QCNR Undergraduate Research
In addition to its graduate research, The Quinney College of Natural Resources provides research opportunities to undergraduates. These opportunities provide invaluable experience to undergraduate students and help further research and understanding of our natural resources.
For more information about undergraduate research at USU, please visit the website for the USU Office of Research's Undergraduate Research Program.
Protecting Old-Growth Forests in a Changing Climate
Protecting old-growth forests in a changing climate requires a better understanding of forest successional processes and relationships. This study sought to clarify relationships between conifer seedlings, logs, and moss, with varying soil moisture and nutrient availability in an old-growth forest in the southern Washington Cascades. At the Wind River Forest Dynamics Plot, logs facilitate conifer seedling establishment both on their surfaces and nearby on the forest floor; higher densities of seedlings were found near logs and on top of logs. A log index, calculated using basal area and plot to log distance, was a better indicator of seedling density than just distance alone, suggesting that multiple factors may influence seedling establishment. Moss inhibits seedling establishment in the area, but this may be limited to areas with water competition. More research is needed to determine the relative importance of the factors.
Using Wildlife Camras to Estimate Population Densities
Undergraduate Researcher of the Year 2021
Due to their cost-effectiveness, wildlife cameras have become an increasingly popular tool for estimating population densities. Previously, this technique relied on ‘capture-recapture’ models that utilized re-sightings of individually marked animals, but in recent years researcher have developed methods to estimate population densities of unmarked animals. One such method is the random encounter and staying time (REST) technique. To evaluate the accuracy and precision of the REST method, I compared cattle density estimates based on trail-camera photos to the actual number of cattle stocked on a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) grazing allotment. Our results show that our estimates were typically 50-350% higher than USFS rates, but I have little confidence in the reliability of the USFS records as the cameras detected cows in places and times that no cows should have been in based on USFS records. Using the calculated cattle densities, I will predict where cattle tend to aggregate on the grazing allotment using environmental factors such as slope, distance to water, NDVI, and percent cover of different vegetation types. This will allow managers to understand how cattle tend to aggregate on the grazing allotment and where to focus cattle management efforts.
Camera Surveys to Inventory and Monitor Wildlife in Cedar Breaks National Monument
Dr. Nicole Frey
Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT is host to numerous types of vegetation and climate. Forests, meadows and unique ‘redrock’ habitats created by the Claron sandstone formations of southern Utah allow for rich wildlife resources. To date there has not been a formal fauna inventory of this area (B. Larsen, National Park Service, personal communication). The objective of the Cedar Breaks National Monument camera survey is to gather data about the monument’s wildlife distribution and analyze patterns associated with the available habitats. The proposed study will survey the habitats along the rim of the half-mile deep geologic amphitheater as well as below and in the amphitheater. The data and study results will be used to create tangible interpretive material about Cedar Break’s wildlife distribution. The data and study results dealing with species distribution across varying habitat types will be provided to park officials to allow for informed administrative, resource, and maintenance decisions involving wildlife. The survey will be the leading authority of wildlife density and distribution in Cedar Breaks National Monument as no previous systematic study has been completed.
Periphyton production in Utah Lake
Utah Lake has been experiencing algae blooms for decades, with severe negative consequences on the health of its ecosystem. The cause of these algae blooms is not completely understood. Very little is known about the controls of eutrophication in this lake, and whether the high eutrophication levels have persisted over time due to internal nutrient loading. The purpose of this project is to inquire and gain information about the controls of eutrophication in Utah Lake. Benthic algae (periphyton) is one possible control of internal nutrient loading, and understanding the dynamics of periphyton in Utah Lake may potentially lead to more effective management solutions. Although it may play an important ecological and water quality role in Utah Lake, the extent of periphyton production in the lake is unknown, and Utah Lake’s periphyton communities have never been manipulated or studied in a controlled lab setting. Once light and temperature conditions for optimal periphyton growth are attained, the results of this study will be advanced by another, broader study to test whether light limitation of the periphyton production communities can lead to high nutrient fluxes from the sediments in the overlying waters.
