college of agricultural sciences

Fall Creek hatchery to hold annual festival on Nov. 5

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon Hatchery Research Center will host its annual Fall Creek Festival on Saturday, Nov. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the hatchery, located 13 miles west of Alsea on Highway 34.

The festival, which is free and open to the public, features a day of art workshops – scheduled for 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. – as well as children’s activities and tours. Registration is required because space is limited; lunch will be provided for registered participants.

To register, call 541-487-5512 and state workshop preferences, or send an email to oregonhatchery.researchcenter@state.or.us

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to see wild coho and Chinook salmon spawning in Fall Creek,” said David Noakes, an OSU professor of fisheries and wildlife.

The workshops include:

  • Water color painting
  • Fish printing
  • Bird house construction
  • Grocery bag stenciling
  • Wind chime construction
  • Nature journal illustration

The center is jointly operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Story By: 

David Noakes, 541-737-1953, david.noakes@oregonstate.edu

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Excess wildfire, cheatgrass affecting sage-grouse; targeted actions needed

BEND, Ore. – Larger, more frequent wildfires across the Great Basin have contributed significantly to a decline in greater sage-grouse, according to a new study that also indicates that if this trend continues unabated, it could reduce the population of this indicator species to 43 percent of its present numbers.

The culprit, researchers say, is the influx of exotic annual grasses such as cheatgrass that establish after wildfire removes the native plant community, including sagebrush, the plant upon which sage-grouse are dependent for survival.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Great Basin of North America is a vast landscape that is larger than 75 percent of the countries worldwide. It is comprised primarily of a “sagebrush sea” that is threatened by this cycle of wildfire and cheatgrass, according to Christian Hagen, a senior research associate at Oregon State University and a co-author on the study.

“Our modeling indicates that there are long-lasting effects from wildfire that negate increases in sage-grouse population growth that typically occur after years of higher precipitation,” said Hagen, a researcher in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “So even when we have a good precipitation year in the Great Basin, the sage-grouse don’t recover as they once did because the habitat to support them has been lost to cheatgrass.”

The study area encompassed the hydrographic and vegetation boundaries of the Great Basin and included parts of six western states: Nevada (43 percent of the area), Utah (17 percent), Idaho (16 percent), Oregon (14 percent), California (10 percent) and Wyoming (less than 1 percent).

“Wildfire is increasing in the region because the invading cheatgrass is much more prone to burn and re-establishes orders of magnitude quicker than the native sagebrush,” Hagen said. “That isn’t necessarily news – Aldo Leopold recognized that more than a half-century ago. But the impact on an indicator species like the sage-grouse had not been so clearly documented.”

Sagebrush has slow growth rates and does not re-sprout after wildfires; it must re-establish from the seed bank. This delay in succession opens the door for cheatgrass to establish. The researchers say that understanding “R&R” – resilience to wildfire and resistance to cheatgrass – is key to focusing the right land management practices in the right places.

Cheatgrass hails from warmer regions of Eurasia and generally does not persist in relatively cold and moist climates. Colder, moist soils tend to be the most productive ecological sites in the Great Basin, and these sites promote the growth of perennial bunch grasses, native forbs and shrubs – plants that tend to be more resilient to fire, and resistant to invasive grasses.

These also are some of the most productive sites for the sage-grouse. The sage-grouse is a large gallinaceous, or ground-feeding, bird that can be an indicator for ecological health in sagebrush ecosystems because it requires distinct ecological states to meet its diverse life-history needs. Thus, the population dynamics of the species are considered an ideal metric for assessing disturbances to sagebrush disturbance.

The sage-grouse has been considered several times for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the most recent of which triggered massive changes to land management policy on millions of acres of public land.

The cycle of habitat decline is linked to the introduction of cheatgrass to the ecosystem, the researchers say. Land management practices led to a burning regime as often as every 2-3 years, which allowed fast-growing cheatgrass to establish at the expense of slow-growing sagebrush.

“If you can imagine an area the size of a football field infested with cheatgrass, but surrounded by native vegetation,” Hagen said. “If a lightning strike sets the cheatgrass on fire, it likely will consume some of the native vegetation and the burned area doubles or triples, and by next year the cheatgrass infestation has spread.

“It’s a classic positive feedback loop that promotes cheatgrass and becomes a negative situation for native plants – and ultimately, for sage-grouse.”

The key to reversing this decline, the researchers say, may be to further enhance fire prevention and suppression effectiveness in targeted areas of intact sagebrush that have the highest densities of breeding sage-grouse. The study shows that 90 percent of sage-grouse are concentrated on less than 10 percent of the Great Basin.

“Our study illustrates a path toward stabilizing sage-grouse populations through highly focused wildfire management,” Hagen said. “New federal wildland fire policies and priorities in sagebrush steppe, combined with improved collaboration with rural communities through rangeland fire protection associations, greatly increases the odds of curbing population declines due to fire.”

The study was led by Peter S. Coates of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Story By: 

Christian Hagen, 541-410-0238, Christian.hagen@oregonstate.edu

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This photo of a greater sage-grouse is available at: https://flic.kr/p/Nw6T9S

(Photo by Nick Myatt, ODFW)

Study finds local fidelity key to ocean-wide recovery of humpback whales

NEWPORT, Ore. – Humpback whales can migrate thousands of miles to reach feeding grounds each year, but a new study concludes that their fidelity to certain local habitats – as passed on through the generations – and the protection of these habitats are key to understanding the ultimate recovery of this endangered species.

The study documents the local recruitment of whales in Glacier Bay and Icy Strait in Alaska over a 30-year period. The researchers found that contemporary whales that utilize these rich feeding grounds overwhelmingly are descendants of whales that previously used the area.

In other words, the population recovery of humpback whales in the region depends on cultural knowledge of migratory routes passed on from mothers to their calves; it is not a product of whales from outside the area suddenly “discovering” a rich feeding ground.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Endangered Species Research.

“Humpback whales are recovering from exploitation on an ocean-wide basis, but ultimately their individual success is on a much more local scale,” said Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University and a co-author on the study.

“Humpback whales travel globally, but thrive locally.”

The study compares records of individual whales returning to Glacier Bay. The first, referred to as the “founder’s population,” included whales documented by a local high school teacher, Charles Jurasz, beginning in the 1970s. Jurasz was one of the first researchers to realize that individual whales could be identified by photographs of natural markings – a technique now widely used to study living whales.

Over the years, other researchers – including the authors of this study – continued to record the return of these whales by photo identification and they later collected small genetic samples to confirm the relatedness between individual whales.

Using a large database maintained by Glacier Bay National Park and the University of Alaska Southeast, the records of the founding population were then compared to records of the “contemporary population” returning to Glacier Bay, more than 30 years after Jurasz’s initial studies. The results were striking.

Of the 25 “founding females” that were also sampled for genetic analysis, all but one was represented in the contemporary group – either as still living, or by a direct descendant, or in many cases, both. Several of the founding females were even grandmothers of individuals in the contemporary population.

“We looked at three possibilities for population increase over a 33-year period including local recruitment from Glacier Bay/Icy Strait, recruitment from elsewhere in southeastern Alaska, and immigration from outside the region,” said Sophie P. Pierszalowski, a master’s student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and lead author on the study.

“It is clear that the contemporary generation of whales is based on local recruitment, highlighting the importance of protecting local habitat for recovering species, especially those with culturally inherited migratory destinations.”

Humpback whales in the North Pacific were once estimated to number more than 15,000 individuals based on catch data before commercial whaling took a toll, reducing the population to less than a thousand by 1966. Humpback whales were first protected by the International Whaling Commission in 1965, then listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Since the protection, the oceanic population has increased to an estimated 21,000 individuals based on photo-identification studies and other evidence. The recovery has been slow, in part because humpback whales can live to be 70 years of age and their recovery is driven primarily by local fidelity and recruitment.

