Nature’s Problem Solvers Championing Conservation, Boosting Productivity

Iowa State faculty have been developing win-win management strategies for natural resource managers and agricultural landowners since offering the first forestry course in 1874.

Paul Errington’s work from the 1930s is still having impact today. Errington began his career at Iowa State in 1932 as assistant professor of zoology and director of the nation’s first Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit. He was known, along with Aldo Leopold, as one of the great pioneers in animal ecology.

One strategy he encouraged landowners to adopt is still encouraged—the conservation of natural areas for wildlife habitat and income through hunting and trapping or leasing those rights. Errington is best known for his research and writing that transformed the popular view of predators in the wild from noxious to necessary as part of the balance of nature.

Julie Blanchong, associate professor and wildlife disease ecologist, is one of 20-plus faculty members in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management (NREM) currently carrying on the legacy of Errington and others before her.

“I have a variety of research projects across a variety of species, including white- tailed deer, bald eagles and bats, all because they address a practical problem right now,” says Blanchong.

Her expertise is in applying genetics to help natural resource managers anticipate, slow and stop the spread of diseases among wildlife in Iowa. “I use genetics to infer connectivity or dispersal rates across the landscape,” she says. “For example, how deer move and potentially bring disease into highly agricultural areas versus highly forested landscapes.”

White nose syndrome is a disease devastating bat populations in mostly eastern states, but it is spreading west. Iowa has detected the fungus that causes the disease on one bat, but has no evidence of negative effects yet. Bats are natural crop pest control agents that, if eliminated, would increase the pressure to use pesticides. Blanchong is taking advantage of the fact that bats echo- locate, using sounds that humans can hear only with special equipment, to establish baseline population information.

“If we don’t have a baseline and bad things start to happen and bats start disappearing, we won’t know it. And we won’t know where to prioritize our surveillance efforts to try to help them out,” she says.

Blanchong’s NREM colleague John Tyndall has broad interests in natural resource economics, policy and sociology within forestry and agriculture. In addition to studying the viability of using woody biomass for electricity generation, Tyndall is working with a team of scientists on a project that integrates strips of prairie grasses within row crops to reduce the transport of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus into nearby streams.

“My role as an economist is looking at the pragmatic side: how much does it cost to implement, manage and what are opportunity costs?” says Tyndall. “So far, on the biophysical side, the results are really incredible. For example, we’ve seen more than 90 percent reduction in sedimentation—the movement of eroded materials off of those basins. From an economic stand- point, the bottom line is this is a relatively inexpensive system to use and comparable to other best management practices.”

Another area of interest to wildlife managers and agricultural landowners are impacts on wildlife habitat on farms that reap Iowa’s alternative cash crop—wind. As a NREM department graduate student, Molly Gillespie recently completed a study of how certain common Iowa bird species use or avoid wind farms as habitat. The study showed evidence of attraction to the altered habitat by some species, avoidance by others and no real avoidance or attraction behavior in most. Killdeer was one of the species found to be attracted to wind farms. The Killdeer is a sandpiper that needs gravel and sand for nesting.

“They were found nesting on the gravel pads under the turbines and on the access roads,” says Stephen Dinsmore, NREM associate professor, who oversaw Gillespie’s study. “Access roads and gravel pads that surround the turbine are created in abundance when creating a wind farm. But the access roads, unlike the surrounding county roads, are not heavily traveled. Killdeer sometimes try to nest on gravel county roads, but the results are often devastating to the nests and the birds.”

Sue Blodgett, NREM department chair, carries a vision for future contributions to natural resource management concerns and challenges in Iowa.

“Iowa’s leadership position as an agricultural state brings with it increased public scrutiny of the impacts of agricultural practices on its natural resources,” Blodgett says. “Our research answers the tough questions and provides natural resource management tools for land- owners and policy makers. We will tackle future challenges, such as climate change—to assess the impacts and offer new and innovative management practices in response.”