Karl Martin serves as state director for the Community, Natural Resource and Economic Development (CNRED) program, which involves some 50 county-based faculty, 30 UW–Extension specialists, and 30 integrated faculty and academic staff at UW–Madison, UW–Stevens Point, UW–River Falls, UW–Superior, UW–Green Bay and Iowa State University. CNRED’s purview spans a wide range of community development issues, including downtown revitalization, local government training, energy efficiency, broadband and e-commerce, land use planning and business development and expansion. The program also includes natural resource issues such as watershed management, invasive species, well testing, lake management and monitoring and forest and wildlife management—areas that speak more specifically to Martin’s own scholarship (his CALS degree is in wildlife ecology, and he holds master’s and Ph.D. degrees in wildlife and forest science from Oregon State University). The best part of his job? “Interacting with a diversity of colleagues who epitomize the Wisconsin Idea in the work they do every day,” he says.
Once upon a time during the last few years, a red-haired girl new to the University of Wisconsin–Madison crested Bascom Hill and cast her eyes upon the cozy arrangement of buildings and lawns, the tree-lined city by the fair lake. Her nature and upbringing led her to think: Yes, this is good. I should meet the right boy here. I hope the food is good.
The UW–Madison campus is a well-worn locale for such scouting. Last year 31,676 prospective students scoped out dorms and classrooms. Hundreds of elite athletes measured the environment against their precise needs. Thousands more informal visits were made, all driven by the same question: Can I thrive here?
But our young visitor is in a new class altogether—wild members of the canid clan. As it happens, their food is quite good, and she—technically a vixen, or female fox—did find the right dog. After spending a winter holed up under Van Hise Hall, she gave birth to a litter of eight, and in early March of 2014 began to let the young kits gambol about.
They were a campus sensation—stopping lectures, cars and buses, inspiring a popular Tumblr blog, drawing hundreds of rapt spectators. Their appearance provided a fortuitous teachable moment for David Drake, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology and a UW–Extension wildlife specialist, who was just beginning to delve deeper into studying the foxes and coyotes of Madison.
Coyotes have been intermittent, if secretive, Madisonians for more than a decade. In the last few years reports of coyotes by visitors to Picnic Point have been rising, and people from the Lakeshore Nature Preserve asked Drake if he could investigate. But the rise of the urban fox population is a relatively new canine twist.
“It’s very timely,” says Dan Hirchert, urban wildlife specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. While no comprehensive data have been collected, from where he sits foxes and coyotes are gaining throughout the state. And while the coyotes have been present for a couple of decades, the fortunes of the fox seem to be following the rise in urban chicken rearing.
Because most wildlife research happens in rural areas, we may not know as much as we think about our new neighbors. “Does what we’ve learned about these animals in the wild apply in urbanized settings?” asks Drake. Most major cities employ a forester, but very few cities have a wildlife biologist on staff. Much more common is the pest management paradigm: animal control.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Drake says. “If 85 percent of Americans live in cities, why aren’t we doing more? That’s where people are interacting with wildlife.”
These questions prompted Drake to found the UW Urban Canid Project, a hyperlocal study with far-reaching implications.
“The number of urban canid sightings on campus, primarily red fox and coyote, have been on the rise and have been met with mixed emotions from all different members of society,” notes Drake. “This research aims to understand more about the complex interactions between coyotes, foxes and humans in this urban area—as well as provide information and resources for residents to reduce the potential for conflict with these amazing creatures.”
As morning light seeped into a cold January dawn, David Drake and his grad student Marcus Mueller prepared to lead a small convoy from Russell Labs, winding toward the wild corners of campus to check 18 restraint traps that had been set the evening before.
“Are you feeling lucky today?” Drake asks, climbing into the truck.
“Always,” says Mueller.
“I had a hard time getting to sleep last night,” says Drake. “This is like the anticipation of Christmas morning. Every day you go out to see if you caught something.”
First stop is the old Barley and Malt Laboratory, between the retaining wall of University Avenue and the physical plant. It hardly seemed like habitat, but Mueller traced a clear track laid down by the repeated passage of many small feet. The animals were using the buildings for cover, in transit to someplace else.
Drake is hopeful—he’d already received a call from someone who’d seen a fox at 5:20 a.m. on the football practice field. “They were running through Breese Terrace all last year,” he says. At least one fox was digging in an area under the west side bleachers of Camp Randall for a possible den, notes Drake, but no kits were ever seen there. “It is funny to find these spaces on campus that the animals are using,” says Drake. “I ride my bike by here every day and never really thought about it.”
And in one of the three traps an annoyed raccoon waits impatiently. Donning protective gloves, Drake and Mueller release the coon, who scuttles away, anxious for cover.
Next stop is a small cattail marsh next to Willow Beach, behind the new Dejope Residence Hall. The day before, Drake and Mueller had baited the marsh with parts of a deer carcass. On the short trail we flush an eagle from its perch, perhaps planning its own morning snack of carrion.
