University of Wyoming researchers were recently honored for research about non-invasive methods of studying sage grouse.
The Animal Welfare Institute recognized a team led by Ph.D. student Beth Fitzpatrick in the Program in Ecology within the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management as one of the winners of its Christine Stevens Wildlife Award.
The team also includes graduate student Aaron Pratt and associate professors Jeff Beck and Melanie Murphy.
For the past several years, Fitzpatrick has been studying the influence of landscape characteristics on sage grouse gene flow and lek distribution. Understanding how human development influences those elements can help land managers prioritize where sage brush restoration takes place, she said.
The goal is to help the bird maintain genetic diversity and prevent in-breeding within isolated populations.
To conduct her research, Fitzpatrick gathered hundreds of feathers from leks across a study area in northeastern Wyoming.
Sage grouse typically return to the same leks year after year to breed, while their chicks disperse to leks nearby.
She used the feathers to look at sage grouse DNA, and from that she looked at specific chromosome segments unique to each individual.
Meanwhile, another UW student conducted a different project in an overlapping area using sage grouse capture and radio-marking. Fitzpatrick realized they could compare the non-invasive genetic data with the data collected using collars.
“It presents a very unique opportunity to take this non-invasive genetic sampling and better understand how well it addresses some of these questions that people ask, typically (when) doing some of these trapping studies,” Fitzpatrick said.
She said the two methods could also be used in combination with each other, as Fitzpatrick started gathering feathers at an earlier date than the capture study began. To aid the genetic work, researchers can collect a feather sample when they trap a sage grouse.
“The more we figure out how we might address some of these questions without having to use some of that trapping is important,” she said.
She’s hoping to use the combined data to examine how many birds breed each year, look more closely at gene flow and measure reproductive success.
The Christine Stevens Wildlife Award is accompanied by a grant, and Fitzpatrick said the money would be used to continue her lab work. Identifying individuals using DNA requires running multiple rounds of testing to account for errors.
“You need to be much more confident that you actually have the same individual,” she said.
While capturing and marking a wild animal is an important way to gather information, Fitzpatrick said the process is inherently risky for the animal.
“When we go out and trap an individual and mark them in any way, there’s always some concern that you might have mortality that’s related to that capture or that mark,” she said.
Scientists work to make that risk as small as possible, and they weigh it against the larger purpose of the research, but the risk remains. With noninvasive research, on the other hand, the animals are never disturbed. For sage grouse, a species in decline, that distinction can be even more critical.
“While it’s important to get information about what’s really going on with those populations to figure out how to manage them, noninvasive research is nice,” Fitzpatrick said.
The Christine Stevens Wildlife Award, established in 2006, aims to fund research into humane strategies for studying wildlife and resolving wildlife conflicts.
“We are encouraged by the increasing advancements being made to address wildlife conflict issues and methodologies to study wildlife in a humane, forward-thinking, practical and publicly acceptable way,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute. “We look forward to reporting on the outcomes of these projects in the future.”