Undergraduate Research

The Quinney College of Natural Resources provides research opportunities to undergraduate students to provide valuable on-the-ground experience and further our understanding of natural resources.


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Current and Past Projects

 Ashlyn Monroe standing in a greenhouse

The Effect of Flooding Treatments on Aquatic Plants: Implications for Great Salt Lake Wetland Management

Ashlyn Monroe - Karin Kettenring, advisor

The Great Salt Lake is home to wetlands that provide healthy and abundant aquatic vegetation that creates habitat for macroinvertebrates, fish, amphibians, waterfowl, and shorebirds. However, native aquatic plant communities are being degraded by invasive species, specifically carp (Cyprinus carpio), which uproot vegetation, increase sediment suspension, and decrease light penetration. Once carp have been controlled, reestablishment of native aquatic plant communities is important to recover lost ecosystem functions. Native vegetation emergence can be triggered from the propagule bank but optimal water depths are unclear.

This experiment aims to increase understanding of what native aquatic plants emerge from propagules banks when subjected to different flooding treatments with the goal of improving aquatic plant restoration in Great Salt Lake wetlands.

 Christina Chirvasa Holding a Catfish

Climate Change Effects on Plant Functional Traits in the Arctic

Cristina Chirvasa - Karen Beard, advisor

The Yukon-Kuskokwim National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest riverine deltas in North America and provides important subsistence resources for local indigenous communities as well as a breeding spot for migratory birds. However, the Y-K delta and other Arctic ecosystems are experiencing warming at disproportionately high rates, which not only directly impacts the organisms residing in the delta, but increases susceptibility to flooding as the delta is low-lying. In addition, climate change is causing changes in goose migration timing and patterns, which impacts the effect of herbivory on the plant community. This project will examine the impact of these three variables (warming, flooding, and herbivory) on plant functional traits of the shrub Betula nana, chosen for its prevalence across all sampling locations.  

Results can help us understand how Arctic plant communities are responding to climate change impacts and whether life history traits are threatened by current impacts. Impacts on the plant community can propagate to other trophic levels, impacting local wildlife and human settlements, thus understanding the effect on functional traits is important for making management decisions.  

Trevor Hoffman Hunting

Phenological Responses of Two Plant Species to Increasing Temperatures and Flooding in Western Alaska

Trevor Hoffman - Karen Beard, advisor

The Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta National Wildlife Refuge is located in western Alaska. It is comprised of sub-Arctic wetlands and tundra, and has been experiencing increases in temperature and flooding because of climate changes. This site has already experienced a 2-3 ℃ increase and is expected to go up to 5 ℃ in the coming decades. The site is also extremely low elevation with changes of only several meters going 10s of kilometers inland. Thus, it is very susceptible to increases in sea-level rise and increased frequency of storm surges that are already being documented in the area.

This study will monitor the phenology of two plant species (Rubus chamaemorus (forb) and Ledum palustre (evergreen shrub)) to see what effects warming temperatures, flooding and their combination have on the plant species. These species were chosen because they are abundant in the research site, they belong to functionally opposed groups and Native Alaskan communities consume the berries from Rubus chamaemorus and make tea from the leaves of Ledum palustre.

Sandra Johnston out in the snow

Salinity Tolerance of Phragmites Australis in Comparison With Native Great Salt Lake Wetland Plants

Sandra Johnston - Karin Kettenring, advisor

The Great Salt Lake is an important part of Utah’s natural resources. However, Great Salt Lake wetlands are becoming overtaken by Phragmites australis, an invasive species originating from Eurasia. Introduced into North America, this plant has spread to create dense monocultures, quickly taking over native species and degrading avian habitat. Several P. australis populations have been found to survive in salinities up to 45-60 parts per thousand (ppt). However, there are multiple studies with conflicting results about the maximum salinity tolerance of P. australis (i.e., 23-60 ppt). This experiment will compare the salinity ranges of native species and non-native P. australis. This experiment will be done through the comparison of seedling emergence of the four study species in three different salinities: 0 ppt, 25 ppt, and 40 ppt in a greenhouse setting.

This information will be important in determining where it is appropriate to be monitoring and treating for P. australis. Especially during the drought and lower levels of the Great Salt Lake, it will also be useful in knowing at what point around or across the lake P. australis will be able to invade.