This little ecological pocket typifies the habitat opportunities that fox and coyote are exploiting. It’s not big enough to call home, or even to get a regular meal. But link it together with dozens of other nooks and crannies and dumpsters around campus, and the sum total is a complex and productive niche.
Fox and coyote are urban adapters: flexible enough to range across a variety of landscapes, from rural to urban. For animals to survive in a city, they typically need to be this kind of habitat generalist, able to exploit a range of hunting and scavenging environments.
The other part of the equation is habituation—how animals get accustomed to human activities. As a species moves into the city, those who survive realize over time that bad things don’t necessarily happen when they encounter humans. Instead of running at the first sign of people, they sit and watch. This knowledge gets passed down from mother to pup, eventually leading to the Van Hise foxes romping in full view of adoring crowds.
The restraints behind Dejope are set for fox, and this morning there is nothing. Drake looks around and connects the dots in the surrounding environment. West across the ice is University Bay Marsh, where four more restraints await. A few ticks to the north is Picnic Point, and the lake beyond.
The last traps of the day are located in the Biocore Prairie, where the research began when a few trail cams confirmed that a group of coyotes were ranging through the preserve, and probably enjoying the fruits of the Eagle Heights gardens as well.
Drake hopes to learn how urban agriculture is influencing canid behavior. Backyard vegetable gardening is flourishing, and each year more city dwellers add chicken coops to their homesteads.
The chickens are an obvious attraction—chickens have probably been preferred canid targets since even before their domestication. Gardens also attract the small mammals that canids prefer. They will even snack on berries and vegetables.
Last year Drake secured four radio collars—two for each species—and, with the assistance of Lodi trapper Mike Schmelling, researchers were able to collar a pair of coyotes and one fox. Among the first discoveries was that the animals are running the frozen lake. The researchers learned this when one collared coyote disappeared. At first they suspected a malfunction, but a citizen report led them to Maple Bluff, where they reestablished radio contact. The coyote had apparently run all the way across the lake, possibly snacking on ice-fishing gut piles along the way. Another ran north and was killed by a car on County M, near Governor Nelson Park.
This year the research hits full speed, with 30 fox collars and 30 coyote collars available. The ambitious work plan includes collaring an entire fox family, kits and all.
And in the snow-covered landscape of the Biocore Prairie, the first glimpse of the third restraint trap offers a rush of hope. The area around the restraint is beaten up, with dark leaves interrupting the white. An animal was clearly held at some point, but all that’s left is a bit of hair and a kinked and ruined cable.
Back in the truck, Drake teases Mueller. “Marcus, I don’t have a good feeling about your luck.”
“Not yet, anyway.”
“You’re not an unlucky person, are you?”
“I hope not.”
“Because I have fired more than one graduate student for being unlucky . . .”
It’s just as dark and even colder the next morning, yet the party adds an undergraduate wildlife ecology student, Cody Lane, and Laura Wyatt MS’87, a program manager with the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. John Olson, a furbearer biologist for the DNR, is in town, and has come to check out the project before putting in a day of lab work.
Behind the Barley and Malt Laboratory, Olson kneels down to evaluate the tradecraft of the empty restraint—a simple loop of airline cable noose suspended from a dark length of stiff wire. “They don’t even see these as traps. They see them as sticks,” Olson explains.
These unique cable restraint traps were named and developed with DNR assistance as part of a national humane trap research program in the early 2000s. “The important thing with these kinds of sets is non-entanglement,” he says. The radius of the multistrand wire must be clear of any potential snags. The size of the loop is determined by the animal you’re selecting, while a stopper keeps it from getting too tight. It works much like a choker collar.
During testing they trapped just over 200 coyotes, and only two died. One had a bad case of mange and died of exposure. The other was shot by someone who didn’t realize the animal was restrained. “It’s a very safe tool,” Olson says. “Cable restraints never damaged any coyotes in the three years that we studied them.”
The convoy moved on to Willow Beach—and, finally, success. A young male fox waits suspiciously, huddled in the reeds. The wind probes at his deep winter coat while the party retreats and summons Michael Maroney BS’85, a veterinarian with the UW–Madison Research Animal Resources Center.
Together Mueller and Maroney estimate the fox’s weight at 12 pounds, and draw a mix of ketamine and xylazine. Mueller secures the animal with a catch pole while Maroney injects the cocktail into the rear leg muscle, provoking an accusing glare from the fox. The clock starts. Within six minutes Maroney looks at Mueller and announces: “He’s clearly gorked.”
Everybody laughs at the non-technical yet thoroughly accurate terminology, and the work begins. They figure they have about 40 minutes. Laying the animal out on a white towel atop a blue tarp, Mueller secures a cordura muzzle, then pulls out electric clippers and shaves one dark foreleg to make it easier to find a vein. Maroney watches his technique while the undergraduate Lane records data.
The fox breathes steadily, and the three talk quietly, as if he were only asleep. Without the wind ruffling his coat, the fox seems smaller, more vulnerable. After the blood draw, nasal and fecal swabs are taken, and the mouth examined. Finally, they weigh the animal—a sturdy 13.5 pounds—and affix the radio collar.
