Biology students explore, help protect future of Utah watershed

Hike and camp in one of the most picturesque areas of the desert southwest, and while you're there, learn about its biodiversity and work to preserve its beauty for generations to come.

Sounds like great travel brochure copy, right? In actuality, it describes the experience of eight UW-Eau Claire biology students during a 10-day trip this spring to southern Utah's Escalante River and the surrounding canyon country — a ruggedly beautiful area with majestic rock formations that is far different from western Wisconsin both geologically and biologically.

UW-Eau Claire's


The Escalante River provides vital support for area wildlife and has sustained human communities since the time of the ancient Puebloans more than 2,000 years ago. But humans have also brought change. Non-native Russian olive trees were introduced to the watershed during the mid-1900s as part of erosion control efforts and have since spread along the river corridor with negative consequences for the river's ecosystem.

As part of UW-Eau Claire's "Collaborative Research in Biology" course, taught by Dr. Todd Wellnitz, the students assisted with an invasive species removal project led by the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, removing Russian olive trees in an assigned section along the Escalante. Their work on the project went toward fulfillment of their UW-Eau Claire service-learning requirement. 

Casey Aumann, a senior ecology and environmental biology major from Hudson

Casey Aumann examines a Russian olive tree to be removed in an area along Utah's Escalante River. The herbicide she holds was sprayed on the stumps of the invasive trees after they were cut to prevent them from growing back.

"The service-learning portion of this trip made me realize how much hard work people put forth when they are passionate about protecting a place they love," says Casey Aumann, a senior ecology and environmental biology major from Hudson, "I have more of an appreciation for those teams that are willing to work so hard to re-establish a flourishing natural habitat for others to enjoy."

Exploring unanswered questions

The students also conducted research to assess the impact of the invasive species removal on biodiversity — specifically, the invertebrates living in and along the river — and its implications for improving the health of the watershed. Their research included collecting data from three sites: one in which the Russian olive trees had been removed in 2010; one where removal had happened in 2014; and another where removal had not yet occurred. 

Jacob Henden, a senior ecology and environmental biology major from Viroqua, Wis., says he appreciated being part of research that asked previously unexplored questions and that would provide useful results to those working to improve the health of the watershed. 

Jacob Henden, a senior ecology and environmental biology major from Viroqua, Wis

Jacob Henden saws a Russian olive tree as part of a project to remove the invasive species along the Escalante River.

"There wasn't much previous literature that addressed the specific questions that we were asking, and the project also had the potential to give a useful report to the Escalante River Watershed Partnership," Henden says. "In this respect, the research was both new and relevant, which makes it somewhat unique for a class project."

In addition to providing their final report to the ERWP, the students are submitting their research findings this fall for publication in a scientific journal.

Immersion in new surroundings

The group had the opportunity to hike in and experience firsthand the landscapes and wildlife of the canyons through which the Escalante flows.

"Part of my interest in going to this area was for our students to experience a part of the country that is completely different from anything in Wisconsin," Wellnitz says.

For Alison Schulte, a May graduate in ecology and environmental biology from Rochester, Minn., experiencing a different landscape and learning the history of a new region of the country were the highlights.

"We learned about local geology and ancient civilizations that lived in the area," Schulte says. "We were fortunate enough to see different hieroglyphics while backpacking through the canyon area of Escalante."

Jacob, Casey and Alison shared additional thoughts about their experiences in Utah's southern canyon country:

What motivated you to participate in this trip?

Jacob: I thought this would be a great opportunity to get some field-based research experience and an opportunity for me to decide whether I liked this kind of fieldwork. The trip and the time beforehand exceeded my expectations. As a class we all got to help design the project and worked to develop a plan. During the trip we collected the data that we planned and managed to do this while having time for the Russian olive removal project and to go on some incredible hikes.

Casey: I wanted to take this class as it fulfilled service-learning and capstone credits for me, but it was not something that could merely fulfill the requirements. It was something that I could truly benefit from academically, as the capstone experience was trying to figure out a question in ecology not yet fully answered, and the service-learning was directly applicable to my major and did play a significant part in helping a community. The trip definitely met my expectations and more as I not only learned more about biological fieldwork and practiced organizing a research project, but I also learned a little more about myself. Being away from home tends to do that to a person.

Alison: My initial motivation for enrolling in this course was traveling out to Utah and getting hands-on experience in fieldwork/research. My expectations for this course were far over-achieved. I was able to fulfill several requirements for graduation, such as field experience, capstone and service-learning.

What were the highlights of the trip for you?

Jacob: The hiking and camping was a great part of this trip. We saw some incredible landscapes and native wildlife. It was a great balance to have hiking on some of the days, while also being able to conduct our research and contribute to the Russian olive removal project.

Casey: I think the highlight of the trip was collecting our data. I really loved being able to apply what I learned in classes to something significant.

What did you gain from being a part of the research project on this trip?

Casey: I gained from this trip a more detailed picture of what it means to be a naturalist and field biologist. I acquired an appreciation for the complex meaning of "natural" and "invasive" and the social and political problems involving the removal of "invasive" species.

Alison Schulte on the trail in Utah's southern canyon country

Alison Schulte hikes with the team to one of the research sites where the students studied the impact of Russian olive tree removal on biodiversity in and along the river.

Alison: There were multiple things that encompassed the skill of removing an invasive plant species and others of constructing our own experiment setup and writing a proposal for our project for the Bureau of Land Management.

What did you take away from helping to remove an invasive species from the area along the Escalante River?

Jacob: The service-learning part of the trip left me feeling a sense of accomplishment. We could notice significant changes to how the area that we were working on looked after we were done. It also felt like it was important work, and oftentimes locals and tourists would thank us for our efforts.

Alison: After participating in the service-learning project, I got a sense of what it means to use a good work ethic to help out the community. Even though it was not the local Eau Claire community, it still was our university having an impact on the local ecosystem of Escalante.

Did this trip affect your goals for your professional career and/or graduate school? How so?

Jacob: The trip made me think more seriously about graduate school. I really enjoyed the research that we were doing, and I would love to be involved with more research in the future. It reinforced my passion for ecology and made me sure that I want a career in the future that is related to that.

Casey: I think this trip only reassured me that the career I have chosen is one I can enjoy and gave me confidence in myself that will help me in the future.

Alison: After taking this course, which was my second time participating in field research, it definitely helped strengthen my desire to continue on with research for jobs and also for grad school.

— Julie Poquette

 


Photo captions

Top image: Students on the Utah trip hiked five miles to their Escalante Canyon basecamp on their first day in the scenic region. 

Group photo: Eight UW-Eau Claire biology students participated in a spring 2015 research and service-learning trip to Utah's southern canyon country. Pictured with their gear used for an invasive species removal project along the Escalante River are, from left to right, Megan Dewall, Alison Schulte, Jacob Henden, Allison Ban-Herr, Michelle Siegl, Casey Aumann, Jesse Colton, Melissa Seidel.