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USU Conservation Biologists Contribute to NSF Invasive Species Study

Thursday, Apr. 21, 2011

biology class, research participants

Karen Beard's conservation biology class was among eight student groups selected to participate in a NSF-funded study. (Class members from USU Uintah Basin Regional Campus appear, via computer link, on the screen behind Logan campus students.)

faculty member Karen Beard, undergradaute Rob Watson

Wildland Resources faculty member Karen Beard, left, and undergraduate Rob Watson traveled to the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara April 8-10 to present USU's project contribution.

The Decimator, The Strangler, The Suffocator, The Desiccator.

The names conjure images of fierce, science fiction-inspired monsters. Actually, they aren’t names of hideous ogres but descriptors given to invasive species also known, respectively, by the benign-sounding monikers King Ranch Bluestem, Japanese Honeysuckle, Salvinia and Tamarisk.

Most of these plants are quite pretty, but they’re wreaking havoc on the nation’s wildlife refuges. Utah State University scientists are among a team of researchers from across the nation selected to participate in a National Science Foundation-funded project to find out why.

“This has been a great opportunity to explore a large-scale ecological question and contribute to an important national study,” says Karen Beard, associate professor in USU’s Department of Wildland Resources.

Beard’s Conservation Biology class (WILD 4600) was among eight university groups selected to participate in the 2011 Synthetic Undergraduate Networks for Analyzing Ecological Data Project coordinated by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Known as Project SUN, the pilot activity is modeled after distributed ecological research projects the center regularly conducts with graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and visiting scientists.

“This initial project is an examination of the factors that predict the severity of invasive plant spread in U.S. national wildlife refuges,” says David Marsh, undergraduate education advisor for NCEAS, which is based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The project’s results will help refuge managers better understand the magnitude of current plant invasions and to anticipate future invasions of weedy plants.”

Students in Beard’s class, which includes undergraduates at USU Uintah Basin Regional Campus participating in the course through interactive broadcast, analyzed data collected from more than 40 refuges in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Beard and student Rob Watson, an undergraduate conservation and restoration ecology major, traveled to NCEAS headquarters April 8-10 to combine the USU team’s findings with those from other Project SUN participants.

“Using statistical tools such as structural equation modeling, we drafted our contribution to the final report,” Beard says. “Our USU team discovered a positive relationship between native species and exotic species in the refuges. That is, refuges with more native species have more non-native and invasive species. This means that areas with high species diversity are vulnerable to non-native invaders.”

The USU team’s findings mirrored those compiled by the other teams, which analyzed data from refuges in other states.

“The other teams also found that native and non-natives are positively related to each other,” Beard says. “We hope our report will be useful to refuge managers as they devise plans to manage and conserve these sites.”

Watson says the project was a valuable educational experience.

“The project allowed us to apply ecological and biological theory we’ve studied as undergraduates to a real-world problem and the project put some ‘real world’ pressure on us to perform at our best,” he says. “We can feel proud that we’re making a valuable contribution to the body of scientific knowledge on invasive species dynamics.”

In addition to Watson, project participants included undergraduates Brian Barnett, Kenny Henager, Ashley Hobbs, Amber Kacherian, Leslie Perry, Jack Robinson, Branon Rochelle, Matt Pope, Taylor Smith, Melissa Wardle, Forrest Young and graduate teaching assistant Ryan Choi.

Related links:

Contact: Karen Beard, 435-797-8220,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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