“Limiting vessel traffic in important habitats is one way to help protect humpback whales,” Pierszalowski said, “along with maintaining legal distances by vessels, reducing the risk of entanglement with fishing gear, and maintaining stranding networks that have the capacity to quickly disentangle whales.”

OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute is based at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

Story By: 

Scott Baker, 541-272-0560, scott.baker@oregonstate.edu;

Sophie Pierszalowski, 541-737-4523, pierszas@oregonstate.edu

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Photo of mother and calf to the left:






New technologies – and a dash of whale poop – help scientists monitor whale health

NEWPORT, Ore. – A lot of people think what Leigh Torres has done this summer and fall would qualify her for a spot on one of those “World’s Worst Jobs” lists.

After all, the Oregon State University marine ecologist follows gray whales from a small inflatable boat in the rugged Pacific Ocean and waits for them to, well, poop. Then she and her colleagues have about 20-30 seconds to swoop in behind the animal with a fine mesh net and scoop up some of the prized material before it drifts to the ocean floor.

Mind you, gray whales can reach a length of more than 40 feet and weigh more than 30 tons, making the retrieval of their daily constitutional somewhat daunting. Yet Torres, a principal investigator in the university’s Marine Mammal Institute, insists that it really isn’t that bad.

“We’re just looking for a few grams of material and to be honest, it doesn’t even smell that bad,” she said. “Now, collecting a DNA sample from a whale’s blow-hole – that’s a bad job. Their breath is horrendous.”

Being a marine pooper-scooper isn’t some strange fetish for the Oregon State research team. They are conducting a pilot project to determine how gray whales respond to ocean noise – both natural and human – and whether these noises cause physiological stress in the animals. Technology is changing the way the researchers are approaching their study.

“New advances in biotechnology allow us to use the fecal samples to look at a range of things that provide clues to the overall health and stress of the whales,” Torres said. “We can look at their hormone levels and genetically identify individual whales, their sex and whether they are pregnant. And we can analyze their prey and document what they’ve been eating.

“Previously, we would have to do a biopsy to learn some of these things and though they can be done safely, you typically don’t repeat the procedure often because it’s invasive,” she added. “Here, we can follow individual whales over a four-month feeding season and pick up multiple samples that can tell us changes in their health.”

The study is a pilot project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Acoustics Program to determine the impacts of noise on whale behavior and health. Torres, who works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, focuses on gray whales because they are plentiful and close to shore.

“Many marine mammals are guided by acoustics and use sound to locate food, to navigate, to communicate with one another and to find a mate,” said Torres, a faculty member in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and an ecologist with the Oregon Sea Grant program.

Ten years ago, such a study would not have been possible, Torres acknowledged. In addition to new advances in genetic and hormone analyses, the OSU team uses a drone to fly high above the whales. It not only detects when they defecate, it is giving them unprecedented views of whale behavior.

“We are seeing things through the drone cameras that we have never seen before,” Torres said. “Because of the overhead views, we now know that whales are much more agile in their feeding. We call them ‘bendy’ whales because they make such quick, sharp turns when feeding. These movements just can’t be seen from the deck of a ship.”

The use of small, underwater Go-Pro cameras allows them to observe what the whales are feeding upon below. The researchers can identify zooplankton, benthic invertebrates, and fish in the water column near feeding whales, and estimate abundance – helping them understand what attracts the whales to certain habitats.

Joe Haxel and Sharon Nieukirk are acoustic scientists affiliated with OSU's Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies and the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory at the Hatfield center who are assisting with the project. They deploy drifting hydrophones near the whales to record natural and human sounds, help operate the overhead drone camera that monitors the whales’ behavior, and also get in on the fecal analysis.

“Gray whales are exposed to a broad range of small- and medium-sized boat traffic that includes sport fishing and commercial fleets,” Haxel said. “Since they are very much a coastal species, their exposure to anthropogenic noise is pretty high. That said, the nearshore environment is already very noisy with natural sounds including wind and breaking surf, so we’re trying to suss out some of the space and time patterns in noise levels in the range of habitats where the whales are found.”

