Backcountry Fact Finding
Students Conduct Applied Science in Fish and Wildlife Research Unit
Peter Rebholz has stood inside a circle of wolves.
The University of Idaho graduate student is a member of a cooperative research unit within the College of Natural Resources that specializes in field work with broad state and federal applications. For Rebholz’s part, he’s been assisting with a wolf study for several years.
The research can take him far afield, sometimes alone, and on occasion very close to the subject of his work.
Rebholz is among a group of graduate and undergraduate students conducting fieldwork and compiling data through the Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Through paid and unpaid research opportunities, students provide on-the-ground data that helps fishery and wildlife managers with decision making.
“The cooperative supports the tradition of wise management of natural resources by providing a source of well-trained professional managers to do the necessary applied research,” said Professor of Wildlife Sciences Courtney Conway, who heads the unit at U of I. “The partnership of universities, federal and state agencies and the private sector creates a unique avenue for conducting research and to address complex environmental issues.”
Living on the Edge
In Idaho, issues include the management of species such as steelhead trout, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, bears and wolves.
Rebholz joined the unit at the behest of U of I wolf researcher David Ausband, who he met while working as a field technician on another project. Ausband asked Rebholz to join his wolf team at U of I, where Rebholz now conducts wolf research as a graduate student exploring how wolves adjust to hunting pressure and how new generations of Idaho wolves disperse throughout the Northwest.
“The cooperative absolutely helped me get to where I am today, not only with my research, but by providing me with field opportunities that have launched a career as a wolf biologist,” said Rebholz, who worked as a carpenter in inner city Milwaukee before entering college as a nontraditional student and earning an undergraduate natural resources degree.
As a wolf researcher for the co-op, Rebholz has traveled throughout the Northwest, sometimes having “amazing” encounters with his research subjects. He was alone in the Salmon-Challis wilderness when he came across a female wolf feeding her pups by regurgitating elk meat. Several wolves circled around him to make sure he wasn’t a threat to the group.
Rebholz’ research is helping state game managers understand how hunting affects Idaho’s wolf packs, when they are most susceptible to hunting or trapping, and how genetic information collected from wolf scat can help managers track wolf movement in the state.
Research That Counts
Matt Nelson, who in conjunction with Idaho Fish and Game explores whether field cameras can be used to determine Idaho black bear populations in coordination with Idaho Fish and Game, and Kaitlyn Strickfaden, whose co-op work includes monitoring the effect of snow depths and conditions on deer and elk, joined the unit to see their research applied in management decisions in Idaho.
“Idaho has not had a way to know the numbers of black bears in the state,” said Nelson, a master’s student. “Our research hopes to provide a viable system to determine populations.”
Strickfaden, also a master’s student, is pleased with her decision to work under the cooperative’s umbrella.
“I wanted to impact management,” she said. “I wanted to know my research would be used for something important in the future.”
Fish and Game Biologist Barb Moore said her department often relies on the co-op for extensive field work it is not equipped to pursue.
“Working with the Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit allows us to get answers to important in-depth questions that we often don’t have the time and ability to get,” Moore said. “In the end, this collaboration provides us with better tools to manage Idaho’s wildlife.”
Kayla Brauer of Troy was a U of I student when she accepted her first seasonal job conducting a fisheries field survey for Idaho Fish and Game. An avid angler who grew up fishing for steelhead trout with her dad, Brauer was perusing campus bulletin boards for summer fisheries jobs when she found a poster advertising the cooperative research unit.
“I got an interview, they hired me, and that summer I was working with graduate students on the Kootenai River,” she said.
Being able to work on a variety of projects broadens your skill set and makes you more employable as an undergraduate. Kayla Brauer ’15, Conservation Officer
During the summer of 2013, Brauer worked on a lake trout study on Priest Lake and conducted electro fishing surveys in North Idaho. She also worked in a laboratory determining the age of fish using scales and ear bones. Eventually, she conducted her own undergraduate research through the cooperative, studying Utah chub in Henry’s Lake.
The research was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and Brauer presented the work at the National Fisheries Conference in Portland in 2015.
“Working for the co-op, I was always learning something new,” said Brauer, who now works as a conservation officer. “Being able to work on a variety of projects broadens your skill set and makes you more employable as an undergraduate.”
Finding a Career
Students not only see their research applied in local or regional management policies, the cooperative also helps them build a network essential to finding jobs after graduating, said cooperative Team Leader Michael Quist.
“The students have worked with agencies, often side-by-side with biologists doing really good, applied science,” Quist said. “Often when a job comes up, agencies look to our students who already have this vast experience.”
Growing up on the St. Joe River downstream from St. Maries, Nick Porter’s childhood was spent chasing trout, bass, pike and perch. His father’s profession as an electrician sparked Porter’s interest in how things work, which led to a love for science.
It wasn’t until two years into his studies as an education major at U of I that Porter ’12 realized he could combine his science and fisheries interest by becoming a fisheries biologist. He got his feet wet while working one summer as a fisheries technician for the U.S. Forest Service in his hometown. When Porter returned to U of I that autumn, he joined the cooperative unit as a junior.
“My job as a technician kind of brought everything I loved together, and I realized I should change my major,” he said.
Learning alongside graduate students at the cooperative helped broaden his fisheries experience. Overseen by Quist, he conducted an undergraduate research project which was later published. These days, the Vandal alum oversees chinook salmon survival and movement studies for a private company. Working alongside Idaho Fish and Game, Porter works to increase the number of threatened chinook salmon that return to the Salmon River and the Lemhi Valley.
“The cooperative helped launch my career, and it is the biggest reason I continued on this path,” Porter said. “I made a lot of connections, and I continue to be friends with those same people I met as an undergraduate working in the co-op.”
Stevens Amendment: Federal project funding included: Peter Rebholz and David Ausband, US Geological Survey $49,750 and USDA McIntire-Stennis $50,000, and a snow study by Kaitlyn Strickfaden, US Geological Survey, Climate Science Adaptation Center $272,745.
Article by Ralph Bartholdt, University Communications and Marketing.
Photos by Peter Rebholz, Matt Nelson, Kayla Brauer and Kaitlyn Strickfaden.
Video by Peter Rebholz, David Ausband and Matt Nelson, Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
Published in May 2022.