Naomi Orchard by the Green River

The Effect of Reservoir Operations on Channel Morphology in Browns Park

Naomi Orchard - Jack Schmidt, advisor

The closure of Flaming Gorge Dam in 1962 has had wide-reaching ecological impacts on the Green River. The dam has altered the downstream Green River’s temperature and flow regime, channel morphology, and sediment flux; negatively impacting populations of endangered fish and their critical habitat. A 1992 Biological Opinion showed that dam operations threatened populations and habitat conditions of four endemic endangered fish, including the Colorado Pikeminnow, Humpback Chub, Razorback Sucker, and Bonytail Chub. Dam operations were modified in 2006 to mimic spring floods in recovery areas downstream of the Green River’s confluence with the Yampa. To achieve these high flows, releases from the dam were timed with the spring runoff from the Yampa River to minimize the amount of water needed to be released. Since 2012, high flows have been timed with the presence of Razorback Sucker larvae rather than peak flows on the Yampa River, which has been shown to be more beneficial to the species’ success. This new operation plan necessitates a higher dam release volume and has raised concerns by landowners that erosion rates have increased in a reach downstream from the dam called Browns Park. However, no analysis has been completed to confirm or refute these concerns. This study will use historic aerial images and GIS analysis to compare erosion rates in Browns Park during periods of various dam operations and pre-dam conditions with the aim to quantify whether erosion rates have changed since the start of high-flow releases.

Stephen conducting research

The Influence of Beaver Ponds on the Foraging Behavior of Myotis spp. in Northern Utah 

Stephen Bunnell - Eric LaMalfa, advisor

Myotises are a genus of bat common across the United States and Eurasia. This classification of bat are surface feeders, foraging on insects that are on the surface of ponds, streams, and other water bodies. In this capacity they help to limit the number of insects that are pests to various aspects of human development in the west. Colonies in the United States are currently under threat from the rapid spread of White-nose Syndrome as the disease has spread steadily west from New York.  

Our study aims to quantify the activity of myotises in the habitat that is provided by beaver infrastructure. With this information we could consider the future of beaver reintroductions as a management tool to help revitalize failing myotis colonies.

Emily Lane

Modeling Aspen’s Effect on Fire Behavior  

Emily Lane - Larrisa Yocom, advisor

Aspen trees (Populus tremuloides) are a widely distributed tree across North America, and they provide important wildlife habitat, livestock forage, understory biodiversity, landscape diversity, and aesthetic value. They have also been perceived as important for their ability to act as fuel breaks, at least under average conditions. There have been many qualitative accounts of crown fires dropping to surface fires or being extinguished when they encounter aspen stands. These observations of aspen reducing fire behavior (i.e., flame length, rate of spread, fire intensity) when compared to conifers has led to the idea that aspen could be strategically planted on the landscape, such as around wildland urban interface (WUI) communities, to reduce fire risk. However, aspen forests vary widely in structure and composition, and little quantitative data is available to guide managers regarding characteristics of aspen forests that would serve to modify fire behavior. This research will provide a quantitative link between aspen composition and fire behavior. Using the Forest Vegetation Simulator, I will be modeling fire behavior in stands across a range of composition, from pure aspen to aspen mixed with conifer. The results of this study could help shape quantitative guidelines for forest management around communities or in the WUI.

Christian Stewart

The Future of Transbasin Diversions in Utah

Christian Stewart - Jack Schmidt, Advisor

Climate change is necessitating drastic changes to the management of the Colorado River, which supports over 40 million people. People who do not live within the borders of the Colorado river basin rely on its water, including residents of the Wasatch Front in Utah. Utah has a long history of constructing and operating transbasin diversions, tunnels and pipelines that move water across watershed boundaries. Current transbasin diversions primarily move water from the Colorado River watershed into the Great Basin. Several new transbasin diversion projects are in the works in Utah, including the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline and Pacific Ocean Pipeline. 

My objective is to provide an informative summary of the important facts behind transbasin diversions that will be made available to Utah citizens and water stakeholders. This will provide a foundation for an informed public policy discussion regarding the future of these diversions. I will also be leading a field trip for USU students in the Future of the Colorado River class to inform them on how transbasin diversions matter to management of the Colorado River. 

Mikenna DeBruin

Applying the Extended Parallel Process Model to Climate Change Communication

Mikenna DeBruin

The Extended Parallel Process Model (i.e. the EPPM) works to combine fear and efficacy messages to incite productive behaviors in individuals to mitigate health risks. Traditionally, this model has been applied to the fields of epidemiology and chronic illness with varying modes of success. I will create a quantitative survey examining the impact of five different climate change messages on the perceived efficacy and behavioral intention of ~800 individuals in the United States. These messages will vary in their application of threat and efficacy information to mirror the EPPM pathways. By performing a one-way MANOVA, I will be able to determine the relationship between one categorical independent variable (i.e. message exposures) and two continuous dependent variables (i.e. perceived efficacy and behavioral intention).

This research has both personal and societal implications. On a personal level, I will learn how to perform quantitative social science methods through different software, like Prolific and SPSS. One a societal level, we can learn how to effectively induce individual mitigation behaviors for anthropogenic climate change. In today’s day, when people are stifled into inaction by eco-anxiety, it is becoming incredibly necessary to know how to convey both an adequate threat and a solution. The EPPM may be the key for communicating about crisis disciplines like climate change.