Tag: Matt Miller Nature Conservancy

Book Week: ‘Field Notes on Science and Nature’

Peer over the shoulder of noted field biologists in this engaging collection of essays on the science — and art — of note taking. And you might just become a better writer, and better scientist, in the process.

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Traveling Naturalist: 5 Marvelous Marsupials to Spot in Queensland

Northern Tropical Queensland offers some of the best wildlife viewing anywhere, if you know where to look. Our blog gives you what you need to spot bizarre marsupials, including bandicoots, sugar gliders and kangaroos that live in trees.

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The Latest Victim of Non-Native Cheatgrass: Golden Eagles

Cheatgrass keeps ecologists up at night. Its spread eliminates native plants, sage grouse and mule deer. New research adds golden eagles to that list.

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Silence of the Rattlesnake Researchers: Snakes, Culture and Conservation

Snakes should fear us more than we fear them. In Vermont, timber rattlesnake research unexpectedly exposes humanity’s tangled relationship with snakes. Can education shape a new future?

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Snake Fungal Disease: The White-Nose Syndrome for Reptiles?

Researchers in Vermont were tracking the movements of timber rattlesnakes for conservation planning, but they also made an unexpected discovery: snake fungal disease. Could these lesions be deadly to snakes ? Could it affect snake populations the way white-nose syndrome affects bats?

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Matchmaking for Elms: Restoring America’s Iconic Tree Through Genetics

Christian Marks runs a dating service. For elm trees.

As Marks sees it, American elms may be stunningly beautiful, but they could use far more help finding suitable mates than those unlucky-in-love singles scanning Match.com.

Marks, a floodplain ecologist for The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut River program, is leading a research effort to restore populations of elms, once one of the most iconic and beloved trees in the eastern and midwestern United States.

Restoring trees might seem simple: plant them and they will grow. But in this case, it will require more than Arbor Day volunteers to return elms. Marks’ project involves quests for hidden survivors, sophisticated plant breeding, clones and extensive monitoring – all aimed at speeding up the process of natural selection.

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Bison Bellows and Bones: Student-Scientists on the Prairie

Editor’s Note: At the Samuel H. Ordway Prairie Preserve, students from Gustavus Adolphus College will soon be arriving to follow bison herds for the summer. This research program is not only taking an in-depth look at animal behavior, it’s also providing information on how to best manage bison on fenced reserves. Today, we’re running a previously published blog on last year’s student researchers at Ordway Prairie.

I’m in the back seat of the vehicle as two female college students drive around, listen to music and—in their words—“look for guys.”

Just another evening for students on break, right?

Well, not quite.

These students aren’t driving to a party, nor are they cruising around downtown. There is no town. For that matter, there’s no road.

We’re bouncing around mixed grass prairie in South Dakota, the four-wheel-drive pick-up thumping over ruts and rocks. The vehicle’s loaded with notebooks, GPS units and animal bones.

And the”guys”?

They’re large, shaggy and prone to bellowing, wallowing and urinating on themselves.

They’re bison bulls, the subject of these students’ summer research project.

Michelle Hulke and Mary Joy Sun, entering their sophomore years at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, have spent day after day recording the bison bulls’ fights, vocalizations and even tongue positions.

It’s a research effort aimed at determining if bison bull behavior can be managed to produce more genetically diverse herds in fenced preserves and ranches, the type of environments where most bison herds now roam.

Hulke and Sun are the sixth set of Gustavus Adolphus students to research herd behavior at The Nature Conservancy’s Samuel H. Ordway Prairie Preserve, a 7,800-acre grassland property near Leola. Each year, students at Gustavus Adolphus have the opportunity to participate in research projects following their freshmen year. The bison project has become one of the most popular.

Conservancy preserves and projects offer the perfect outdoor laboratories for undergraduate field research. The Conservancy employs mentors in the form of 550 scientists, and many projects already have a “science infrastructure”—the tools, established research protocols and housing and logistics that support fieldwork. Students learn not only science but also community relations, marketing and land management.

Preserves are places where budding scientists can develop their skills and contribute to meaningful conservation. It’s a place where tomorrow’s conservation leaders can gain field experience in spectacular settings.

In this case, that means living amongst bison herds.

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The Traveling Naturalist: To the Bat Cave!

The Traveling Naturalist, our series featuring natural wonders and biological curiosities for the science-inclined wanderer.

What’s the world’s largest concentration of mammals? Many people guess that it’s one of the great herds—the wildebeest in the Serengeti, or caribou in the Arctic.

But no: To see even more mammals, you have to look to the sky. More specifically, head to a bat cave in the Texas Hill Country, between now and the end of summer.

At caves around Texas, Mexican free-tailed bats emerge nightly by the millions. Yes, millions. The biggest? Bracken Cave, owned by the excellent conservation organization Bat Conservation International, with an estimated 15 million bats. That’s a lot of critters.

These are maternal roosts: females come here to have young. Come fall, they migrate south to Mexico.

Bats emerge en masse from caves, and within minutes they stretch out to the horizon. At a glance it resembles nothing so much as a thick cloud of smoke, swaying in the breeze.

Where there are large congregations of animals, of course, there’s also congregations of predators to take advantage of the bounty. Hovering outside the caves are often a variety of raptors, ready to snatch a wayward bat.

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The Traveling Naturalist: Solid Gold in the Rockies

Introducing The Traveling Naturalist, a new series featuring natural wonders and biological curiosities for the science-inclined wanderer.

The Rocky Mountains in the spring are a botanist’s delight, with many hills, mountain meadows and buttes awash in color. Wildflowers – many of them with interesting natural and human histories – can be easily found on your public lands. Some exist in bright but tiny cluster on alpine peaks while others cover meadows in a palette of seemingly solid color.