Removing the muzzle, they carry him away from an opening in the marsh ice—a gorked animal doesn’t always behave rationally—and lay him out again on the tarp, out of the wind. A few minutes later and a dark ear twitches, as if to displace a fly. A few more minutes, and the ear twitches pick up. Suddenly the fox stands up shakily, and surveys the audience of onlookers. He quickly takes cover in the marsh, where he gathers his wits for a few more minutes, then slips from view.
Mueller and Drake are giddy, ebullient. “We are off and running,” says Drake. “That was pretty cool.” Last year it took forever to catch a fox; this year they begin with one. “Great start,” says Mueller, and then recounts the steps to himself in a low voice, as if to help remember: the sedation, the blood draws, the recovery.
Mary Rice first saw the coyote in her backyard sometime in the summer of 2012. It was getting dark, and first she wondered, “Whose dog is that?”, followed quickly by: “Oh, my god, a coyote.”
“We were a little alarmed,” she says.
Rice canvassed the neighbors, warning them there was “a coyote lurking” about. Some didn’t know, others did, and some even thought they’d seen wolves. She was wondering how to deal with it, who to call, when she saw another one, smaller. “Remove one, there will be another,” she realized.
A graduate coordinator in the Department of Food Science, Rice remained somewhat unsettled for a few months, worrying about her cats and unsure about her own safety. Then one day at work she learned about Drake’s UW Urban Canid Project and decided to give them a call.
“Can you try to track it and figure out what it’s doing here?” she asked. “We can hopefully live with it. If we’re not going to be able to remove it, maybe we can learn from it and learn how to live among them.”
Before long, with the cooperation of another neighbor, a restraint trap was set. This was Mueller’s first solo set: he decided where to put it, and configured and camouflaged it. Within a week, in early March they had a 36-pound male coyote who had been cutting behind a brush pile. On her way to work, Rice stopped to see the animal and help the team record its vitals. She couldn’t wait to tell her coworkers why she was late.
Rice’s coyote experience is a perfect example of how the project can work, says Drake, with outreach engaging members of the public and connecting them with scientists in the field. On most trap-checking mornings Drake’s team has company—each day a new handful of visitors. Sometimes they’re wildlife students or other friends of the program, but often they’re just curious early risers who follow the group’s progress on social media.
And with hundreds of followers on Facebook and Twitter, public fascination is strong. Because of our strong cultural connection to dogs, our affinity may even be a little hardwired. From Wile E. Coyote and fox or coyote tricksters in folklore to the Fantastic Mr. Fox, these are animals we all know on some level, however mythic.
Still, fox and coyote don’t get quite the same reception. The fox is easy to anthropomorphize. It’s small, cute and generally non-threatening. Coyotes aren’t typically seen as often, and your first thought can be, like that of Mary Rice: Whoa, that’s a pretty big animal.
“Just because you see a coyote doesn’t mean it’s a bad animal, and doesn’t mean it’s going to create problems for you or that you should be afraid of it,” says Drake. The key is to not create, or exaggerate, a conflict. And that’s almost always about food. It’s important to secure bird feeders and outside pet food, and to take care with pets out of doors. If the coyotes become too bold, make an effort to scare the animals away. “We’re really trying to help people to understand how wonderful it is to have these animals here, but also to be vigilant,” Drake says.
“Are you nocturnal yet?” I ask Mueller as I climb into a white UW van at 9 p.m. in early March. He laughs—it won’t be long now. As soon as early-morning trap checks are done, he’ll be swinging full-time on the second shift. These dogs are nocturnal, and if you want to learn where they are at night, you’ve got to get out there with the radio tracker.
The research plan calls for tracking each animal at least once a week. Some nights it’s boring, and Mueller catches naps between hourly triangulations. But the newly collared fox has been a real challenge. He was tracked one night moving from south of Fish Hatchery Road and Park Street all the way up to John Nolen Drive, where he spent time on frozen Monona Bay and eventually made it to Muir Woods on campus. That’s about four miles as the crow flies—never mind the urban labyrinth he had to navigate between those points. He did all that traveling within a five-hour period.
“It truly was a game of cat and mouse trying to keep up with him that night,” says Mueller. Is he a young transient who hasn’t yet established a home range? Is he trying to find a mate? Or can home ranges for urban foxes really be that big?
Some nights Mueller can track only one animal, but on others they are close to each other. On one recent night the fox and the coyotes were all on campus, just a short distance from each other. “I was flying all over campus,” says Mueller. “It was a crazy night of telemetry.”
It was a perfect scenario for answering a really big question. In wilder terrain foxes and coyotes are mutually exclusive, but Madison is different. “We know from the animals we’ve got on radio that the fox and the coyote are sharing the same space, and sometimes they are sharing the same space at the same time,” says Drake. “They are crossing paths.”
Are the foxes using humans and elements of our built environment to protect themselves from coyotes? Or are there simply enough resources that they don’t have to compete as strictly—more rabbits and squirrels, more compost piles and chicken coops?
The scientists are a long way from answering those questions. First they need to relocate the coyote.
