Frontiers: Tracking the wild ones

Tracking Deer

Climate change and overconsumption of Earth’s resources have a huge impact on humans, but understanding how these issues affect wildlife populations and behavior is important as well.

Portrait: James ForesterThat was the topic of the Institute on the Environment’s final Frontiers in the Environment talk of the semester Dec. 11 when James Forester, IonE resident fellow and assistant professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, discussed “Tracking Animals through Space and Time: Understanding the Consequences of a Changing World on Wildlife Populations.”

Throughout the presentation, Forester discussed the value of studying wildlife movement and dietary patterns, particularly as humans continue to dramatically alter landscapes.

“Land fragmentation is increasing in the habitat and patterns of logging and other resource extraction are changing based on economic drivers,” Forester said. “So understanding how animals are responding to this change in landscape pattern can be really important to understand if they can make it through in the future.”

Forester used the example of moose in northern Minnesota. Since 2005, moose populations have declined as much as 60 percent, he said. To learn what might be causing the decline, researchers used tracking collars on 130 animals in the northeastern portion of the state.

By tracking moose across space and time, researchers have been able to determine where the animals go and where they might be dying. Using hair samples, the scientists can even determine what animals recently ate.

While tracking a few moose around may not seem significant, it is an important step toward understanding how the population interacts with its environment and where it may be facing challenges, according to Forester.

“At the end of the day, populations really are made up of individual animals, and how an individual interacts with the landscape is the signature for its behavior as an individual but also possibly of the species,” he said. “And if we can have some idea of consistent patterns of how those animals interact with very dispersed resources versus very clumped resources, we can start to have some idea of making links to the broad-scale population dynamics.”

The next step, according to Forester, is to use the information on population dynamics to make predictions regarding animal behavior when a landscape changes. This information is increasingly valuable in a world where rising temperatures and habitat fragmentation are becoming the new normal.

“Understanding how the spatial structure of that landscape basically interacts with movement behavior will help us understand and make predictions about where that animal will go in the future,” he said. “But I would argue that that’s not enough. We don’t want to know just where those animals are going to go in the landscape. Resource managers and conservation ecologists really want to make predictions about how animal populations are going to respond to these novel landscapes and these novel combinations of land cover and climate.”

Watch Forester’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment