Scientific Leadership Award goes to Southwest Region Chief of Biological Sciences Grant Harris


It’s remarkable to find a great leader who possesses an outstanding scientific mind; in the Southwest Region, the Chief of Biological Sciences, Grant Harris, has the rare qualities of both. Harris took over the Chief role in 2010 when the Biological Services group consisted of two half-time staff. Now, nearly two years later, the group encompasses a scientific team of 12 and growing. Why such growth? When the vision of the Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System was outlined in Conserving the Future, the role of science in the Service was elevated and an Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) program initiated. Harris heard the calls and acted quickly. Under Harris’ leadership, the role of science has grown stronger than it’s ever been in the Southwest Region, which is leading the Service with reinforcing how science informs management decisions, habitat acquisition, and the I&M Initiative. Harris has built a strong foundation for science-based wildlife conservation to grow and flourish in the Southwest.

Harris has developed studies to assess the role of mountain lions in bighorn sheep mortality, led the way for novel techniques to save time and money for monitoring wildlife through camera trapping, assessed habitat fragmentation effects on threatened birds, and helped revamp the survey methodology of wintering whooping crane. His efforts have directed the pioneering of new techniques to estimate the abundance of animals without marks, techniques that can be applied to endangered animals world-wide. Harris’ leadership in addressing a plethora of wildlife management and conservation topics in the Southwest has provided impetus for new partnerships with State wildlife agencies, U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service (NPS), NatureServe, NOAA, universities, and NGOs. These include a new I&M collaboration with the NPS in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran desert networks and various applied research projects across the southwest region. In addition to his personal accomplishments, he strongly believes in the importance of increasing science capacity within the Service for the good of conservation. In support of that vision, he has built up a science team that is raising the bar for science on Refuges through the Southwest Region. His “lead by example” attitude motivates those around him to excel, while raising standards such that scientific rigor and defensibility are the norm.

In recognition of these outstanding contributions, Grant Harris is hereby awarded the 2012 Scientific Leadership Award.

Ozark big-eared bat monitoring at Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge

OBEB from video

Population counts of Ozark big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii ingens) maternity colonies have been performed annually for several decades. The process consists of lighting the cave entrance with infrared lights and using night vision goggles to determine how many Ozark big-eared bats fly out. Bats are extremely good fliers and can exit out of the cave very fast. It takes several years to develop the skills to be an accurate counter. In the summer of 2006, Richard Stark of the Oklahoma Ecological Services Field Office began utilizing infrared video and acoustic detectors to supplement the traditional count method. The infrared video and acoustic method consisted of deploying a single Anabat near the cave entrance and filming the bat emergence with the use of a Sony Handycam with nightshot and infrared lights. The video footage was then later reviewed in slow motion on a large television screen to obtain a count of Ozark big-eared bats exiting the cave. Ozark big-eared bats could be distinguished from other species by their large ears which are over 1 inch long. When a bat suspected to be an zark big-eared bat on film could not be confirmed by the video footage alone, the Anabat data were reviewed to determine if a bat call was recorded at the same time the suspect bat emerged from the cave for possible confirmation. The method proved successful and showed great promise. Colony size estimates from the infrared video method were compared to estimates by the traditional count method, and results were very similar. The infrared video and acoustic method also detected use of two caves in Cherokee County, Oklahoma by Ozark big-eared bats that was not detected by the traditional method conducted simultaneously. These caves subsequently have been added to the annual monitoring efforts and are now known to be used by a colony of Ozark big-eared bats at various times of the year. Although the new infrared video and acoustic detector method proved very valuable, due to time and resource limitations, the method was utilized at only a few caves per year between 2006 and 2008.

The initial success of the method warranted expanded use and fine-tuning of the technique. Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge in conjunction with the Service’s Inventory and Monitoring Program expanded use of the method in 2009. The method currently being utilized consists of filming the bat emergence with two or more cameras from multiple angles and deploying multiple acoustic detectors (both Anabat and Pettersson units). A black backdrop also is now utilized which enhances the counter’s ability to identify Ozark big-eared bats. The number of caves at which this technique is utilized also has been expanded to about 25 per summer and includes the essential maternity caves and numerous limited-use sites.

Video monitoring has several advantage over the traditional method. First, it doesn’t take several years to become an accurate counter. Second, video playback allows counter to slow down playback and use individual frames to identify Ozark big-eared bats. The video is time stamped to provide a log of the time of each bat’s emergence. Since the video has a time stamp and the acoustic monitors can be time synced, we can get a total bat species population count for each cave. With the threat of white nose syndrome it is important that we get population data on all cave dwelling bat species. White nose syndrome is non selective and can affect all cave dwelling species.

