Science Features

Science features provide a "deeper dive" into some of the research conducted by Fort Collins Science Center staff. Here you can learn more about invasive species (including pythons and brown treesnakes), sage grouse, bats, impacts of energy development, data lifecycle management, and climate research.

Dave Hamilton’s career has been a long and winding road, but as he leaves on a new adventure, his message to all, (from an inspirational picture he reads every time he departs his office) is always to remember, “We cannot control the wind, but we can adjust our sails.” We hope that this new road in Dave’s life is all smooth sailing and that he enjoys each and every day.

Invasive reptiles like the Burmese python and black-and-white tegu lizard are exerting tremendous harm on the Everglades ecosystem, but these problematic species present an excellent opportunity to engage the next generation in science. Since entering into an agreement with Everglades National Park in late 2013, the Invasive Species Science Branch of the USGS Fort Collins Science Center has provided internships to and in turn, benefitted from 13 young people conducting research on invasive reptiles in the Everglades.

Every two years, the U.S. Geological Survey reviews top scientists for possible promotion to Senior Scientist (ST) - the highest level that a federal research scientist can achieve. USGS recommendations for advancement to ST Scientist are subject to the availability of ST slots and Department of the Interior approval, as there are only 544 ST slots in the entire Federal government. Jill Baron is now filling on of those exclusive slots!

It is not uncommon to see researchers cruising around Everglades National Park (ENP) on what has been a routine basis for the past ten months. Every evening, interns pack into a Chevy Volt for their shift assisting the U.S. Geological Survey in conducting Burmese Python (Python molurus bivittatus) nighttime surveillance through observational surveys. This effort to detect non-native snakes, namely pythons, will move research one step closer to assisting land managers in establishing known locations of Burmese Python habitation in the national park. Identifying the correlates of increased python activity will allow managers to better focus on their removal based on where python observations are most likely–which could mean progress, considering the elusive nature of snakes.

The Arid Lands Field Station is a part of the Trust Species and Habitats branch of the USGS Fort CollinsScienceCenter. Field station scientists conduct research on natural resource and wildlife issues, with particular emphasis on Southwestern ecosystems. Scientists have expertise on mammals, birds, and arthropods, including state and federally listed species and species of special management concern. They also conduct applied studies to address management issues related to ecosystem dynamics, species responses to natural and human-induced change, emergent wildlife diseases, and the Southwestern habitats that are important to these taxa.

Driven by the need to understand the values and interests of wetland recreational users, the NAWMP and its partners are inviting waterfowl hunters and birders to attend one of the 24 workshops being held around the country in the spring of 2015. A USGS team of Social Scientists here at the Fort Collins Science Center will facilitate the workshops to help develop key questions that will form the foundation of nationwide surveys. These surveys will be conducted in 2016. Results from these surveys will help shape and direct future waterfowl and migratory bird conservation activities across the country.

Projects are the organizing principle behind USGS science. Publications, datasets, information articles, and web portals only happen because they are sponsored by a project. FORT builds USGS Project Lifecycle Tracking tools to help managers and PIs control the progress of projects from initiation to project close. These tools let projects interact with the USGS ScienceBase platform at every step of the process, from record creation to data management plan refinement to product collection to display of project metadata and data on a public website.

Five of the FORT scientists’ projects focus on the conservation and management of fisheries. These five studies include the topics of barriers on fish movements, Rapid Ecoregional Assessments, how invasive fishes impact native fishes, the effects of river hydromodification on fishes, and Adaptive Management Decision Support Systems for Improved 2-D Aquatic Habitat Modeling and Water Management.

Headwater streams of the southern Rocky Mountains and elsewhere suffer legacy effects of beaver trapping, wood removal, logging, log floating, and other activities that have greatly reduced the abundance of large woody debris and logjams in streams. Therefore, FORT scientists are examining how remaining log jams influence stream geomorphology, nutrient cycling, and stream metabolism, including how these processes in turn affect trout growth and production.

Changing climatic conditions represent a large and increasing threat to fisheries conservation and management. Scientists in the ASB have several studies aimed at understanding linkages between aquatic systems and climate conditions. The ultimate goal of these studies is to provide data and tools that will be used for climate-smart conservation and management planning. For example, ASB scientists are developing Bayesian network (BN) models as decision support tools, to better inform Cutthroat Trout management under changing climate conditions. These BNs help predict population persistence of two imperiled Cutthroat Trout sub-species (Colorado River and Rio Grande cutthroat trout). These models draw on current habitat conditions and regionally downscaled global climate models to predict population persistence and will aid in the allocation of conservation resources related to Cutthroat Trout (Roberts).

To effectively conserve and manage fisheries it is imperative to understand the structure of food webs that these species are embedded within, and how exposure to toxic materials can be transferred throughout ecological networks. Several ASB scientists are investigating the structure of food webs in western rivers and how the ecological function and structure of these systems are influenced by exposure to toxic metals.

