SEFS Student Leads First Snow Leopard Collaring in Kyrgyzstan

SEFS doctoral student Shannon Kachel recently led the capture and first successful satellite collaring of a snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in Kyrgyzstan! The female, estimated to be between 6 and 7 years old, was caught near the border with China in the Sarychat-Ertash Strict Nature Reserve in the Issyk-kul Province of Eastern Kyrgyzstan.

© Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU

Camera trap photo of a snow leopard in Kachel’s study area.

The news was particularly exciting since snow leopards are among the most secretive and least studied of the big cats. They are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and scientists estimate that only 4,500 to 10,000 adult snow leopards remain in the wild. The exact number is difficult to pinpoint, though, since few leopards are ever seen. That’s why the GPS collaring is such an important breakthrough, as it will open an unprecedented window into the leopard’s movements and range—and also help with broader conservation efforts in the region.

Kachel, who is working with Professor Aaron Wirsing in the Predator Ecology Lab, is the principal investigator on a project involving a diverse range of international partners, including Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, and several Kyrgyz state agencies and research institutions. He and his research team had spent months trying for a successful capture, including suffering through several near misses. In the video below, for instance, a snow leopard investigates but ultimately shuns a snare on the right side of the frame. “That one is truly painful for me to watch,” he says. (The relevant footage ends around 43 seconds.)

So when Kachel was there for the actual capture of the female snow leopard, the experience was all the more unforgettable.

“When trapping snow leopards,” he says, “we continually monitor the status of the traps using radio transmitters that trigger an alarm when a trap is disturbed. At any hour of the night, we might be called on to hike out into sub-zero temperatures to release the animal as quickly as possible. On this particular night, I’ll admit that after my share of false alarms, I forced myself to keep my excitement in check for the long, dark hike up the canyon to the trapline. Even as I approached the final few meters to the trap, I still couldn’t see what we’d caught, until at the last minute, F1 (the cat’s designation) jumped up as far as the snare on her foot would allow her. She is the first wild snow leopard I’ve ever seen—after nearly nine months of studying the species in the field here in Central Asia—which made the experience all the more exhilarating. I didn’t really let it sink in until we had her safely collared and released.”

Kachel, left, listening for F1’s signal a few days after fitting her with the GPS collar, which will upload a location to his e-mail every five hours. “I wake up every morning eager to make sure she remains healthy and active—and awesome!”

Kachel, left, listening for F1’s signal a few days after fitting her with the GPS collar, which will upload a location to his e-mail every five hours. “I wake up every morning eager to make sure she remains healthy and active—and awesome!”

Kachel’s research is among only a handful of telemetry or satellite-based studies of snow leopards, and it is the first to focus on a population that exists independent of domestic livestock and the conflicts between large predators and grazing. Collaring this snow leopard, he says, will finally give researchers the opportunity to investigate snow leopard ecology in rare depth. Among other questions, they’ll get to explore the behavioral and numerical dynamics between snow leopards and their prey (mostly ibex and argali), as well as the dispersal patterns of subadult animals (tracks near the trap site suggest the leopard may have been traveling with three subadults on the verge of dispersing to find territories of their own).

Perhaps most critical for such a threatened species, this project will also give researchers a chance to answer the basic question of what kills snow leopards. It will help them build a more comprehensive understanding of direct threats to the species, and how to anticipate and account for the effects of human activities, like grazing and mining—as well as the risks climate change could pose in the snow leopard’s high mountain habitat.

Eventually, Kachel hopes to expand the study and collar the wolves that share the landscape with the snow leopards, and to investigate the direct and indirect effects of competition and coexistence between the two carnivores. He also would like to extend his project to neighboring areas to investigate interactions between snow leopards and human activities.

In the meantime, he can savor an incredible research accomplishment, which he says belongs to a wide range of partners.

“This truly was a team effort,” says Kachel. “I’m deeply grateful to the dozens of folks who have worked hard to make this dream a reality, and who put their trust in me to realize this vision—in particular Professor Wirsing here at SEFS, along with Tom McCarthy, Zairbek Kubanychbekov, Rana Bayrakcismith and Tanya Rosen Michel at Panthera.”