Mueller parks around the corner from Mary Rice’s house in a residential pocket south of the Beltline and raises the antenna, a three-element Yagi that looks like a refugee from the old days of analog TV.
The first reading comes from the west, and from the strength of it Mueller guesses we’re a mile or more away. Crossing back over the Beltline, a little under a mile as the crow flies, and another reading: now the signal’s coming from the east. Another three-
quarters of a mile into a dead-end parking lot, and the signal is now east and south. But back over the Beltline.
In quarter-mile and half-mile increments Mueller is in and out of the van, swinging the antenna around, squawk box to his ear, taking compass readings. After a few more readings he finalizes the coyote’s location in a small wetland not far from one of the many bike paths that probe south from the city. He stayed put until 2 a.m., when Mueller called it a night.
“I can’t wait,” says Mueller, thinking ahead 12 months, when he’s got hundreds of hours of data plotted on a map and can begin to see patterns. “The underlying goal of this project is to be able to coexist with these animals more effectively, to avoid conflicts,” he says. “We don’t want to have to remove coyotes from a population because they are too habituated to people.”
As a summer job during college, Mueller used to take calls at a wildlife rehab center in Milwaukee. “A lot of times people just don’t know much about the ecology and life history of these animals, and that lack of understanding leads to fear,” he says. One call in particular stuck with him, a man worried about a turkey walking around in Milwaukee.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to take it back to nature. It’s not supposed to be here,’” Mueller remembers. But the turkey had already redefined nature—and so have coyotes and foxes and deer and raccoons and . . .
“Cities aren’t going anywhere,” says Mueller. “And the way that these animals are adapting, I think it’s only going to allow for more animals to continue this trend.”
Keep up on all the latest information from the UW Urban Canid Project at their new website, http://uwurbancanidproject.weebly.com/, as well as on Facebook and on Twitter: @UWCanidProject. If you have any questions, or are interested in observing or volunteering, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see more campus fox photos by E. Arti Wulandari, visit: http://go.wisc.edu/campusfoxes.
Lucas Joppa grew up in northern Wisconsin 30 miles from the nearest stoplight, without a TV or computer. He spent his free time in the woods and became “hugely interested” in how various wild species interacted. So it’s a lot easier to imagine him having a career devoted to wildlife conservation than to developing digital gadgets for Microsoft. In fact, Joppa does both. After going on to earn a Ph.D. at Duke University and a stint in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Joppa moved to Cambridge, England, with Microsoft’s Computational Ecology and Environmental Sciences Group. For the past five years he’s focused on developing technologies, programs and models to support global conservation efforts—work he’s continuing from a new location this fall with a move to corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
Did you come to UW–Madison with an eye toward a career in conservation?
No. That was my passion, but it never occurred to me that your real job could be the thing you’re most inspired by. Then I took [wildlife ecology professor] Stan Temple’s Extinction of Species course. Seeing this guy who was so passionate, so fascinated by what he was talking about, I thought, “He’s talking about exactly what I’m interested in.” It was Stan who suggested that I major in wildlife ecology.
How did that prepare you for what you’re doing now?
What the forest and wildlife ecology department did so well was combine the theory and academic side of conservation biology—the statistics and computer programming—with a very hands-on applied approach. I found afterward that that’s pretty rare. I find I’m often the only person in the room with an understanding of both the natural history and the statistics and computing needed to understand the overall system.
Give us an example of the kind of projects you’re involved in.
One thing we’re doing is developing an extremely cheap, lightweight, reprogrammable tracking device for animals. We want to let as many people track as many animals as possible. Since conservation is a niche market, tracking devices are produced in small quantities, so they end up being pretty expensive. The organizations that most need these devices are least able to afford them. We want to change that. We’re trying to build devices that are cheap and beefy enough to hold up in the wild and are easy for people to re-purpose for their own needs.
What advice do you have for today’s wildlife students?
If you do what you’re passionate about doing, the skills and the job will come. It’s hard to be the best at something if you’re not passionate about it because there’s always somebody who cares more and will work harder. They don’t mind taking the hard classes or putting in the time—not because they have to, but because they’re fascinated. That kind of passion—waking up every day wanting to go to work—that’s rare. But everybody I know with that attitude is hugely successful.
As a double major in wildlife ecology and biological aspects of conservation, Barbara Heindl dreamed about one day helping to save a species from the brink of extinction. Now she’s pursuing her passion as a field crew leader for the Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project, a mostly government-funded effort facilitated by the University of Hawaii.
Kauai, known as “the garden isle,” is the oldest Hawaiian island and one of the wettest spots on earth, a paradise noted for spectacular mountains, canyons, waterfalls—and an array of rare native birds.
Even in the context of Hawaii, which leads the nation with 35 birds on the endangered species list, Kauai stands out. Only eight of the island’s original 13 forest birds still exist—and six of them are found on Kauai and nowhere else. Three of them are on the verge of extinction. Heindl’s organization focuses on those three federally endangered species: the akekee, the akikiki and the puaiohi (in photo left).