Federal policymakers and land managers are accountable to the American public for how they invest public funds and for the outcomes of the policy and management decisions being made. Through a variety of economic analyses and custom modeling, Social and Economic Analysis (SEA) Branch economists evaluate how investments and management decisions affect individuals, local communities, and society as a whole. Specifically, our team of economists: (1) conduct economic effects analyses to quantify how spending cycles through local economies, generating business sales and supporting jobs and income; (2) conduct research to assess nonmarket values associated with public policy and land management practices, and (3) assess the economic values associated with ecosystem services and other natural resource-management issues.

The significance placed on environmentally responsible land management is based in part on public recognition that social, aesthetic, and recreational values enhance the traditional uses of agricultural land. Social and Economic Analysis (SEA) Branch scientists generate science-based information needed to guide management actions and policy decisions that support wildlife habitat and oter environmental services compatible with both the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) conservation goals and land managers. Native grassland conservation in agricultural ecosystems are of primary concern and SEA researchers work cooperatively with the USDA to provide research relating to the long-term management of environmentally sensitive lands. Fort Collins Science Center (FORT) scientists can be found in fields from Iowa to Texas, working with farmers and conservation program managers to research, monitor, educate, and report on the biological status and trends that impact grassland management and habitat loss. Under guidance from the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), SEA scientists provide biological, social, and economic information that integrate agriculture and conservation goals for USDA conservation programs. Results are provided to Federal and State conservation agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

Fisheries are the aquatic organisms and habitats that encompass species of either conservation or economic concern, and scientists at the Fort Collins Science Center (FORT) have multiple projects investigating the status and trends of fisheries, primarily in the western United States. The Aquatic Systems Branch (ASB) fisheries team consists of Ted Grantham, Leanne Hanson, Chris Holmquist-Johnson, Joanna Kraus, James Roberts, Travis Schmidt, Craig Stricker (Trust Species and Habitats), David Walters, and Robert Zuellig. The four main categories of their investigations include conservation and management; fish in ecosystems; fish, food webs and exposure; and fish and climate change. Their research encompasses field studies, lab experiments, landscape scale modeling, and the use of cutting edge analytical chemistry; information from these studies is used by to Federal and state agencies for management applications.

The Des Moines Lobe of central Iowa has undergone drastic land-use changes over the last two centuries, with 90% of the state’s wetlands converted primarily by agricultural practices and urban development. The introduction of tile drainage to improve land for agriculture facilitated this conversion and still contributes to the productivity of this agricultural landscape. Consequently, natural wetland habitat has become rare and fragmented, affecting species with limited mobility, such as amphibians. Amphibians are an important component of these wetland systems where they provide food for other animals and eat copious amounts of insects. However, many amphibian species are at risk world-wide and some are at risk in Iowa.

A little over one hundred years ago, plains bison were prolific in the Great American West. Reports describe herds containing thousands of animals migrating through the central and western states, totaling 20–30 million across their entire range. With commercial, unregulated hunting in the late 1800s came the rapid demise of bison to barely more than 1,000 by 18891. Recently, renewed interest in restoring these massive animals to at least some of their former range has grown. Efforts are being made to establish “conservation herds”—herds that are specifically managed in the public interest by governments and environmental organizations. For the plains bison native to the United States, there are approximately 19,000 animals comprising 54 known conservation herds.

To allow for a comprehensive evaluation among different energy types, an interdisciplinary team of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists has developed an online Interactive Energy Atlas for Colorado and New Mexico. The Energy and Environment in the Rocky Mountain Area (EERMA) interdisciplinary team includes investigators from several USGS science centers. The purpose of the EERMA Interactive Energy Atlas is to facilitate access to geospatial data related to energy resources, energy infrastructure, and natural resources that may be affected by energy development. The Atlas is designed to meet the needs of various users, including GIS analysts, resource managers, policymakers, and the public, who seek information about energy in the western United States.

In northwestern Wyoming, scientist Erin Muths (U.S. Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center) has been leading a team of researchers investigating amphibian decline at a study site on the Blackrock Ranger Station compound on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The work began in 2003, when Dr. Muths and David Pilliod (USGS Forest and Range Ecosystem Science Center) were awarded competitive funding from the USGS Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative (ARMI). The research team of Dr. Muths, Dr. Pilliod, and Drs. Steve Corn and Blake Hossack (USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center) collaborates with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and other entities to study population demographics and disease ecology for the four species of amphibians that reside on the USFS Blackrock compound.

Three decades of research, 145 publications (including two books), 15 graduate students, leadership in scientific organizations, invited talks around the world, and two collaborative entities that facilitate scientific synthesis—it’s a lot to pack into one career. But USGS research ecologist and Colorado State University senior scientist Jill Baron isn’t finished yet.

When USGS research zoologist Gordon G. Rodda was a graduate student at Cornell University studying behavioral biology of alligators—or later, completing a post-doc at the Smithsonian Institute studying the social behavior of green iguanas in Venezuela or following that, as a statistics and sociobiology instructor at the University of Tennessee—he did not foresee that his professional future was in snakes. Lots of snakes, and in places they don’t belong.