It will take years for the researchers to learn how ocean noise affects whale behavior and health, but as ocean noises continue increasing – through ship traffic, wave energy projects, sonar use, seismic surveys and storms – the knowledge they gain may be applicable to many whale species, Torres said.

And the key to this baseline study takes a skilled, professional pooper-scooper.

“When a whale defecates, it generates this reddish cloud and the person observing the whale usually screams “POOP!” and we spring into action,” Torres said. “It’s a moment of excitement, action - and also sheer joy. I know that sounds a little weird, but we have less than 30 seconds to get in there and scoop up some of that poop that may provide us with a biological gold mine of information that will help protect whales into the future.

“That’s not such a bad job after all, is it?”

Story By: 

Leigh Torres, 541-867-0895, leigh.torres@oregonstate.edu

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Link to: the whale fluke photo



For a video of the research, click here







Aerial shot of a gray whale.





Researchers use a drone to monitor whale behavior





OSU student receives $132,000 EPA STAR fellowship

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Christina Murphy, a doctoral student at Oregon State University, has received a $132,000 Science to Achieve Results, or STAR fellowship, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Murphy, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU, is conducting research on how best to manage dams to protect salmon.

STAR graduate fellows are selected from a large number of applications in a highly competitive review process, EPA officials say. Since the program began in 1995, the EPA has awarded nearly 2,000 students a total of more than $65 million in funding.

Murphy earned three honors bachelor’s degrees at OSU, in biology, fisheries and wildlife, and international studies, then conducted a Fulbright research project in Chile. She earned a master’s degree at the Universitat de Girona in Spain, and then returned to Oregon State to pursue her doctorate.

“Northwest reservoirs have different hydrologic regimes and changes in timing and magnitude of drawdown,” Murphy said. She is evaluating physical and chemical conditions in the water, as well as phytoplankton, zooplankton, benthic insects, diversity and populations of fish, and habitat availability within reservoirs – both before and after hydrologic changes – in order to inform decisions on dam and reservoir management.

Murphy is focusing her studies on four reservoirs in the upper Willamette basin in Oregon – Blue River, Fall Creek, Lookout Point and Hills Creek.

“The Pacific Northwest relies on hydropower for more than half of its electricity, with high-head dams forming large reservoirs on rivers historically supporting anadromous salmon,” Murphy said. “Improved understanding of the ecological mechanisms and responses of Pacific Northwest reservoirs with respect to water-level fluctuations is critical to ensuring ecologically sound practices for the long-term operation and greening of our hydropower infrastructure.”

Story By: 

Christina Murphy, 541-505-1393, Christina.Murphy@oregonstate.edu

Salmon trucking success could open miles of historical spawning habitat

NEWPORT, Ore. – For the past several years, technicians have been trucking spring Chinook salmon above Foster Dam in Sweet Home to see if they would spawn, and if their offspring could survive the passage over the dam and subsequent ocean migration to eventually return as adults some 3-5 years later.

A new study examining the genetic origin of adult spring Chinook returning to Foster Dam offers definitive proof that the offspring survived, potentially opening up miles of spawning habitat on the upper South Santiam and other river systems.

Results of the study have been published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.

“With a little human assistance, it is now clear that we can restore natural production to areas above some dams and there is prime habitat on some river systems, such as the North Santiam above Detroit Dam,” said Kathleen O’Malley, an Oregon State University geneticist and principal investigator on the project. “This could really contribute to the long-term population viability in some river systems.”

Some past studies have explored whether salmon that spawned above dams could survive as juveniles going back through the dams, but this new study is one of the first to assess whether those fish successfully would return years later as adults.

Beginning in 2007, technicians from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took genetic samples of adult salmon trucked above the dam. During the first two years, most of those adult salmon were reared in hatcheries and released as juveniles, but in 2009 they began using only wild-born fish, hoping to give a boost to that population. Since then, researchers have taken genetic samples from returning adult salmon to see if their parents were among those released above the dam.