• What do you love about your job? The areas where we work in are absolutely gorgeous, though very challenging to work in. I often describe the forest as a literal jungle gym, and more often than not it’s raining, which can make conducting surveys a mental and physical challenge—but I love it. To top it off, getting to go through all of the data we collect and using that to help inform conservation efforts is really rewarding, enough so that I don’t mind going back into the forest to get roughed up again.
• What are the main threats to the three birds you are working to save? The tricky part about Hawaiian avifauna is that they are affected by many threats that all work together. The main ones are predation by non-native rats on nestlings and nesting females and diseases such as avian malaria, which is spread by non-native mosquitoes. That, in turn, has secluded native forest birds to high-elevation forest where mosquitoes are less prevalent, thus limiting the birds’ range. Native forest destruction (and increasing mosquito habitat) caused by non-native ungulates like pigs and goats, whose wallows make excellent mosquito breeding areas, is also a significant problem.
• What are your team’s main activities? Primarily we are doing surveys to better understand the relationships between these birds and the native forest, as well as surveys to get better estimates on current population sizes and their threats. Right now we’re doing a lot of nest monitoring, vegetation surveys and rat work. All of our work then influences the five-year recovery plans for these birds.
• Why is the survival of these birds important? These birds are found nowhere else in the world and are highly adapted to the forests on Kauai. In particular puaiohi are the only remaining native frugivore (fruit-eater) on the island and are important seed dispersers for the native forest. Akikiki and akekee are primarily insectivores and are excellent indicators for ecosystem and forest health. Other native birds provide services by pollinating specific plants that have no other pollinators. Not to mention the cultural uses by native Hawaiians. The loss of any of these birds would be tremendous both culturally and ecologically.
Learn more at http://kauaiforestbirds.org
People and bees have a long shared history. Honeybees, natives of Europe, were carried to the United States by early settlers to provide honey and wax for candles. As agriculture spread, bees became increasingly important to farmers as pollinators, inadvertently fertilizing plants by moving pollen from male to female plant parts as they collected nectar and pollen for food. Today, more than two-thirds of the world’s crop plants—including many nuts, fruits and vegetables—depend on animal pollination, with bees carrying the bulk of that load.
It’s no surprise that beekeeping has become a big business in the farm-rich Midwest. Wisconsin is one of the top honey-producing states in the country, with more than 60,000 commercial hives. The 2012 state honey crop was valued at $8.87 million, a 31 percent increase over the previous year, likely due in part to the mild winter of 2011–2012.
But other numbers are more troubling. Nationwide, honeybee populations have dropped precipitously in the past decade even as demand for pollination-dependent crops has risen. The unexplained deaths have been attributed to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious condition in which bees abandon their hives and simply disappear, leaving behind queens, broods and untouched stores of honey and pollen. Annual overwintering losses now average around 30 percent of managed colonies, hitting 31.1 percent this past winter; a decade ago losses were around 15 percent. Native bee species are more challenging to document, but there is some evidence that they are declining as well.
Despite extensive research, CCD has not been linked to any specific trigger. Parasitic mites, fungal infections and other diseases, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure and even climate change all have been implicated, but attempts to elucidate the roles of individual factors have failed to yield conclusive or satisfying answers. Even less is known about native bees and the factors that influence their health.
Poised at the interface of ecology and economy, bees highlight the complexity of human interactions with natural systems. As reports of disappearing pollinators fill the news, researchers at CALS are investigating the many factors at play—biological, environmental, social—to figure out what is happening to our bees, the impacts of our choices as farmers and consumers, and where we can go from here.
Like many and much more nimble Neotropical fauna, sloths are running out of room to maneuver.
As forests in South America and Central America are cleared for agriculture and other human uses, populations of these arboreal leaf eaters, which depend on large trees for both food and refuge, can become isolated and at risk. But one type of sustainable agriculture, shade-grown cacao plantations, could become critical refuges and bridges between intact forests for the iconic animals.
In Costa Rica, CALS forestry and wildlife ecology professors Jonathan Pauli and Zach Peery are using a complex of intact tropical forest, pasture, and banana and pineapple plantations—all connected by a large, shade-grown cacao farm—as a field laboratory to explore the ecology of two species of sloths in a rapidly changing environment.
“We know a lot about sloth physiology,” says Pauli. “But when it comes to sloth ecology and behavior, we know almost nothing. It’s a giant black box.”
But some of that mystery is being peeled away as studies of both the brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth, two common species, are yielding new insights into their mating habits and how the animals navigate the landscape.
The fact that sloths require forested habitat and are sedentary makes them vulnerable to deforestation, says Peery. “Once a tract of tropical forest has been cleared, sloths have relatively little capacity to seek out new habitats.”
But the shade-grown cacao plantation, with its tall trees and network of cables for moving the pods that ultimately become chocolate, seems to be a de facto refuge and transit hub.
“Because of the diverse overstory of native trees, the cacao farm appears to provide excellent habitat for both species of sloths,” explains Peery. “We want to compare sloth populations in cacao to populations in intact tropical forests to see if cacao provides habitat that is of as high a quality as their natural forests.”