Click here for a short video on Ozark big-eared bat monitoring at Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge

Feral Burros Gather to Improve Habitat for Native Species on Imperial and Cibola NWR

burros-FU2-9-17-09Zaun (2)
In June 2012, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Yuma, Arizona office, gathered 350 feral burros on private, state, military, BLM and National Wildlife Refuge lands along the lower Colorado River in the southwestern corner Arizona.  The gather was funded by the U.S. Army Garrison – Yuma due to an overabundance of burros and safety concerns.
The Cibola-Trigo Herd Management Area, encompassing ~832,000 acres, located in southwestern Arizona and extreme southeastern California, supports populations of wild horses and burros that use lands administered by the U.S. Army Garrison, Yuma Proving Ground, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Imperial and Cibola National Wildlife Refuges), and the BLM. BLM is responsible for managing the herd according to the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The BLM Cibola-Trigo Herd Management Area Plan, approved in September of 1980, determined that the Appropriate Management Level for burros is approximately 165, based on “a grazing capacity calculated to restore the vegetative communities within the critical area to approximate original conditions”. The feral burro population within the HMA is, conservatively, over five times the AML and increasing.
Burros consistently tear down/damage fences, feed in refuge restoration project areas and farm fields, make trails through the desert, increase erosion, prohibit natural regeneration of native riparian vegetation, and cause an extreme safety hazard on roads (human injuries and fatalities from collisions with burros). Studies have also found that that feral horses and burros also compete with native wildlife at water sources. The Arizona Invasive Species Strike Team, I&M Program and Imperial and Cibola NWRs assist BLM with annual vegetation monitoring to assess the degree of burro utilization and damage to native plant species in selected areas throughout the Herd Management Area. The Arizona Invasive Species Strike Team coordinator recently entered into an Inter-agency agreement with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to conduct a thorough survey of burros in the Herd Management Area. Better management of feral burros on the landscape will minimize degradation and prolonged long-term impacts to native wildlife and plants and assist managers in improving ecological health, biological integrity and diversity and natural processes and conditions on the refuges.

Black capped vireos at Balcones NWR

Jim Mueller, I&M Zone Biologist, talks about the endangered black-capped vireo this month on Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Outdoor TV program.  Here’s the clip–


Who Ate the Corn? Using Monitoring to Feed Management Decisions

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge cultivates corn to redistribute sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) and waterfowl populations off of private agricultural fields throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico.  Corn production on the Refuge also helps the birds maintain their body condition as they migrate and overwinter on and around the Refuge.  The current goal of the Refuge is to produce 1.5 million pounds of corn.  Unfortunately, corn production on the Refuge was low during the summer of 2011, raising concerns about meeting the energetic needs of sandhill cranes and increased crop depredation by waterfowl on neighboring farms.  These concerns have prompted Refuge biologists to investigate causes of crop failure.

Many reasons for poor corn production have been proposed.  It could be crop depredation and damage by elk (Cervus elaphus), mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), and trespass cattle, as well as ineffective farming practices.  Further, the current drought has put additional stress on the farming program.

A wire exclosure used to exclude elk, mule deer, and trespass cattle allowing Refuge biologists to determine potential corn growth and yield without ungulate depredation and damage.

With Region 2 I&M staff, Refuge biologists are leading a monitoring strategy to quantify three things 1) crop depredation and damage from ungulates, 2) identification of species responsible for crop damage, and 3) determining the stages of plant development in which corn is most vulnerable to depredation and damage.  The approach consists of repeated monitoring of corn depredation and damage in exclosures and treatment plots throughout the summer.  These plots are located across a sample of the Refuge’s corn fields.

The Refuge will tolerate some ungulate depredation and damage to the corn crop.  However, aversion techniques, which are methods designed to prevent and control depredation and damage of crops by wildlife, might need to be deployed if depredation and damage is excessive.  Continued crop monitoring will allow Refuge staff to follow plant development and damage of the crop throughout the summer.  If predetermined thresholds of depredation and damage are exceeded, Refuge personnel will implement aversion techniques on affected farm fields.

SCEP Student, Reggie Perkins, monitors corn growth at Bosque del Apache NWR.

Knowledge gained this summer will inform the Refuge as to how much depredation and damage is occurring, which species is responsible, and which developmental stage of corn is most vulnerable.  These kernels of knowledge will inform an adaptive management strategy as the Refuge builds a better understanding of the scale of the depredation issue, and therefore, can design more informed management actions to mitigate corn damage caused by ungulates.  Crop monitoring will continue over subsequent years, allowing further refinement of management strategies.