My favorite: the flower that paints many foothills bright gold throughout the West, arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata).

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Bristol Bay Blog, Part 3: A Future for Salmon?

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part blog series on the Conservancy’s recent research at Bristol Bay, conducted to provide a risk assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine.

Can one of the world’s largest mines be built in the headwaters of the world’s largest salmon fishery without disrupting the ecosystem?

That’s a question that generates a lot of controversy for the Bristol Bay watershed.

“There is a lot of vilification and name calling, but we wanted to go past that and get the data,” says Dave Albert, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska.

The Nature Conservancy in Alaska commissioned an ecological risk assessment to improve understanding of baseline conditions near the Pebble deposit as well as potential risks such a mine could pose to salmon.

The baseline studies showed that juvenile salmon are ubiquitous in headwaters near the Pebble deposit, including documentation of more than 100 miles of previously unknown salmon streams. It also documented the purity of the water. “This is about the cleanest water in the world,” says Albert. “It’s not distilled water, but it’s pretty darn close.”

The ecological risk assessment used a cutting-edge stream modeling system to investigate potential effects of large-scale mining facilities including open pit mines, a tailings impoundment and waste rock dumps on stream headwaters.

The model results indicate potential for significant negative effects, including up to 60 percent reduction in stream flows near the pit and contamination from waste rock that could exceed Alaska water quality standards. The giant waste rock piles generated by mining would require active pumping and water treatment; if these systems failed, the levels of copper in the river could rapidly exceed lethal levels for salmon.

According to the researchers: “Our study shows that while some of the flow and water quality changes brought about by mining could be ameliorated by ambitious mitigation measures and water management plans, severe water quality effects could result from even a brief failure of these systems.”

The proposed mine dwarfs all other mines in Alaska combined; because the ore exists in low concentrations preliminary designs developed by the mining company show the mine covering twenty square miles with a massive tailings impoundment. From preliminary information released by the company, this tailings pond would require perpetual mediation in an area known for active earthquakes.

“We haven’t seen a detailed mine and water management plan, but it would be difficult to envision a project of this scale that does not require active management, basically forever, to avoid contamination,” says Albert.

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Bristol Bay Blog, Part 2: The Salmon Portfolio

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part blog on the Conservancy’s recent research at Bristol Bay, conducted to provide a risk assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine. Yesterday’s blog covered background and research methods.

This is a land shaped by salmon—in ways large and small, apparent and obscure. Fly over Bristol Bay, and the impact of salmon is everywhere, in literally every living thing.

“Salmon built much of the Alaska we see today,” says Dave Albert, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska. “At historic levels of abundance, salmon are a fundamental driver of any ecological system they inhabit. They’re in the bears and the eagles and the trees and the berries and the people.”

Unlike at most salmon-producing regions of the world, at Bristol Bay scientists can still study a full and functioning salmon ecosystem. The sockeye salmon populations in this region are the most productive in the world. These stocks have contributed an estimated 51 percent of all global sockeye production since 1970. And there are four other salmon species found here as well.

The life history of salmon is well documented. Salmon are hatched in freshwater streams. After growing large enough to make the lengthy journey, they swim to the sea. In the ocean, they grow large while eating smaller fish.

After two to four years, they return to the stream of their birth, lay eggs that will become a new generation of salmon, and die. Their bodies become food for bears and a whole host of other scavengers. Bits of salmon flesh are gobbled by rainbow trout, char and other fish. They nourish algae in the water that provides food for aquatic insects that in turn become food for the next generation of salmon offspring.

“Salmon are in essence a nutrient-delivery system,” says Albert. “They bring nutrients from the rich marine environment to the nutrient-poor rivers and lakes, generation after generation.”

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Bristol Bay Blog, Part 1: Understanding Remote, Wild Waters

No fishing hyperbole: We caught something every other cast. At least.

Huge king salmon spawned in the river, but these were not the fish we were seeking. It was the fish following the king salmon. A host of species lined up downstream as the kings spawned, picking off eggs as they drifted past. We cast little beads that imitated the eggs and bam! Fish on!

Maybe it was a grayling or a large rainbow trout or a char. It didn’t matter: it was the greatest fishing of my life.

That was my first afternoon in the Bristol Bay watershed. The ensuing days there seemed like a parade of wonders: volcanic mountaintops, bears roaming lakeshores, hooking silver salmon in the rain, more rainbow trout and grayling and char.

Here’s the thing: We weren’t even there for the main event—the largest sockeye salmon runs on earth that taken together produce more sockeye salmon than the rest of the world. Combined.

Just last evening, we baked one of our Bristol Bay silver salmon fillets, and the memories came rushing back—memories of one of my finest adventures in a life filled with the pursuit of outdoor experiences around the globe.

And so I understand well the passion, the emotion, people feel for this place, especially when a gigantic mine is proposed right in the midst of it.

The Bristol Bay watershed is located in southwestern Alaska, a mind-bogglingly wild expanse of rivers and streams that covers 58,000 square miles. It has always been best known for its salmon population and the subsistence, commercial and recreational fisheries it supports.

Lately, though, Bristol Bay has received even broader attention, with the proposed mine most commonly known as the Pebble Mine. As it happens, Bristol Bay also sits atop the largest copper and gold deposit on earth. By most estimates, Pebble Mine would be the largest copper mine in North America and one of the largest in the world.

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Watch the ospreys live 24/7 as they nest and raise their young -- and learn more about these fascinating birds from our scientist.

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

2. Blog with astonishing photos, videos and dispatches of Nature Conservancy science in the field.

3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications at the Conservancy, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

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