Camera trap photo of a snow leopard in the study area © Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU; Kachel listening for F1’s signal a few days after fitting her with the GPS collar © R. Berlinski/Toledo Zoo/Panthera; video clip of snow leopard © Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU.

Snow Leopard

UW Kicks Off New Crowdfunding Platform with SEFS Project

The University of Washington has recently launched a partnership with a new crowdfunding platform called USEED, and the first College of the Environment pilot project to test its effectiveness involves a research team at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS).

On Wednesday, October 15, graduate students in the Predator Ecology Lab, led by Professor Aaron Wirsing, kicked off a campaign to raise $12,000 to fund radio collaring deer as part of an ongoing wolf study. Their goal is to better understand how the return of these top predators to Washington may impact other carnivores, deer populations and perhaps even plants.

USEED Launch

SEFS doctoral student Justin Dellinger (left) and Professor Wirsing use radio telemetry to locate collared deer.

After an absence of nearly 80 years, gray wolves are recolonizing Washington State and many other areas of the American West. To date, most studies of the impacts of wolves in the contiguous United States have occurred in protected areas or wilderness. Yet in Washington wolves are moving into managed landscapes where hunting, logging and livestock ranching also occur. “This study offers a rare opportunity to test if the ecological effects of wolves that have been demonstrated in protected areas like Yellowstone National Park also manifest in areas that have been modified by humans,” says Professor Wirsing.

What differentiates USEED from other crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter or Experiment.com, is that all of the money raised goes directly to the project, and researchers can take advantage of a wide range of training and tools. The USEED program is also unique in that funds go to the project immediately regardless of the total raised, rather than the “all or nothing” funding approach of most platforms. USEED ensures that researchers in Professor Wirsing’s lab are able to access and use every dollar they raise in the next 30 days, and that funding will help drive important graduate student research—and also give donors a chance to have a direct connection to research at UW.

Check out the Predator Ecology Lab USEED page, and then learn how you can propose your own project for USEED funding!

Photo © Professor Aaron Wirsing/SEFS.

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!

Laurel Peelle to Kick off New Speaker Series at ONRC

This Saturday, September 21, the Olympic Natural Resources Center (ONRC) in Forks, Wash., is organizing a community potluck and evening program, which will highlight the research of Laurel Peelle, a graduate student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS).

Laurel Peelle

Laurel Peelle and a captured lynx.

The program is the first in a new speaker series out at the ONRC campus. Each month, the plan is to have a graduate student or other regional expert give a public talk to engage members of the Forks and surrounding communities in exciting research projects throughout the state.

For this initial lecture, the Friends of ONRC group will be meeting before the program at 5:30 for a potluck dinner (ONRC will be grilling up barbecued ribs and providing potato salad, and attendees are encouraged to bring a side dish or dessert to share). Then, at 6:30 p.m., Peelle will give a talk about her ongoing research into the predation patterns on snowshoe hares by the endangered Canada lynx and other predators of Washington’s boreal forests.

Working with Professor Aaron Wirsing in the Predator Ecology Lab at SEFS, Peelle recently completed field work that included three years of snowshoe hare live-trapping, deploying radio collars on hares, monitoring survival, documenting predation events, measuring habitat features at kill sites, and attempting to identify the responsible predator species at each kill site using physical evidence, tracks and modern forensics. She hopes her research will help identify the features of successful lynx foraging habitat in comparison to the surrounding landscape, as well as in comparison to “kill sites” attributable to other predators (e.g., coyote, bobcat, pine marten and raptor).

If you happen to be in the area on Saturday, feel free to hop in and catch Peelle’s talk, which is open to the public!

For more information about the potluck and program, contact Ellen Matheny at ematheny@uw.edu or 360.374.4556.

About the Speaker Series
In addition to bringing speakers and interesting research out to ONRC, the series provides a great opportunity for graduate students to gain experience presenting their research to the public, and to a generally non-scientific audience. For participating speakers, ONRC will cover travel expenses and provide lodging for the night, as well as a stipend of $200. Future opportunities for SEFS graduate students are coming up in November, January, March and May; the day and time for each event is flexible and will depend in part on the speaker’s schedule. If you are interested in giving a talk or know someone who would be a great fit for this series, please contact Karl Wirsing!

Photos © Laurel Peelle.
Snowshoe Hare