The effect of a surfactant seed coating on alkali bulrush germination and biomass
The invasive grass Phragmites australis has invaded wetlands near the Great Salt Lake, which has caused a decline in native plant species like alkali bulrush (Bolboschoenus maritimus) that are important for birds. Wetland managers are interested in restoring areas that have been cleared of Phragmites with native species. However, getting those native species to germinate, grow, and fend off future competition from Phragmites is difficult, especially if water becomes more scarce due to human water withdrawals and climate change. My research project focused on a surfactant seed coating that has aided germination of upland plants by increasing soil moisture availability.
My project also looked at the effect of different levels of moisture availability on alkali bulrush germination and growth. I conducted two greenhouse experiments to test the effect of the seed coating and water level on alkali bulrush performance. In the first experiment I tested the effect of seed coating and four water levels on germination over 30 days. Germination was significantly increased at higher water levels and with the coating. The second experiment was similar, but instead of only looking at germination, I investigated the effect of seed coating and water level on biomass after 9 weeks. I did not find a clear relationship between the seed coating, water level, and biomass. Also, germination was lower with the seed coating. More research is needed to determine what, if any, effect this coating has on alkali bulrush germination and biomass.
Dormancy Break of Alkali Bulrush Seeds: Effect of Source Population and Length of Cold Stratification
Great Salt Lake wetlands provide a number of invaluable ecosystem services. Recent spread of the invasive species Phragmites australis has reduced the cover of native wetland species that are instrumental in providing these ecosystem services. Alkali bulrush is a native species that has proved difficult to reseed in Great Salt Lake restoration sites due to a physiological dormancy. One method of breaking seed dormancy is cold stratification, which is a process that occurs naturally during the winter as the seed sits under cold, moist soil. There is still much uncertainty concerning the length of cold stratification that will be effective at breaking seed dormancy. My research project examined the effect of various lengths of cold stratification on alkali bulrush seed collected from five wetland sites. The project results showed promising evidence that cold stratification plays a role in breaking seed dormancy, but germination rates remained much lower than expected after more than 6 months of cold stratification treatment. There did appear to be some effect on the germination rate depending on where seed was collected from. Additional research is needed to determine the factors impeding the germination of alkali seed.
Clonal Dynamics in aspen in the Utah Forest Dynamics Plot
Dr. James A Lutz
For decades, widespread aspen dieback and mortality have been observed across the western United States. Because aspen is a clonal species, aspen stands may exhibit limited genetic variability, potentially increasing the susceptibility of some aspen populations to mortality. Recent evidence, however, indicates that sexual reproduction in aspen stands may be more common than previously thought, resulting in greater genetic diversity. The implications of this finding, particularly whether genetic variants differ in their response to mortality agents, remain poorly understood. The UFDP provides an ideal opportunity to study the relationship between aspen genetics and demography because all stems, including 2,742 aspen stems, are mapped and mortality and recruitment surveys are conducted annually. I propose to map the spatial distribution of aspen genets (a group of genetically identical individuals) across the UFDP to study the role that aspen genetic diversity plays on mortality rates. I will identify genets by collecting microsatellite data from 96 aspen leaf samples that I gathered throughout the UFDP in July 2016. I will use the mapped tree and mortality data from 2016 to explore whether genetic diversity may play a role in the spatial patterns of aspen demography.
Genetic variability in aspens stands likely influences the response of aspen to mortality agents and environmental stressors, but how this operates over time and space remains understudied. Thus, it is important to document the spatial extent of clones in long-term studies of aspen demography. The Utah Forest Dynamics Plot (UFDP), a 13.6 ha annually monitored permanent plot located in Cedar Breaks National Monument, provides a platform to study how climate change, drought, and biotic stressors are affecting aspen mortality and recruitment in a spatial context (i.e., with mapped trees). A primary goal of large permanent plot research is to model ecosystem processes how they are spatially autocorrelated, and how climate variation affects them (Lutz 2015). My project will establish a framework for the long term study of aspen genetics on the UFDP. My project is also key step in exploring the role that aspen genetic diversity plays in sudden aspen decline.