Fleshing out those ecological parameters, however, requires a better basic understanding of sloth behavior, knowledge the CALS researchers are now beginning to accumulate.
For example, in a study recently published in Animal Behavior, Pauli and Peery described the mating system of Hoffmann’s two-toed sloths and showed that, unlike many other animals, the females tend to disperse from their home range and that the breeding territories of males can slightly overlap, with males tolerating competitors on the fringes but excluding them, sometimes violently, from the core. And Hoffmann’s two-toed sloths of both sexes seem to have multiple partners as well. “They’re more promiscuous than previously thought,” says Pauli. “We see a much more flexible system of multiple matings.”
That’s not so for the three-toed sloth. In another study, published in PLoS ONE in December, they found that three-toed sloths are strongly polygynous—males exclude other male competitors and mate with many females.
In addition to contributing to basic sloth knowledge, these findings should help wildlife and land managers in the Neotropics make sound decisions to better balance development and conservation.
“Understanding how shade-grown agriculture can benefit sensitive tropical animals such as sloths is highly relevant, considering the ongoing and rapid loss of biodiversity in the Neotropics,” notes Pauli. “What kinds of ecological services can these already altered landscapes provide? Can we mitigate future biodiversity loss with a greater emphasis on shade-grown agricultural systems than crops grown in monocultures? That’s the future we’re facing.”
Because of their sedentary nature and dependence on forest, sloths can be viewed as an “umbrella species,” says Peery. “Protecting sloths could indirectly protect many other animal species in tropical forests that are harder to measure and study.”
LAST FALL I spent an afternoon near Baraboo sitting in a tree stand across from a woman with a rifle. Perched in another crook was our hunting mentor, Karl Malcolm MS’08 PHD’11, then a CALS doctoral student in forest and wildlife ecology. Malcolm was the organizer of that weekend’s Learn to Hunt program, which was the reason I ignored my fear of heights and climbed 15 feet in the air. The woman with the rifle was Kristen Cyffka, a UW–Madison grad student in statistics with an interest in sustainable food. That day would be our chance to shoot a deer—if we saw one. The temperature was unseasonably hot, the deer scarce.
As the sun began to set, the air cooled and the golden light dimmed over the thickets and fields. In the silence, the occasional rustle took on thrilling clarity. This, whispered Malcolm, is the magic hour.
But Cyffka had woken up before 3 a.m. for an earlier hunt, and as the woods grew tranquil, the breeze gentle, I saw her head begin to droop. The rifle remained propped on the armrest of her tree stand. My first instinct was to nudge her with my foot, but then I decided to rouse her in the least startling way I could and instead whispered her name in a soothing murmur. I was learning that you rethink a lot of things when you’re out in the woods in the presence of a loaded gun.
Karl Malcolm has been an avid hunter and angler since his teens, and when he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, he assumed he’d be among fellow hunters.
“I thought I’d meet lots of people with the same feeling I had,” says Malcolm, who is now based in New Mexico as a Presidential Management Fellow with the USDA Forest Service. But when he started talking about his love of hunting and fishing, the other students thought hunting was “barbaric and disrespectful to animals, and that it was all about bloodlust,” he says. “It didn’t at all jibe with my personal experience.” As he began to evaluate and articulate his hunting experiences for others, Malcolm found the initial seed for his interest in teaching others to hunt.
Wisconsin’s Learn to Hunt (LTH) programs have been around since 1997, inspired by the Wisconsin Student Hunter Program, which CALS forest and wildlife ecology professors Don Rusch and Scott Craven had launched in 1993 to ensure that the department’s students gained hands-on experience in hunting and understood its history and role in conservation. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) adapted that into LTH programs designed to recruit new hunters, initially focusing on turkey and pheasant before expanding into deer. The LTH program introduces novices to hunting in a controlled manner by pairing them with mentors on a one-to-one basis. After at least four hours of classroom and field instruction in topics like gun safety, ethical shooting and finding and setting up a hunting site, participants and mentors go out into the fields to experience the hunt firsthand.
Most organizers charge nothing for the course. Mentors must have at least five years’ experience hunting the chosen animal; they also may apply to serve as organizers of an LTH program. Learners must be at least 10 years old and never have received a hunting license for the species being hunted. On paper, Malcolm has organized his programs as an individual, but in practice help comes not only from the DNR but also from the CALS Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, thanks to such hunting mentors as professors Mike Samuel and Tim Van Deelen and engaged students and alumni like Steve Grodsky MS’10, Dan Storm PhD’11 and Mike Watt BS’07 MS’12.
“Other folks who are interested in putting together similar programs should know they can do it and the DNR will be there to back them up,” explains Malcolm.
Now prospective hunters have additional and quite significant support thanks to the Hunters Network of Wisconsin, a joint project between CALS, the DNR and UW–Extension that is dedicated to recruiting more hunters. The effort began with a survey of hunting and conservation organizations conducted by CALS/UW Extension life sciences communication professor Bret Shaw and research associate Beth Ryan, funded with a DNR grant. The survey, which would then inform strategic outreach to mentors and interested non-hunters, identified resources the organizations already used or would like to use more, from assistance in finding interested participants to funds to sponsor LTH events and volunteer education and training.
