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Vision is published annually by The University of Montana Office of the Vice President for Research and Development and University Relations. It is printed by UM Printing & Graphic Services.
PUBLISHER: Daniel J. Dwyer. MANAGING EDITOR AND GRAPHIC DESIGNER: Cary Shimek. PHOTOGRAPHER: Todd Goodrich. CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Brianne Burrowes, Brenda Day, Judy Fredenberg, Joan Melcher, Rita Munzenrider, Patia Stephens and Alex Strickland. WEB DESIGN: Patia Stephens. EDITORIAL OFFICE: University Relations, Brantly Hall 330, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-5914. MANAGEMENT: Judy Fredenberg, Office of the Vice President for Research and Development, 116 Main Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-6670.
Center uses feathered friends to monitor the environment
By Daryl Gadbow
Right on cue, a bird-song concert welcomes the early summer dawn in Montana’s Madison River Valley.
Researcher Rob Fletcher of UM’s Avian Science Center has arrived at his designated position near O’Dell Creek, a tributary of the Madison on a ranch south of Ennis, his senses attuned to the rising pitch of bird activity.
Fletcher’s trained eye catches the telltale golden flash of a yellow warbler darting through the streamside cottonwoods. His ears confirm the presence of the bird by its distinctive reverberating song: “Sweet, sweet, sweet. I’m so sweet,” it seems to proclaim.
“If the yellow warbler is there,” says Fletcher, “it’s easy to find. It sings a lot. And it’s bright yellow. It’s very charismatic. Any time you see one in Montana, you know that they’re in a riparian area, or there’s one close by.”
The presence of the yellow warbler at O’Dell Creek is significant, Fletcher explains, because several years ago the bird likely wouldn’t have been found in the vicinity.
In the 1950s, he says, the stream was straightened and deepened, essentially transforming it into a ditch, drying out the surrounding floodplain to improve grazing on two ranches. This was a common practice in the West, according to Fletcher, and one often subsidized by the government. Its effect was to eliminate diverse streamside vegetation, such as trees and shrubs, and replace them with grasses.
A project was undertaken a couple of years ago to restore O’Dell Creek to its natural condition. The ongoing restoration work is funded by PPL Montana as part of its relicensing agreement with the federal government to operate hydroelectric dams on the Madison River. Under the agreement, PPL is required to provide mitigation for past environmental damage caused by the dams.
With the cooperation of the owners of the two ranches, O’Dell Creek’s historic channel is being re-created, restoring the wetlands and associated vegetation, and in the process bringing back wildlife that depends on that specialized riparian habitat.
A host of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations and private businesses, as well as the landowners, are cooperating in the restoration of O’Dell Creek. Crucial to assessing the success of those efforts is the work of UM researchers, including Fletcher, from the University’s Avian Science Center.
ASC, which was approved by the Montana Board of Regents in spring 2004, uses birds as a tool to study habitat and the environment, says its director, Richard Hutto, a professor and researcher since 1977 in UM’s Division of Biological Sciences.
And birds, Hutto adds, are particularly well-suited for that task.
“Birds happen to be the least expensive and most effective tool for monitoring the environment,” he says. “Any habitat you look at, birds are out there. Any time you do something on the land, birds are going to tell us about the effects.”
The work of the center actually began some 15 years ago, Hutto says, when a group of government agencies in the United States became concerned about an apparent dramatic decline in migratory songbird populations. Several million dollars were made available by the U.S. Forest Service to study the problem.
“Because I had done a lot of work with migratory birds in Mexico,” Hutto says, “they came to me and said, ‘Can you help us?’”
with other researchers in the region, he helped set up a systematic monitoring
program designed to determine the specific habitat types where certain
birds are found.
“It’s enough information to tell you, on average, what’s happening to the environment in these places,” Hutto says.
agencies, as well as private companies involved with resource management,
are the primary beneficiaries of the research done by ASC and provide
most of its funding.
“Here was a chance to begin doing that and be serious about it,” he says.
When ASC was formally created in 2004, adds Hutto, it demonstrated a commitment by UM to continue the research program indefinitely, which made it easier to raise funds and form partnerships.
Hutto, the center typically employs five or six UM staff members and faculty
researchers, as well as approximately 25 undergraduate assistants each
“No one knew,” he says, “that black-backed woodpeckers were restricted to burned areas. It’s gotten the Forest Service to realize they have to consider that in management of burned areas.”
ASC can boast of collaboration by UM faculty researchers whose credentials and quality of research are second to no university in the nation, Hutto says.
“The center makes us a unique group — an interesting and diverse group,” he says. “And our mission promises to be even more important in the future.”
Now, ASC is becoming increasingly involved with restoration ecology, he says.
One major project of ASC this summer will be studying the effects of forest restoration proposals by government agencies in the wake of the huge wildfires across the West in recent years.
“We hope to be able tell them whether the proposed treatments, say thinning and cutting old-growth timber, are effective, and give them baseline data to compare,” he says.
Research involving restoration of riparian areas also will continue to be a major role for the center, Hutto says, including studying the Superfund cleanup of a century of mining wastes in the Clark Fork River from its headwaters near Warm Springs to Milltown Dam in Missoula.
“We’re now realizing that our river systems have a long history of heavy use,” Hutto says. “They’re where we live, where we dump our toxics, where we get our water. We’re now trying to fix some of those. The question is how do you tell when they’re fixed? We’re saying birds are one tool to use.”
That brings us back to the yellow warbler — which happens to be the official logo of ASC — and similar riparian birds.
of all our birds in Montana are restricted to one-half of 1 percent of
the land area in the state,” says Hutto. “That means getting
involved with landowners wanting to know how to maintain the land and
its ecology. Birds can be a tool to say, ‘Yes, you’re doing
it,’ or ‘No, you’re not.’ We can make recommendations
of which way to go toward restoration.”
ASC is actively involved in disseminating information about birds and ecology to the public through a variety of channels, including K-12 schools, bird-banding operations that are open to the public, landowner stewardship and agency workshops, and its Web site, as well as research published in top scientific journals.
Now, Hutto says, the center, through its bird-monitoring program, is poised to create habitat models that will be able to predict effects of proposed land-use projects.
“If somebody comes in with a proposal to a county commission,” he says, “we can say, ‘Here’s what the effects of that are going to be.’ We’d like to be able to contribute knowledge of effective land use. It gives UM another way to contribute to the community.”
Through his research Hutto has come to realize “the birds are talking to us. All we have to do is listen.”
As the yellow warbler might say, that’s “sweet, sweet, sweet.”
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