The effects of waterfowl digestion, scarification, and cold stratification on dormancy break of bulrush seeds
Bulrushes are native wetland grasses that provide habitat and food for many waterfowl and mammals. Currently Phragmites (Phragmites australis), an invasive grass, is outcompeting bulrushes in Utah wetlands. Managers are finding it difficult to restore native bulrushes after clearing Phragmites due to the complex dormancy of bulrush seeds. In my research I explored the effects of physical scarification and cold stratification on the seed dormancy of three bulrush species: alkali bulrush (Bolboshoenus maritimus), three-square bulrush (Shoenoplectus americanus), and hardstem bulrush (Shoenoplectus acutus). Through this research I learned more about what breaks bulrush seed dormancy so these vital native grasses can be successfully restored back to Utah wetlands and consequently creating healthy habitats for Utah’s wildlife and waterfowl.
Pelican Predation in Strawberry Reservoir
In this study, we are analyzing the relative impact of American white pelicans on the fish species of the reservoir. In addition to taking pelican diets and other activities, we tagged Bonneville cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, Utah chub, and Utah sucker at the beginning of the summer, and scanned pelican loafing areas for those tags at the end of the summer. We also banded nearly 30 pelicans to track their movements around the reservoir and within the state. I have been able to combine and see much of what I have learned about fish, wildlife, and their interactions.
I have been able to combine and see much of what I have learned about fish, wildlife, and their interactions. It has been a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the Strawberry Reservoir ecosystem and see first-hand how research projects are structured and implemented.
Carbohydrate Reserve Fluctuations in Phragmites
A non-native grass, Phragmites australis, is spreading rapidly across North America, and is invading wetland and riparian habitat in the Great Salt Lake watershed. Phragmites threatens wetland ecosystems as it aggressively outcompetes and displaces existing plant communities and alters ecosystem functions, leading to a decline in native flora and fauna.
A better understanding of the biology of Phragmites is needed to improve the methods used to control its spread. I propose to monitor changes in carbohydrate stores in Phragmites rhizomes during the growing season. Phragmites carbohydrate stores vary seasonally, but there is a critical window of time during summer months, after carbohydrate reserves have been translocated from rhizomes to vegetative shoots, when Phragmites stands are most vulnerable to herbicides.
We know very little about the basic physiology of Phragmites, so any additional information we can gather is crucial to understanding how best to manage and control it. This research will hopefully lead to more coordination between state and federal agencies and better timing of herbicide applications during the point in the growing season when herbicides will be more effective. If successful, this may lead to more standard protocols for Phragmites management across North America.
A Hibernator's Response to Climate Change: Ecological Drivers of Persistence in the Uinta Ground Squirrel
One of the most critical and increasingly addressed ecological concerns related to climate change is that of phenological shifts. Hibernators are a prime example of acute susceptibility to climate change since even small changes in temperature and precipitation can disturb them both during the dormant and above-ground parts of their life cycle. Using historical data collected throughout the 1960s-1970s on Uinta Ground Squirrels (UGS) in Logan Canyon, as well as contemporary data collected since 2013 on the same populations, we will measure changes in the phenology and demography of UGS over a 50-year period, and assess whether climate change plays a role in explaining such variability. Because Cache Valley shows a trend in increased temperatures over the last century, we would expect hibernators to adjust their phenology and demography accordingly. By coupling information from historical and contemporary data collection, we will have the unique opportunity to measure and understand changes in the life history traits of a hibernator endemic to the Western US in response to climate change, with implications for similar species that undergo hibernation in this part of the world.
Local UGS populations are striving when most locally endemic hibernators have declined to critical levels in Utah (e.g. Utah, Wyoming and Gunnison Prairie-dogs; Utah Sensitive Species list 2011). Under realistic climate change scenarios, model predictions suggest milder winters (decreased snow insulation) and increased spring snowfalls, placing hibernators at an increased risk of disrupted phenology or mismatch in the western US. In the event of a mismatch, hibernators would have to further draw from remaining fat reserves to initiate reproduction, which has been shown to decrease body mass, breeding success, litter size and survival to the following year. Whether hibernators in northern Utah are at an increased risk of match or mismatch with the resources they consume (mainly graminoids) remains to be studied. Our findings would have important implications for ecological theory (the (mis)match hypothesis) and for conservation strategies of hibernators that inhabit similar mountain and alpine ecosystems.
