confluence of my three real passions: wildlife, science and just being outdoors.”

CFR, now the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), would end up being his home for most of the next dozen years. He stayed on after his undergraduate degree to earn a Master of Science and then a Ph.D. in 2010, all under the same advisor, Professor Chris Grue.

An associate professor with the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Grue is the unit leader for the Washington Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, which funds research through a number of cooperating agencies. In Kertson’s case, his graduate

Brian Kertson

It’s hard to believe these fluffy cougar kittens will grow up into one of North America’s foremost predators.

research received support through WDFW. “Chris is a great scientist and really adept at working with a wide variety of projects,” says Kertson. “He saw me all the way through for a little more than seven years.”

Cat Scratch Fever
Looking back on his tenure at SEFS, Kertson marvels at the abundance of research outlets the school and university afforded him. It’s an urban campus yet less than an hour from forest and mountain wilderness areas, and only three hours from desert landscapes. He says access to such diverse natural laboratories helped sharpen his tools as a scientist and researcher and, most importantly, helped establish his expertise with carnivores and cougars (also known as mountain lions, pumas or panthers).

Specifically, Kertson’s dissertation involved several years of investigating cougar behavior and ecology in wildland-urban environments in Washington. He looked at how cougars use these environments—how much time they spend in residential areas, how often interactions with people occur, and how the landscape and other demographic factors influence their behavior.

His findings were rather surprising, even a bit hair-raising. “What [my research] showed was that cougars spend a lot more time in residential areas than we knew—a little more than 17 percent of their time,” he says. “Cats use these residential portions of the landscape just like they do wildlands, including hunting for deer and elk in greenbelts and other forested habitats.”

However, the average cougar generates about one report—as in, someone would spot or bump into it on a trail—every 629 days. “So coexistence levels were very high despite a relatively high level of cougar occurrence in residential areas,” he says. “All that was very new. Most work and research on cougars was in wildland environments, and this was one of the first projects to look at people as a permanent presence and a key driver in shaping landscape dynamics for cougars.”

To be clear, Kertson wasn’t talking about downtown Seattle or Bellevue or other highly urban environments. He was investigating border areas of east King County and southeast Snohomish County where residential and other developments abut or overlap with parks, forests and natural areas. The takeaway, though, was that the borders weren’t as defined as previously thought. “Unbeknownst to many of us, we share our neighborhood greenbelts, forests and trails with one of America’s foremost predators—and we’d never know it,” he says.

Cougar

Despite a fearsome reputation, cougars rarely attack humans in Washington, with only 18 documented attacks since 1900 (only one of which was fatal).

That doesn’t mean you should get the willies the next time you take the trash out or stroll down the road for a latte. “The reality is, from a safety standpoint, there are a lot of things people should be way more concerned about,” says Kertson. It’s an issue of risk perception. Since 1900, there have been 18 documented cougar attacks on humans in the state of Washington, and only one of them proved fatal, way back in 1924. Plus, he says it’s helpful to remember that a key part of a cougar’s survival strategy is to minimize its exposure to people, even as it lives and hunts in fairly close proximity. So don’t expect to find a cougar curled up and purring in a sunbeam on your sidewalk.

On the Prowl
Kertson, in fact, has to work awfully hard to locate and capture cougars, and he often spends entire days in fruitless pursuit. Yet he says it never gets old when you’ve caught one of these cats and are kneeling next to it (while it’s sedated, of course). “It’s always exciting and a bit awe-inspiring, because they’re just muscles upon muscles. Big cats like cougars, I would argue they’re the epitome of predation efficiency. Everything about their body is the result of thousands of years of evolutionary adaptation to make them more efficient and effective hunters. That’s pretty incredible to see firsthand. It sort of puts you in your place in the universe.”

With such intimidating quarry, there’s plenty of thrill in the chase, too. “When I’m out doing radio tracking sessions, I’m not afraid of cougars or large carnivores,” he says, “but I have a healthy respect for them. And when you do find yourself in close proximity, even when you know exactly where they are with the radio tracking equipment, you have a very primitive, primordial reaction—your heartbeat picks up, you breathe a little quicker, your senses are a little more attuned. You hear a little better, see a little better, you’re a little more on edge. That reaction is deeply hard-wired.”

Brian Kertson

Kertson out radio tracking cougars.

Having felt that kind of pulse-pounding excitement, Kertson knew what he wanted to do after school. But when he completed his Ph.D. in 2010, a strapped state budget meant fewer opportunities in his field. He managed to secure a few months of post-graduate work funded by WDFW, and then he found an opening investigating wolf and elk dynamics as a researcher with Idaho Fish and Game. Not long after he moved to Idaho and took that job, a position finally opened up back with WDFW, so he applied and ended up getting hired and moving closer to home. Then, about four months after that, a research position with carnivores opened up in Issaquah, Wash.

The job roulette wasn’t ideal, he says, but finding the right fit isn’t always a linear process or something you can line up perfectly on a calendar. “It was kind of a funny period where I bounced around between really good jobs, but I finally had the opportunity to pursue my dream job—so I went after it and was fortunate enough to land it.”

In his role with WDFW today, Kertson doesn’t spend all of his time in the field prowling for predators. Seasonally, the winter is his busiest season for cougar capture. For much of the rest of the year, field work is interspersed with time  in front of a computer analyzing data, writing reports and grants, and reviewing and providing expertise to other agency staff working with large terrestrial carnivores. Such tasks might seem mundane by comparison, but Kertson says they’re all vital parts of the scientific process. “I think my favorite part of the job is that there’re always so many new questions to be answered,” he says. “Whenever you think you’ve got a good idea of how the world works, you’re constantly surprised by what you see and what you learn.”

