University of Idaho - I Banner
A student works at a computer


U of I's web-based retention and advising tool provides an efficient way to guide and support students on their road to graduation. Login to VandalStar.

A Doctorate in Success

UI Wildlife Student First in Tribe to Earn Doctoral Degree

Some people simply can’t watch from the sidelines. As Shaun Grassel’s wife worked toward her advanced degree in the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources, he found himself drawn in, wanting his chance at bat.

He not only took the bat, he hit a homerun.

Grassel is a member of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe of South Dakota and graduates this month with a doctoral degree in Natural Resources — it’s the first such degree earned by any member of his tribe.

Grassel grew up on the Lower Brule Sioux reservation, southeast of Pierre, South Dakota, on the Missouri River

“It’s an educational desert,” he said of post-secondary educational opportunities within the vast prairie. “Most young people from the reservation don’t leave to go to college, and even if they do, the distance and cultural differences usually drive them back home.”

Grassel earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in wildlife and fisheries sciences from South Dakota State University. He returned to the reservation and took a job as a wildlife biologist with the tribe’s Department of Wildlife, Fish and Recreation.

Grassel now splits his time between central South Dakota and Lewiston, where he and his wife, Marcie Carter, a Nez Perce tribal member, live with their two children, ages 12 and 7. She works in fisheries with the Nez Perce tribe.

While Carter was working toward her advanced degree in wildlife resources, she would bring home stories from class and her field experience.

“I caught the bug,” Grassel said.

For the first couple years of his doctoral work, Grassel was on the Moscow campus engaging in classes while maintaining his research in South Dakota. Because he kept his professional position 1,100 miles away while starting a family and going to school, it was a long process.

“I’ve been around a long time,” he said of his seven-year doctoral run. His efforts and success did not go unnoticed. In 2006 he was one of two students from around the world who received the Christensen Conservation Leaders Scholarship for the Wildlife Conservation Society. A year later he was named a Bush Leadership Fellow by the Archibald Bush Foundation, “a recognition of extraordinary achievement and a bet on extraordinary potential,” according to its website.

“Like many of the Native American students with whom I have interacted, he is respectful and polite, “ said Janet Rachlow, his graduate advisor and professor of wildlife in the College of Natural Resources. “Shaun is motivated, positive and fair.”

Grassel’s graduate research with black-footed ferrets is an extension of his longtime job of reintroduction of the species on the reservation. The ferrets have a direct relationship with prairie dogs. They are only found in prairie dog colonies because they live in the burrows made by prairie dogs and primarily eat the small rangeland rodents. But disease, spread by fleas that live on the prairie dogs, can wipe out entire colonies. Grassel’s work involves tracking and reintroducing ferrets to areas that could be affected by disease. He vaccinates the ferrets and applies insecticide to prairie dog burrows to keep the areas free of fleas.

The 6,000-acre prairie dog complex that was ground zero for his graduate work was hit by plague recently and now only about 600 acres of prairie dogs are found on the reservation. Now that his research has concluded, Grassel’s work now includes translocating prairie dogs to areas hit hardest by plague and reintroducing ferrets when prairie dog populations reach adequate levels.

At UI, Grassel received the UI Alumni Award for Excellence in 2009 and has served as president of the Native American Graduate Student Association.

As he heads toward graduation, Shaun has also claimed the honor of the 2015 Outstanding Graduate Student in wildlife resources for the College of Natural Resources.

Article by Jodi Walker, University Communications and Marketing.

Campus Locations

Physical Address:
Bruce M. Pitman Center
875 Perimeter Drive MS 4264
Moscow, ID 83844-4264

Phone: 208-885-6111

Fax: 208-885-9119