The key is the “cohort replacement rate,” O’Malley said. If you release 100 female salmon above the dam, will you get at least 100 females from that population returning as adults to the dam for a rate of 1.0?  The researchers have to sample for several years to determine the success rate of one cohort, since spring Chinook can return as 3-, 4- or 5-year olds.

In 2007, ODFW released 385 hatchery-origin adult salmon and 18 wild-born salmon above Foster Dam, and the cohort replacement rate was .96. In 2008, 527 hatchery-origin fish and 163 wild-born fish were released, and the replacement rate was 1.16.

In 2009, the shift was made to all wild-born fish and ODFW released 434 spring Chinook above Foster Dam. When the researchers completed their genetic analysis for that year they found a cohort replacement rate of 1.56.

“It could be a one-year anomaly, or it may be an indication that wild-born fish are fitter and better able to survive and reproduce above the dams,” O’Malley said. “It is promising, though.”

Dams can limit downstream damage from potential floods, the researchers say, but there is little protection for spawning salmon above the dams. One flood occurred in 2010, and the researchers are just finishing their analysis of that year. Many of the spawning beds were wiped out, thus the cohort replacement rate likely will be lower. Although re-establishment of spawning activity above the dams has the potential to enhance productivity, those efforts are vulnerable to environmental processes.

“One limiting factor is that we don’t know for sure what an appropriate replacement rate is,” O’Malley pointed out. “We know that 1.0 is the bare minimum – one fish dies and another takes its place. But it won’t be clear what a good number will be to sustain and expand the population until we have several years of research.”

Researchers and fisheries managers note that ocean conditions play an important role in determining the number of adult salmon that survive to return and spawn, and can account for a significant amount of inter-annual variability in salmon abundance. It is important to have a population that is sufficiently productive across years in order to survive poor environmental conditions – in the ocean, or in fresh water – in any single given year.

ODFW also has released fish above dams on the North Santiam River and Fall Creek and OSU researchers are using genetics to monitor some of the first returning adults in these systems.

“One reason we think that the South Santiam reintroduction is going so well is that the reservoir is smaller and the dam is lower than in others systems in the Willamette basin,” O’Malley said. “The salmon’s downstream survival rate is likely higher than it may be on other river systems.”

The project is funded by the Army Corps of Engineers.

O’Malley is an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU, who is affiliated with the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

Other authors on the study include Melissa Evans and Dave Jacobson of Oregon State; Jinliang Wang of the Zoological Society of London; and Michael Hogansen and Marc Johnson of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Evans, the lead author, now works for the Fish and Wildlife Department of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Idaho.

Story By: 

Kathleen O’Malley, 541-961-3311, kathleen.omalley@oregonstate.edu

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Aerial video of South Santiam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEb5l8lGtb8&




Spring Chinook bypassing Foster Dam



Foster Dam trapping operation

OSU names Susan Capalbo as senior vice provost for Academic Affairs

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Susan Capalbo, who heads the Department of Applied Economics at Oregon State University, has been named senior vice provost for Academic Affairs at OSU. She will begin her new duties on Oct. 1.

Capalbo replaces Brenda McComb, who will retire from this position on July 31, and who has served in a variety of leadership positions at the university.

As senior vice provost, Capalbo will support the university’s provost and executive vice president in matters related to faculty development, curricular operations, assessment and accreditation, strategic plan implementation, academic capacity planning, academic initiatives and special projects.

She also will serve on the OSU President’s Cabinet and Provost’s Council.

Among the primary responsibilities for the senior vice provost are leadership and coordination of faculty matters, including shaping faculty hiring, support and development of OSU faculty; oversight of curriculum matters, including curriculum development and review; acting as a liaison with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the Higher Education Coordinating Commission; and oversight of institutional planning and research.

“Susan Capalbo has been active in leading the development of the university’s updated strategic plan and other university-level initiatives,” said Ron Adams, interim provost and executive vice president. “Susan has an excellent track record as an educator, researcher and mentor. Her work as head of a large and complex department, and leading the strategic plan steering committee, will jump-start her into the role of senior vice provost.”