Husky Ties
Back in Issaquah and back in the orbit of UW, Kertson was eager to reconnect with his alma mater. Shortly after accepting his current position, he reached out to several colleagues at SEFS to obtain affiliate faculty status. Academic partnerships are common at WDFW, he says, and agency professionals are encouraged to interact with universities and mentor students as much as they can. “It’s very much a mutually beneficial relationship,” he says.

As an affiliate assistant professor, he currently sits on the committees of a few SEFS graduate students, including Laurel Peele, Justin Dillinger and Carol Bogezi, who he’s helping capture cougars in the Issaquah area.

These relationships are especially meaningful to Kertson. When he reflects on his own education and career path, he’s grateful for the insight and instruction of so many people along the way. Now he’s returning the favor. “I think the biggest factor allowing me to get where I wanted to go was utilizing the relationships and friendships I’ve made, and reaching out and creating new connections,” he says. “I was fortunate to meet the right people to point me in the right direction.”

Cougar

Kertson says he doesn’t walk the woods afraid of cougars and large carnivores, but he has a “healthy respect” for them.

It’s worth noting that Kertson didn’t meet those people and make connections by accident. He pounced on research opportunities he came across as an undergrad to help broaden his skillset and network with practitioners. “A big part was early on I knew what I wanted to do, so I volunteered a lot,” he says. “That allowed me to meet people and obtain the skills that would make me more marketable. The summer before my junior year, I began volunteering on a research project with WDFW. I got to meet their staff, they got to meet me. I made sacrifices and put in a lot of work, but as a result I’ve had a lot of opportunities.”

The payoff for his persistence and opportunism came in many forms, and one of the most memorable was getting to volunteer on a field project that was way above his pay grade. “It was crazy,” he says. “As an undergraduate intern with WDFW I was assisting with black-tailed deer captures, running around in helicopters, participating in net gunning operations, running around in the forest and tackling deer to put on radio collars.”

Had he chosen to play football, he could have been tackling an entirely different type of cougar. Instead, he’s working with one of the most powerful predators in North America. He’s tracked and caught and measured close to 100 of these big cats, cradled their heads in his lap and felt the immense power of a 185-pound cougar at his fingertips. How many people get to say that?

Photos © Brian Kertson.

Brian Kertson

Undergrad Spotlight: Tara Wilson

“It’s amazing how much you can learn from looking at poop,” says Tara Wilson, a junior at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). “It totally blew my mind. You can know everything [about the animal]—if they’re malnourished, if they’re breeding, if they’re stressed in any way, what they’re eating.”

Tara Wilson

Tara Wilson working on the Pack Forest Summer Crew in 2012.

Wilson grew up in Detroit and transferred to the University of Washington to start the Winter Quarter in January 2012. She had already earned an Associate’s Degree back home, and she moved out to Seattle with her husband, Shane Unsworth, after he found as job as a data security analyst in the city.

Her adventures in scat began soon after arriving on campus when she attended a wildlife seminar about conservation canines that are specifically trained to sniff out animal droppings. For this particular talk, the dogs were snooping for orca poo. There’s only a small window to locate such scat, apparently, as it floats to the surface briefly before sinking out of reach. So the trainers would hold the dogs at the bow of the boat to locate the floaters as quickly as possible.

“You don’t often see that in a seminar,” says Wilson. “It’s just so out-of-the-box and creative to me—really innovative.”

Inspired by the science of that seminar, Wilson soon landed a weekly lab position with Professor Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology in the UW Biology Department. She and the other volunteer technicians are working on a host of projects, from extracting hormones to analyzing dolphin and polar bear scat.

“What’s special about the lab is that we use non-invasive techniques,” she says. “You don’t have to trap or tranquilize or stress out the animal. You can just follow them around and then collect and analyze their scat.”

Tara Wilson

It didn’t take Wilson long to get into the swing of things at SEFS, and she’s already looking ahead to a graduate degree.

The material they isolate enables scientists to explore a wide range of questions, says Wilson, and there are numerous applications for the research. In one case, an oil company in Alberta, Canada, is having the lab analyze caribou scat from oil sands to make sure the oil drilling isn’t endangering the health of the caribou population.

For Wilson, her lab and course work have quickly cultivated a strong career interest in conservation work, and she’s decided to focus on the wildlife conservation option as an Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) major. Her favorite courses so far have been a class on Pacific Northwest ecosystems with Professor Emeritus Tom Hinckley, and also “Wildlife Biology and Conservation” with Professor Emeritus Dave Manuwal. “You could just tell [Professor Manuwal] is passionate about what he does, and he’s excited to get us passionate.”

She’s been so excited about school, in fact, that Wilson says she feels “like a big dork” for all the lectures and seminars she wants to attend around campus. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so sometimes I feel a little embarrassed because I’m very much a kid in a candy store here!”

Hard to blame her, as the pickin’s are good at SEFS when it comes to course offerings and research opportunities. Indeed Wilson is already looking ahead to potential graduate programs at UW, and she’s keeping an open mind about where her studies might lead her. “Anything I can do to help wildlife conservation,” she says. “I’d be thrilled to be part of that community in any way.”

Photos © Tara Wilson.