Research Project Tests Students, Fire Mitigation

It’s not quite dawn in a low, often thick piñon-juniper forest, spread across mound-like hills of loose boulders and sharp scree fields near Howard, Colo. The tall peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range stand silhouetted in the distance.

Paige Colburn, a rising senior studying Wildlife Biology & Ecology at Western leads a man who thought he was fit through tangled branches, up and over the steep hummocks of loose rock and soil.

GPS, wilderness, map, research, undergraduate

“The next site is just 92 meters away,” she explains, looking down at the new, wilderness-ready GPS unit in her hands – and back at her panting companion.

But there’s a cliff between the two walkers and the sample location. It’s marked like 292 similar spots – half cleared of trees and the other randomly chosen from surrounding forest – at 29 different sites by a stake of steel rebar, topped with a red-plastic cap. The way around the cliff is a sandy arroyo, leading to loose scree on a steep hillside, thick with low-hanging, bristling piñon limbs.

It’s tough work to love. But if you look closely, you can see a subtle spark in Colburn’s eyes as she stands silently, confidently amid mangled strips of bark and wood for 10 minutes, listening for birdcalls. She knows a crow from a raven, a northern flicker from a hairy woodpecker, and the varied calls of scrub and steller’s jays. She knows the clicking in a nearby tree isn’t an angry bluebird but just a cicada rubbing its legs together.

This morning, she hears very few calls and sees fewer birds. Does this mean anything? Is it just that nesting season is ending? Perhaps the forest-management practices have reduced the richness of the diverse piñon-juniper ecosystem? Could it be an effect of climate change?

Paige Colburn researches fire mitigation in piñon-juniper forest

There’s no way to answer such questions with a few data points from a single morning. But over time, as Colburn and a pair of fellow Western students continue to crawl from their sleeping bags well before first light, they will create detailed records that show patterns. And such patterns can point to changes, both natural and manmade.

The manmade factors include the clearing of trees. Piñons and junipers are particularly flammable, scrub-sized trees, with an expanding range as Colorado gets warmer. Some are cleared by hand, but most fall before and under giant brush hogs called “Hydro-Axes.” They chop and shred everything they touch into mulch. Sometimes, this is for a potential firebreak, where foresters might expect to head off a possible wildfire. Other times, it’s to create meadows attractive to grazing animals, such as deer and elk, which the forest managers want to encourage.

“It’s kind of neat that we're able to look at relationships between the birds, the forest and fuels – and answer some management questions,” explains Dr. Jonathan Coop, who helps oversee the research, funded by a grant through the Joint Fire Science Program. “It engages students, exposes them to some real-world issues and gives them some real summer employment.”

Coop, a specialist in forest ecology and an assistant professor of both Environment & Sustainability and Biology at Western, has partnered with Dr. Patrick Magee, Western’s Thornton Chair in Biology, to direct the three-year project. It will detail and compare fuels in the unique piñon-juniper ecosystem, the wide variety of birds that live there, and the effects on them from fire-mitigation and habitat improvements for other species, such as deer and elk.

Magee has spent much of the past few summers camping near Howard, about 80 miles east of Gunnison, on the other side of the Continental Divide. This year, he’s had considerable help from Colburn, Kyle Gordon and Jake Powell, whose summer jobs – besides moving their beds to tents in a tourist campground – required months of study and preparation. They had to know the unique ecosystem’s plants and birds – the latter by both sight and sound. Magee and a former student even attended a special workshop on recording birdcalls with the famous Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with whom he works closely.

“For the previous two years, I did all the birding myself,” Magee explains. “Having the students – who each spent about two months studying birds and their calls – trained has allowed us to expand the project to more sites.

“But there is some subjectivity,” he continues. “Learning these calls is a lifelong process … There are times when a very common species makes a vocalization I’ve never heard.”

The study has evolved over several years as it seeks more definitive answers among a wide group of variables.

For instance, Magee says, the first year of study suggested black-throated gray warblers, specialists in piñon-juniper woodlands, showed less use of plots treated by Hydro-Ax. The clearing, it seemed, might be hurting a species dependent on such forests. But the second year’s data didn’t confirm the trend, suggesting the small songbird is more flexible in its habitat choices than previously thought.

"The changes might be due to other factors," he explains, "such as rainfall, soils, or other things particular to the sites. To understand the effects of the Hydro-Ax treatments on bird populations and communities in piñon-juniper forests, we'll need still more data."

Then he waxes a bit about the old, gnarly piñons “that are just like sculptures.”

“The clearing may not be really mimicking natural process,” Magee says. “The idea is that opening the landscape opens opportunities for an herbaceous understory. This, theoretically, leads to more diverse species and structures.” 

Coop notes other impacts. He says that while clearing forest creates improved conditions for mule deer and grasses, it might also encourage non-native, invasive, weed species.

He says seeking answers to such questions during rigorous summer jobs – funded not only by outside grants but also by Western’s Thornton Biology Undergraduate Research Program – as great preparation for future scientists. He also works with students researching sagebrush habitats in the Gunnison Valley and burned landscapes across the Rockies. He lists several former students now in graduate school or working for federal agencies. And he notes Colburn didn’t end up at Western by accident.

“Paige is a great example of the kind of student who transfers to Western to be engaged in ecological research,” Coop says. “These kids are tough. I think they exemplify the student who is going to thrive at Western.

“… And their research will filter to policy. Certainly, we can publish academic papers. But we also work with the Joint Fire Science Program, which is a combination of scientists and managers.

“We want to understand the effectiveness of these fuel treatments and how they manage fire risk. But we also want to know their ecological impacts.”

Back at the campground, Paige Colburn and Kyle Gordon collect gear and talk to Dr. Pat Magee.

Back at the campground, students Paige Colburn and Kyle Gordon collect gear and talk to Dr. Pat Magee. 

Paige Colburn checks a compass reading to offset measuring areas in an available fuels study.

Paige Colburn checks a GPS location for a fuels study with fellow student Kyle Gordon.

Kyle Gordon and Paige Colburn measure available fuels within a given radius a random point in the forest.

Kyle Gordon and Paige Colburn measure available fuels within a given radius of a random point in the forest.

Story and Photographs by Greg Smith, University Communications.

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Thursday, October 2, 2014 - 2:15pm