Capalbo, who has been at Oregon State since 2008, previously was on the faculty of Montana State University and the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on applied economics and policy related to sustainable agriculture and resource management.

She has a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of California-Davis, and a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in economics from the University of Rhode Island.

Story By: 

Ron Adams, 541-737-2111, ronald.lynn.adams@oregonstate.edu

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OSU researchers fix calculation error in study on fracking and human health

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A 2015 Oregon State University study that linked natural-gas fracking to increased air pollution and heightened health risks has been corrected by its authors.

The corrected article still concludes that natural gas extraction contributes polluting chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to the air, but at levels that would not be expected to increase lifetime cancer risk above the EPA threshold.

The researchers measured levels of airborne PAHs near several Ohio hydraulic-fracturing sites in 2014. PAHs have been linked to increased risk of cancer and respiratory diseases.

In their March 2015 article, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the researchers reported that PAH pollution from fracking could put a person living in the study area at a greater than a one-in-a-million risk of developing cancer during his or her life. One in a million is the threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for unacceptable cancer risk.

The authors retracted the article on June 29, 2016, after they found an error in a complicated spreadsheet used to calculate the concentrations of various PAH chemicals in the air.

The researchers redid the calculations and submitted a corrected version of the article, which was published on July 11, 2016. It finds that the estimated risk for the maximum exposure to fracking-related PAH pollution in the study area is 0.04 in a million—well below the EPA’s threshold.

Steve Clark, OSU’s vice president for university relations, said the mistake came to light as the researchers were crunching numbers from a current project. In the process, he said, they discovered a similar calculation error in a 2014 study of PAH pollution of air and water during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which also was published in Environmental Science and Technology.

That article too was retracted on June 29, and the corrected article was published online on July 8.

“In both cases the researchers were using a complicated, multi-linked spreadsheet to analyze large quantities of data,” said Clark. “The error was an honest mistake that unfortunately slipped through the peer-review process. Our researchers knew they couldn’t let it stand, so they stepped forward and corrected the error.”  

The coauthors of the Ohio fracking study include OSU researchers Kim Anderson (College of Agricultural Sciences) and Laurel Kincl (College of Public Health and Human Sciences), and Erin Haynes of the University of Cincinnati. Anderson also coauthored the Deepwater Horizon study.

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OSU Press publishes “Ricky’s Atlas,” a sequel to its first children’s book

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon State University Press has published “Ricky’s Atlas: Mapping a Land on Fire,” a sequel to its first book aimed at children, written by two OSU faculty members.

In 2013, the press published “Ellie’s Log: Exploring the Forest Where the Great Tree Fell,” the story of two children exploring an old-growth forest in the Oregon Cascades. Written by Judith Li, and illustrated by M.L. Herring, the book received several honors, including the Green Earth Book Award Short List for books aimed at children., and an honorable mention from the John Burroughs Riverby Award Committee.

“Ricky’s Atlas” continues to explore the nature of Oregon, this time east of the Cascade Mountains, where Ricky Zamora and his friend Ellie delve further into the relationship between people, plants and animals, while dealing with a wildfire sparked by lightning.

The two young explorers hike across a natural prairie, climb a fire tower, study historical photos and maps, and learn about the role of fire in nature. Ricky’s love of map-making and his natural curiosity help shape the story.

“Upper elementary kids will enjoy the mixture of amazing adventures with actual historical, physical and ecological data about the region,” said Marty Brown, marketing manager for the OSU Press. “Woven into the story are the small pleasures of ranch life, intriguing stories of Native Americans and early settlers, and almost unbelievable views of ancient fossils.

“Ricky and Ellie’s explorations, accompanied by their hand-written notes, introduce readers to a very special landscape and history east of the Cascades.”

Li is a retired associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU, where she worked as a stream ecologist and participated in the National Science Foundation-sponsored Long-Term Ecological Research program at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest.