Water Year Type Classification for Utah's Bear and Weber Rivers
Water management frameworks that were designed assuming stationary climate conditions will be increasingly difficult to implement in non-stationary climates, presenting a barrier to climate change adaptation and efficient water management for people and ecosystems. Hydrologic indices, or water year classification systems as they are also called, categorize streamflow by year type, such as wet, dry, or normal, compared to historical averages. Year type classification is tied to water resources planning, helping to answer the question of whether there is enough water. Hydrologic indices are being developed for Utah’s Bear and Weber Rivers using long-term reconstructed streamflow from tree-ring data (~1500 to present). Tree-ring data have considerably more variability than measured streamflow from the 20th Century, indicating droughts and wet periods could be longer, more intense, and of greater magnitude than more recent records suggest. Tree-ring reconstructed streamflow is also a promising surrogate to represent increasing future hydroclimatic variability.
The Bear and Weber Rivers contribute streamflow to the Great Salt Lake and supply water to the Ogden and Logan metropolitan areas. We expect the frequency of water year types to change with increased hydroclimatic variability represented in tree-ring reconstructed streamflow This affects allocations to urban, agricultural, and environmental water uses, and highlights potential adaptation strategies for watershed-scale water resources management with increased climate variability from climate change.
An overview of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis in Utah, with a focus on Boreal Toads and their changing conservation status
The Boreal Toad (Anaxyrus boreas) has disappeared from a large portion of its range in southern Utah and it has been questioned whether Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd, also known as chytrid) has played a role in its disappearance. The role of chytrid range in range contraction of Boreal Toads and other amphibians in Utah is unknown. The primary objective of this project was to determine if any historic Boreal Toad specimens have chytrid to determine its arrival in Utah. If any old specimens tested positive, the secondary goal of this study was to determine whether there was a relationship between the presence of chytrid and Boreal Toad disappearance.
Comparing two methods for sampling and estimating abundance of mottled sculpin in the Logan, River, Utah
Mottled sculpin (Cottus bairdii) are an important but very understudied component of many native fish communities of the Intermountain West. Three-pass depletions are one of the most commonly used abundance estimation techniques in stream fisheries science; however, resulting estimates can be biased low and underestimate fish abundance differentially across both species and size classes. Past efforts to quantify mottled sculpin densities in the Logan River, Utah have proven to be inaccurate and imprecise.
Having the ability to accurately monitor sculpin abundance in the Logan River could potentially increase our understanding of the trophic dynamics between sculpin and non-native, piscivorous brown trout (Salmo trutta). Therefore, we used and completed a novel sampling technique to estimate sculpin abundance and determine bias in depletion-based abundance estimates.
Spatially understand Utah's water situation: A story told through maps
Spatially understanding Utah's water is important when making decisions for restoration and management of our natural resources. Data describing Utah's current and past water situation is found online in various databases, but can be difficult to interpret. This study is aimed at combining data to make maps that portray water throughout the state. ESRI's ArcMap was used to make maps that includes average streamflow, water withdrawals, average precipitation, riparian areas, watershed areas, and water management in Utah. These maps will be distributed online and in print, being used for education and natural resource management.
Is Non-Suitable Habitat Causing Bobolinks to Disappear from Northern Utah?
The Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryxivories, is a songbird whose breeding range and population size has declined in Northern Utah. It is considered a sensitive species in Utah since their range has moved further east, causing the western border of their range to fall in Utah. Bethany conducted this project to learn how the Boblink habitat on the edge of their territory compares to habitat areas located in heavily dominated regions to see if habitat and land use changes have contributed to the bird’s decline in Utah.
Predicting Streamflow for Utah's Wasatch Mountains with Climate Change
Using the Water Evaluation and Planning Model, Norman's goal is to develop a model that will reliably predict streamflow for the Bear, Weber, and Provo-Jordan river watersheds.