In a demonstration of the utility of military technology to scientific research, the U.S. Army transferred 15 decommissioned Raven A sUASs to the USGS Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Project Office for use in natural resource field projects. One of those projects involves U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) biologist Leanne Hanson and the sandhill cranes that migrate through the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in central Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

Since 2003 Dr. Craig D. Allen, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Fort Collins Science Center, has been one of the core principle investigators of the USGS Western Mountain Initiative. His efforts include developing multidisciplinary global change research across a network of sites in western North America, climate-induced forest die-off in southwestern U.S. forests and woodlands, and specific land management actions for adaptation to climate change.

Since 1999, research ecologist Dr. Janet Ruth of the U.S. Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center, has been studying semidesert and Plains grasslands in southeastern Arizona to learn more about the birds that rely on these habitats. Because the populations of sparrows and other grassland birds are showing declines, understanding their distributions and habitat needs is crucial for conservation planning.

Like many agencies, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has many science centers, offices, and field stations scattered around the country, in addition to its larger regional and headquarters locations. Some of the smaller operations find that they need a Web presence to make data and other information available to the public, but they do not have the onsite capability to host one. As a service to these work sites, the USGS developed the National Web Server System, or “NatWeb,” a managed Web hosting service that provides USGS Web administrators with a secure and reliable Web host. The USGS Fort Collins Science Center (FORT) Web Applications (“Apps”) Team provides support to the NatWeb server team, assisting with site establishment, content management systems, database administration, and user requests. As part of the database administration task, the FORT Web Apps Team implemented and maintains geographically separated real-time database and digital materials replication across three nodes (locations).

To understand interactions between energy development and ecosystems, natural resource managers need to know the locations of development sites. Most energy developments on public lands, such as those for oil and gas, are tracked with geographic information systems (GIS). However, the locations of wind energy development sites are currently tracked only by individual energy development companies and have not been available to the public. The U.S. Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center is changing this by providing the first statewide GIS database of all the wind turbine sites in Wyoming.

USGS scientists at the National Wildlife Health Center and Fort Collins Science Center are supporting the research needs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal and state agencies as they respond to the spread of White Nose Syndrome”, a disease that is devastating colonies of hibernating bats.

To help the Jonah Interagency Mitigation and Reclamation Office (JIO) efficiently track significant amounts of data and meet management objectives, the USGS Fort Collins Science Center Web Applications Team developed the Jonah Infill Data Management System. This Web-based application collects information that the JIO will use to assess reclamation efforts and determine whether (1) interim and long-term requirements and criteria are being met, (2) reclamation and monitoring protocols are providing appropriate and sufficient information, and (3) data are being collected as specified. The information will support decision-making regarding reclamation activities associated with oil and gas activities in the Jonah Field—and for the first time, it will allow trends to be evaluated in real time.

For many years, investigators at the USGS Fort Collins Science Center have led ongoing research projects that address climate change and its direct and indirect impacts on living resources. Climate change involves long-term alteration in the characteristic weather conditions of a region, such as changes in precipitation and temperature. Recent studies have found not only that climate change has its own particular impacts, but that temperature changes can exacerbate the effects of more traditional disturbances, like air pollution, drought, or habitat loss stemming from land-use changes.

Over the past century, intense settlement and agricultural development have resulted in a loss of more than half the sagebrush ecosystems in the western United States and Canada. Today, these ecosystems continue to be threatened by a variety of changing or intensifying land uses such as urbanization, grazing and agriculture, and especially, energy development. The expanding pressures of habitat loss, as well as habitat fragmentation and other disturbances resulting from these land-use changes, are leading to considerable declines in the numbers and distributions of wildlife species that depend upon sagebrush habitat.

Wind energy is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world and represents an important step toward reducing dependence on non-renewable sources of power. However, widespread deployment of industrial wind turbines is having unprecedented adverse effects on certain species of bats that roost in trees and migrate. Bats are beneficial consumers of agricultural insect pests and migratory species of bats provide free pest-control services across ecosystems and international borders.

A sagebrush research group comprising scientists from the USGS Fort Collins Science Center, the USGS Forest and Range Ecosystem Science Center, and Colorado State University's Natural Resource Ecology Lab are currently collaborating on sagebrush habitat conservation issues. The team is working with Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge managers and biologists to prioritize management needs for imperiled sagebrush ecosystems. Scientists are identifying important wildlife-habitat relationships as well as thresholds for industrial development and human activities that will ensure the persistence of wildlife species of special concern.

In the early 1980's, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Fort Collins Science Center set out to answer those questions and developed the Instream Flow Incremental Methodology (IFIM). Now in use worldwide, IFIM is a decision-support methodology that provides a comprehensive technical framework for addressing the streamflow needs of fish and other living organisms within a river system. Over the years, field-testing and other refinements have led to many improvements in the original model, such as expansion to include long-term effects, and incorporation of the institutional environment as a major component of IFIM.

In the sagebrush ecosystem of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, a new species of bird has been discovered. Formally, the new species will be known as Centrocercus minimus because of its relatively small size, but for many it will be the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, named for the area of Colorado where it was discovered.