Dr. Emily Mooney's conservation biology class recently embarked on a nationwide project, the results of which will be used by conservation biologists across the United States to advance the conversation on how to deal with invasive species that encroach upon native plants in U.S. National Wildlife Refuges.
Mooney's class was one of eight from across the country to participate in the Distributed Ecology Research Project of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, of Santa Barbara, Calif.
The students looked at the factors that predict the severity of invasive plant (i.e. weed) spread in U.S. National Wildlife Refuges. Invasive plants are a major environmental problem; because they can crowd out native plants and alter the habitats on which wildlife depend. Information on invasive plants in or near wildlife refuges is incomplete and often scattered among a variety of sources.
The work began with the results of a 2002 survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of its refuges in Region 6 (Mountain Prairie Region).
"All of those questionnaires had just been sitting on a government Web site. People could access it but the information wasn't compiled in a way that was useful," explained Kathy Lloyd '12.
For her part, Lloyd collected data from 10 wildlife refuges in the region, augmenting it with outside resources whenever possible. This information was added to the national database.
"We will then use these data to ask whether the extent of plant invasion is best explained by the size of a refuge, its location, the number of weedy species in the region, or the particular kinds of habitats that are found there," Mooney explained. "Our results will help refuge managers better understand the magnitude of current plant invasions and to anticipate future invasions of weedy plants. We will also leave behind a more complete public database on invasive plants in protected areas."
"What that gave us in the end was a data set that was actually approachable," Lloyd said. "It creates a nationwide conversation on how to fix this on a larger scale."
The result was a much more detailed and nuanced picture of the issue of invasive species in our refuge system, Mooney said.
"We look to our system of national wildlife refuges as areas where species of animals are protected from threats. However, invasive species are clearly a widespread problem. If they reduce habitat quality, then they undermine the mission and intent of the refuge system," Mooney said. "This is something that we need to first be aware of to begin taking steps to ... control invasive species. The updated database may help managers to network with other refuges facing similar problems for techniques on how to deal with plant invasion."
Instead of learning about the science of conservation biology, Mooney's students became conservation biologists.
"This type of approach that incorporates actual research projects and not canned 'exercises' is fundamental to how I like to teach science," Mooney said.
"This was wild. It was quite an eye-opener," Lloyd said. "Compiling data is often boring and frustrating. There's often poor data, but using the formulas that we learned about in conservation biology to compile real data was fascinating. It was an eye-opener. This was a real world experience."