A Morphometric Determination of Gape Limit for Six Fish Predators in Three Western USA Waters
In aquatic systems, for piscivorous fishes, the size of prey consumed and the frequency of piscivory both generally increase with predator size (Juanes et al. 2002). Further, body morphology is a major factor affecting foraging performance of fish in general, and among piscivores, aspects of body morphology such as mouth gape size affect the size of prey species that can be eaten (Mittelbach and Persson 1998). In addition others have found that while the selection of prey size increases proportionally with predator size, sizes of prey consumed appeared to be smaller than theoretically possible based on gape size (Truemper and Lauer 2005). In addition, the range of prey sizes eaten typically increases in larger predators, as maximum prey size often increases rapidly while minimum prey size may change only slightly over a broad range of predator sizes (Juanes et al. 2002).
Differences in Microbial Abundance and Composition between Aspen and Conifer Soils
Soil organic matter or soil organic carbon (SOC) is one of the primary characteristics that contributes to a soil's capacity to store atmospheric car bon dioxide and, as a result, mitigate its warming effects in the atmosphere. Microbes play an important role in a soil's carbon storage because they release enzymes that break down soil organic compounds, turning the organic compounds into carbon dioxide, protein and sugar in order to derive a source of bio mass and energy for themselves.
Effects of Impoundments On Brown Trout Source-sink Dynamics in the Logan River, Utah: Conservation Implications For Endemic Bonneville Cutthroat Trout
Bonneville cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii utah; BCT) were prevalent throughout the Bear River drainage, but now occupy only 33% of their native range (Lentsch et al. 2000). The Logan River currently supports a large metapopulation and high densities of BCT, and thus represents a high conservation priority. However, BCT in the Logan River face competition from brown trout (Salmo trutta: BNT) which are competitively superior to BCT along the entire elevational gradient of the river and occur in high densities at lower elevations (McHugh and Budy 2005).
Analysis of Mexican Spotted Owl diet in the canyonlands of southern Utah
The Mexican spotted owl (Strix occidentalis lucida) is listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) . Since the Mexican spotted owl is federally listed as a threatened species, it is important to identify primary prey of Utah's canyon dwelling owls in order to better undersand their dietary needs. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1993)
Does dissolved organic carbon derived from aspen leaves adsorb to soils?
The main objective of this undergraduate research project conducted over a 15-month period (Jan 2012-April 2013) was to test the hypothesis that dissolved organic carbon (DOC) derived from decomposing aspen leaves can be retained in the mineral soil through adsorption. The study was conducted in two phases:
Phase 1 -- development of the appropriate methodology for conducting an adsorption experiment
Phase 2 -- lab adsorption experiment using solutions with different DOC concentration
This pilot study was important in assessing the mechanisms of carbon storage in the soil.
Comparing Trophic Level Position of Invertebrates in Fish and Fishless Lakes in Artic Alaska
Artic lakes are very sensitive to the effects of climate change. A better understanding of the current food web dynamics and evergy flow within these lakes is critical to predict how they will change in the future in the face of a rapidly changing climate.
Using a GIS Habitat Model to Guide Deployment of Wood Duck Nest Boxes in Cache County, Utah
With Wood Duck populations decreasing, Wild Over Wood Ducks (WOW) is using a statewide program to place artificial nesting structures throughout Utah. To help better place boxes, GIS habitat models were developed to show suitable Wood Duck habitats for nesting box placement.
Transnational Migration and its Effects on Two Rural Communities in Southeastern Mexico
Within the last five or six years Mexico's southern Yucatan has seen a sudden spurt in short-term migration to the United States. This research explores the outcomes of migration on the livelihoods, household well-being, and gendered division of labor in two small farming communities in the southern Yucatan.
Modeling Predator-Prey Interactions and Canid Sociability in Curlew Valley, Utah
Dr. James Powell
We explored various models to describe the oscillating behavior of coyote (Canis latrans) and black tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) abundances in a sagebrush-steppe community in Curlew Valley, UT over a 31-year period between 1962 and 1993. Coupled oscillations can be seen in long-term data sets showing abundances of prey and prey-specific predators, but these data sets are uncommon. In our data, the oscillations of both species appear to grow larger in the mid seventies, and an overall increase in coyote abundance is apparent.