Herring is a science writer and illustrator who heads the communications program in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Ricky’s Atlas” is available at book stores and for order at http://osupress.oregonstate.edu

Story By: 

Marty Brown, 541-737-3866, marty.brown@oregonstate.edu

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An image of the book cover is available at: https://flic.kr/p/J5Fiyq

Oil and gas infrastructure doesn’t seem to deter nesting hawks

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Roads and petroleum wells in Wyoming’s oil and gas country don’t seem to interfere with the nesting of ferruginous hawks, according to recent findings by Oregon State University wildlife researchers.

In their three-year study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, wildlife biologists Zach Wallace and Patricia Kennedy found that the birds were equally likely to return to nests near energy infrastructure, such as roads and well pads, as to those farther away.

The birds’ nesting choices proved to be influenced more by abundance of prey animals such as ground squirrels, and by relatively sparse sagebrush cover, than by structures associated with oil and gas fields, the researchers concluded.

The study, conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, is the largest in the U.S. so far on the impacts of oil and gas development on the federally protected hawks, which are regarded as a “species of conservation concern” by some federal and state agencies.

But it’s too early, Wallace cautioned, to assume that oil and gas activities are benign.

“We don’t have pre-construction data,” he said, “so we were studying birds that had continued to nest after energy exploration began. It is possible that some hawks may already have abandoned the areas of densest development prior to our study.”

Kennedy said the long-term effect of energy development on abundance of prey is unknown.

“We know from the literature that ferruginous hawks can nest in working landscapes,” she said. “But we present our findings with some caution, because we don’t know what the thresholds are,” for habitat changes that will harm the birds’ reproductive success.

“Some prey species seem to thrive under disturbances from oil and gas development; others may not.”

Kennedy is a professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences stationed at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Union, Ore. Wallace led the study as Kennedy’s master’s student and now works for Eagle Environmental, a conservation consulting firm in New Mexico.

The ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis) is the largest hawk species in North America. The birds are partially migratory, wintering as far south as central Mexico and returning north in the spring to breeding territories in the arid shrub- and grasslands of the western U.S.

The hawks nest in trees and rocky outcrops, returning to prior years’ nests if these are available. They also nest readily on human-made structures such as artificial nesting platforms, power poles, abandoned windmills, even gas condensation tanks. They will nest on the ground if elevated structures are not present, Kennedy said.

Birds that inhabit grasslands and shrublands are declining around the world primarily because of human-caused disturbances, Wallace said. He and Kennedy undertook the study to determine which of several key influences were most important in the hawks’ reuse of breeding territories and nesting success: abundance of prey, shrub cover, weather, type of nest substrate, and density of human structures such as roads and well pads.

The researchers counted hawk nests from a small airplane over three seasons, and they sampled prey species on the ground. Their study area covered nearly half the state of Wyoming and included both public and private land.

They divided the sampling territory into areas with low, medium and high density of oil and gas infrastructure. After the initial nest count, they monitored the nests during spring breeding season over the next two years to see whether the birds returned to prior years’ nests and how many young they produced.

Based on earlier research, they expected that returning birds would avoid nests within 1.5 kilometers of roads and well pads. Instead, they found that the birds were equally likely to come back to these nests as to the ones farther away.

The findings could affect the mitigation measures required of energy companies to protect wildlife habitat, said Wallace, which are now negotiated with land management authorities on a project-by-project basis.

“One of the strengths of our study is its broad spatial scale, which makes it more relevant to management decisions than the smaller-scale studies that have been done in the past,” he said. “We were able to study these hawks at the scale of their ecology, and also at the scale of oil and gas development.”

Wyoming’s oil and gas industry has grown rapidly since the late 20th century, although growth has slowed lately as prices for fossil fuels have declined.

“We collected an excellent, large dataset on the hawks’ nesting behavior in both disturbed and undisturbed areas,” Wallace said. “This study lays the groundwork for rigorous before-and-after studies if and when oil and gas drilling spreads into now-undeveloped areas.”

Story By: 

Patricia Kennedy, 541-562-5129 X 31


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Ferruginous hawk
Ferruginous hawk