But perhaps even more significant was the survey’s focus on hunters’ motivations for taking part in the sport. The top reasons people named for hunting were spending time outdoors, being close to nature, using and sharing skills and knowledge, and camaraderie with friends and family. The Hunters Network hopes to use this insight to make mentoring new hunters more appealing.
There’s a compelling reason for all of this outreach. Hunting is an important part of Wisconsin’s history and culture. It also has a $1.4 billion impact on the state’s economy and supports some 26,000 jobs, according to the DNR.
Yet Wisconsin has experienced an ongoing decline in hunting in recent years. A study from February 2011 by the DNR and the UW-based Applied Population Laboratory found that the number of gun deer hunting licenses sold to the state’s residents dropped 6.5 percent, from 644,991 in 2000 to 602,791 in 2010. The report predicts that by 2030, the number of male gun deer hunters (who make up the bulk of hunters, though the number of female hunters is expected to rise) could drop to 400,000.
1. You will not suddenly develop migraines upon entry. Rather, a “tension zone” describes a geographic area that marks a change from one type of vegetation to another, with species from both areas intermingling in that zone.
2. There’s a pronounced tension zone in Wisconsin. It stretches in a loose S-shape from Burnett County in the north all across the state, ending in Racine County in the south. Wisconsin’s tension zone marks the crossover between the Northern Mixed Forest—closely related to the forests of northeastern Minnesota, northern Michigan, southern Ontario, and New England—and the Southern Broadleaf Forest, which is more like forests you’d see in Ohio and Indiana. In the tension zone you’ll find plants and animals representing both of these forest types. Before the landscape in the south was developed and converted to farms, you would have seen primarily open oak savanna with forest and prairie.
3. It’s mostly about climate. The tension zone is marked by a
climatic gradient, with cooler, moister conditions to the north and relatively warmer, drier conditions to the south. Up to the 1800s, these southern conditions were more favorable to higher populations of Native Americans—and they were a greater cause of fire, both purposeful and accidental. This maintained more open conditions in the south.
4. It’s a fruitful area for research. John Curtis, a famous Wisconsin plant ecologist, and his graduate students in the 1950s identified the tension zone as a place where relatively more plant species had their northern and southern range limits. His book, The Vegetation of Wisconsin (1959), talks about this and includes a map of the number of species reaching their limits in each county. Today, researchers are again very interested in the tension zone because of changes in land use that have endangered some native plant species. Also, with climate warming, the area is of interest to both climate scientists and plant ecologists, who are looking at how the tension zone is and will be moving north—and its potential effects on ecosystems.
5. You’ll know you’re in the tension zone when you’re heading north and … oaks that are dominant in southern Wisconsin, such as Bur, black and white, meet up abruptly with red and white pine as well as paper birch and tamarack swamps that are more characteristic of the north. Shagbark drops out completely and bitternut hickory becomes much less common. You’ll start seeing some birds that are absent or relatively uncommon in the south: common loon, ruffed grouse, osprey, common raven, white-throated sparrow and purple finch. You’ll also encounter northern mammals: snowshoe hare, porcupine, red squirrel, black bear and timber wolf.
David Mladenoff is the Beers–Bascom Professor in Conservation in the Department of Forestry and Wildlife Ecology
Nelson spent five years as CEO of the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad and Tobago, where he was responsible for managing research and ecotourism on 1,300 acres of secondary tropical forest. Now he’s developing a regional master’s degree program in biodiversity conservation to help countries implement their national action plans in keeping with the Convention on Biodiversity. Four universities—the University of the West Indies, the University of Belize, the University of Guyana, and the Anton de Kom University of Suriname—will offer the degree.
THIS PAST SEPTEMBER, Karl Malcolm scoured the forested mountaintops of Southwestern China for evidence of Asiatic black bears, hiking with a team of Chinese naturalists and an interpreter through rugged, leech-infested terrain. Because of the noise they made, Malcolm didn’t see a single bear, but he did find plenty of the stuff he was looking for: bear poop.
“The locals are always interested to know why someone would come around the world to look for bear feces,” says Malcolm, a doctoral candidate in Tim Van Deelen’s lab in the forest and wildlife ecology department.
But the bears’ waste reveals much about their living conditions and state of mind. Asiatic black bears, also known as “moon bears” for the white crescent mark on their chests, are in decline in China, confined to small nature reserves that are surrounded by—and sometimes cut through with—human development. The bears are stressed, and they leave signs of it in their feces in the form of stress hormones, which Malcolm extracts in hopes of better understanding the landscape factors that aggravate this sensitive species.
There are plenty, to be sure. The forested reserves where the bears live in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces are located at the tops of mountains, rugged places “too steep to till,” explains Malcolm, so they were never cleared for agriculture. Though the reserves contain preferable habitat, they are ringed, like islands, by villages and crop fields that effectively separate bears from potential mates on other reserves.
