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

For GIS Day, SEFS Students Help with 3D Printing of Husky Statue

Coming up this Wednesday, November 20, is national GIS Day, and the University of Washington has organized a number of activities around campus to celebrate all things geospatial. Naturally, you’d expect Professor Monika Moskal’s Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Lab (RSGAL) to have a big hand in the festivities—and they certainly do!

Riley Milinovich and SEFS doctoral student Meghan Halabisky at the UW husky statue.

Riley Milinovich and Meghan Halabisky get ready to scan the husky statue.

A couple weeks ago, two students in her lab, Meghan Halabisky and Riley Milinovich, used terrestrial LiDAR to produce a three-dimensional visualization of the husky statue guarding the main entrance to Husky Stadium. This type of remote sensing involves scanning the object spatially, taking billions of laser readings to create a data cloud. Although Moskal’s lab generally uses terrestrial LiDAR in the forest, they took on this project to support a 3D technology demo on GIS Day.

Funded by the UW Student Technology Fee, the LiDAR equipment they used was the Leica Scan Station 2, and it took them about four hours from set up to shutdown to finish the job. Using that data, they successfully scanned and produced a visualization of the husky (check out the cool video clip below that Milinovich put together!). Now Washington Open Object Fabricators (or WOOF), a student group on campus, will use that data to produce a reduced-scale replica of the statue by 3D printer—which you can see at the demo this Wednesday!

LiDAR started off as a surveying tool used in projects such as looking at cracks in bridges, or topographic mapping and making very fine terrain models that can model environmental impacts like drainage and landslides. RSGAL, though, uses the technology for a range of forest studies, including leaf area index estimation, how many leaves per area of ground to get at evapotranspiration, net productivity, carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services.

Husky Statue

The husky LiDAR visualization starts coming together.

Coordinated by UW Libraries, the GIS Day tradition at UW is entering its third year. The School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) is one of the biggest GIS users and teachers on campus, says Moskal, and has been a partner in helping organize the event since its inception.

Other campus activities on Wednesday include a featured speaker, Dr. Sarah Elwood from the UW Department of Geography, as well as a series of “lightning” talks—including a five-minute segment with David Campbell talking about the UW Botanic Gardens interactive maps (in the Allen Library’s Research Commons). There will be a ‘Big Data’ discussion panel, and even a GIS Doctor’s Office from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. that brings in some local GIS experts to help users answer questions.

There’s so much going on around campus, so check out the full schedule of GIS events and get involved!

Images and Video © SEFS and RSGAL.

Professor Moskal Delivers Keynote Address at Conference in Beijing

SEFS Professor Monika Moskal just returned from a week-long trip to China, which included giving a keynote address—“LiDAR for the Measurement and Monitoring of Forest Ecosystem Services”—at the 2013 SilviLaser conference in Beijing, October 9-11 (the “13th International Conference on LiDAR Applications for Assessing Forest Ecosystems”).

Monika Moskal

Professor Moskal’s tour guides, Zhongya and Guang, taking her on a tour of Beijing.

During her trip, Professor Moskal had the opportunity to catch up with one of her former graduate students at SEFS, Guang Zheng, who is now an associate professor of remote sensing at Nanjing University. Guang’s Ph.D. work, which resulted in five peer-reviewed publications, was funded by Moskal’s grant through the National Science Foundation’s Center for Advanced Forestry Systems. Guang is continuing his work with terrestrial LiDAR, and one of his students presented a paper—with Moskal as a collaborator—about classifying point cloud data into ground, leaf and trunk points. This is a breakthrough in LiDAR analysis, says Moskal, as the method is not sensor dependent and can be applied to any 3-D point cloud data (including aerial LiDAR).

Another presenter at the conference was Zhongya Zhang, who was a visiting student in Moskal’s lab for two years. Zhongya presented their work in collaboration with another SEFS student, Alexandra Kazakova, on using hyperspectral imagery and LiDAR to classify forest tree species. This work was funded by McIntire-Stennis funds, as well as the Precision Forestry Cooperative.