At night, bears living along the edges of the reserves sometimes descend from the mountains to feast on corn and goats being raised nearby, inciting villagers to retaliate. There’s also an enormous monetary incentive to kill bears. “A single Asiatic black bear, through the sale of its gall bladder, which is a very valuable component in some traditional Chinese medicine treatments, can fetch as much as a year’s salary for a local farmer,” says Malcolm, who has been to China nine times over the past three years for this project, which is run in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute and Peking University.
By linking data about bears’ stress hormone levels to patterns of human development in and around the nature reserves where they live, Malcolm hopes to generate science-based information that the Chinese government can use to identify and protect key pieces of habitat.
“Ideally, we’ll come away with some concrete information about the landscape requirements for Asiatic black bears,” he says. “And also some lessons about how nature reserves might be managed to best impact the conservation of this and other sensitive species in China.”
IF EVERY WRITER HAS A MUSE, then Nancy Langston’s is surely Lake Superior. An environmental historian who has written three books about people’s connection to natural places, Langston fell in love with the lake’s shimmering blue expanse while house-sitting for a colleague several summers ago. Within a month she’d begun looking for her own lakeside retreat, and soon found it in a 10- by 20-foot shed, to which she and her husband added insulation and a floor. Here she has spent every summer since, drawing inspiration from the rare beauty of her surroundings: the vast, unbroken forests, the beaches of polished stones, the serenity of her kayak slicing through the waves. And, of course, the fish—succulent, fresh-caught lake trout so alive with flavor they could be a muse all on their own. Her days often ended with a trip to the market for a few fresh fillets to cook for dinner.
But Langston doesn’t eat lake trout nearly as often anymore. Despite its divine flavor and undeniable health benefits—including a wallop of omega-3 fatty acids—she fears that her habit of eating trout three or four times a week was doing harm to her body. One concern is toxaphene, a pesticide sprayed extensively on cotton fields in the 1960s and ’70s that has found its way into Lake Superior waters. A member of the infamous “dirty dozen” organic chemicals outlawed in 2004 by the international Stockholm Convention—along with PCBs, DDT and dioxins—toxaphene has been linked to kidney and liver problems and increased risk of cancer. Still more troubling is how toxaphene levels have risen over time in large, predatory Lake Superior fish such as lake trout, even as traces of other banned chemicals have declined.
Langston, a professor with UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and CALS’ Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, had never heard of toxaphene before reading chemist Melvin Visser’s 2007 book Cold, Clear and Deadly, which chronicled the history of the pollutant in the Great Lakes. Visser’s tale put an abrupt end to her love affair with lake trout.
“Now I know enough that I mostly eat whitefish,” she says. “It’s lower on the food chain so it’s less high in contaminants. But it’s also less abundant in healthy fats. And it just doesn’t taste as good.”
In her dilemma over fish, Langston is hardly alone. Consumers are told repeatedly that fish is among the healthiest sources of protein in our diets. Eating fish twice a week can help stave off heart attacks and lower cholesterol. Doctors encourage women to eat more fish during pregnancy to prevent early delivery and foster fetal brain development. But looming over these benefits is a dark warning about toxic chemicals with the potential to cause cancer, neurological problems and reproductive dysfunction. Worse still, the dangers are rarely clear, varying greatly among fish species and location, making it tough for consumers to know how to protect themselves.
“It’s a real quandary for anybody: Can you eat the fish? Is it healthy to eat fish?” says Marty Kanarek, an environmental epidemiologist in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health who has studied contaminants in fish and their impacts on people. “You know, when you go to the grocery store, the price per unit (on foods) is marked carefully, the calories are labeled, all kinds of ingredients are labeled. But the labels don’t tell you which fish is safe and which isn’t.”
How did we reach this place, where one of our healthiest foods has grown so complicated? As is true of many contemporary questions, the answers lie in the past, Langston says. In her latest book, Toxic Bodies, she delves into a 70-year history of industrialization and environmental pollution that begins to explain why we’re facing a problem with fish. But the story is much more than that. Mostly, it’s about us—us and the unbreakable tie to the world around us, a connection that is at once obvious and easy to forget.
It was not a fish, but an endangered bird, that first drew Langston’s attention to the influence of humans in ecosystems. As a graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. in ecology, she traveled to Zimbabwe to observe bird populations in a national park, but she quickly found herself more interested in an unfolding human story. A flood of refugees from neighboring Zambia had stirred fears about poaching, leading park officials to warn that any African caught inside the park would be shot on sight. At the same time, Zimbabwe’s own agricultural lands were shifting heavily toward commodity crops such as sugarcane, creating pressure to open parklands to settlement and farming. Langston soon became convinced that the real driving factor in environmental change was human culture. Understanding and reversing environmental decline, she realized, required watching more than birds. It meant observing people.
Roman is an emergency-medicine physician and president of Suburban Emergency Associates, a physicians group that provides clinical services for hospitals in the Twin Cities area. When Roman began his residency, emergency medicine was a relatively new specialty. He helped establish the emergency medicine group for the St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Shakopee, Minnesota, which honored him with the hospital’s first-ever new physician leadership award. Roman also has headed emergency departments in Edina, Minnesota, and Palm Springs, California.