Also, a day before the SilviLaser conference, Moskal was invited to address a group of students and faculty at the University of Geosciences in Beijing. She spoke about the hyper-resolution remote sensing research that is a big focus and specialty of her Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Laboratory at SEFS.

Photos © Monika Moskal.

Monika Moskal

Professor Moskal, center, with her hosts, Guang and Zhongya, at the SilviLaser conference.

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.

Using Remote Sensing to Understand Climate Change Effects on Wetland Ecosystems

Semi-arid wetlands might sound like an oxymoron—until you are wading into one surrounded by snow (see right).

Field verifying the condition of such wetlands in the sage-shrub steppe of Douglas County, Wash., is part of a research project led by Meghan Halabisky of Professor Monika Moskal’s Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Lab (RSGAL). The goal of Halabisky’s research is to inventory wetlands in the Pacific Northwest and understand what will happen to these vulnerable ecosystems as the climate changes. These understudied yet ecologically important ecosystems are critical habitat for amphibians, migratory birds and rare plant species.

Aerial Imagery

Example of wetland classification using high-resolution aerial imagery; ponds are colored blue, while emergent wetland vegetation are colored in green.

It can be challenging to study wetlands at the landscape scale because they occur on both public and private lands and can be difficult to access. In addition, little is known of their dynamic hydrology as it requires frequent monitoring. That’s why remote sensing is a key tool in understanding the spatial and temporal relationships of wetlands across the landscape.

Through the of use of high-resolution aerial imagery, multiple years of Landsat satellite imagery and cutting-edge remote sensing techniques, the RSGAL team—which also includes Chris Vondrasek, Lopamudra Dasgupta, Michael Hannam and Stephanie Kong—is able to both identify wetlands and reconstruct historical changes in wetland function. This function includes changes in wetland hydrology, surrounding land use and water pollution of wetlands.

The RSGAL team’s field verification work includes measuring water depth of depressional wetlands and placing multiple sensors (ibuttons) at different wetland elevations to measure the seasonal fluctuation of water levels.

Field verification

The RSGAL team measuring water depth of depressional wetlands.

This research is part of an interdisciplinary project to develop hydrologic projections for diverse wetland habitats (e.g. forest wetlands, wet meadows, small ponds and riparian wetlands) across the Pacific Northwest for the 2020s, 2040s and 2080s. The projections can be used to support ecological and landscape-based vulnerability assessments and climate change adaptation planning.

For more background on this project, listen to an interview Chris Vondrasek put together!

Photos courtesy of Meghan Halabisky and Chris Vondrasek.

Going Rogue in Oregon

Rouge River

Sunlight filtering through the trees and canyons on the way back to the crew’s BLM house on the Rogue River. “It was the perfect end to every day working underneath the Douglas-firs,” says Putz.

This past summer, a five-person crew from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) set out to conduct research along the Rogue River in Oregon. Working as part of Professor Monika Moskal’s Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Laboratory, the students collected data of red tree vole habitat for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from May to September.

Their research proposed to answer several questions, including whether survey grade GPS can be used to accurately acquire individual tree location from LiDAR data (light detection and ranging), and whether ground-based inventory and leaf area measurements can be used to drive LiDAR-based empirical habitat models for the Rouge River site. The project will ultimately help the BLM develop a method of analyzing LiDAR data for forest inventory and management.

“Spending the summer in the Rogue River Valley working with amazing people and learning useful techniques taught me the importance of fieldwork, our forests and the animals that inhabit them,” says Tessa Putz, an undergraduate ESRM major with the SEFS crew.

“Working for BLM this summer was a great experience,” says PhD candidate Gonzalo Thienel, another member of the SEFS team. “I learned many things about nature, remote sensing and teamwork.”

Not bad for a field site!

Photo of the Rogue River © Tessa Putz/SEFS.