Episode 8: Ranching, Wildfires, & Global Sustainability

Episode 8: Ranching, wildfires, & global sustainability

Dr. Richard Gill discusses his global research projects including climate change on the Wasatch Plateau, ranch sustainability in Colorado, reef studies in Samoa, and wildfires in the Mojave Desert.

Dr. Gill shares his research and discusses the connection between the ecology of a place and the communities of people that inhabit it, and how scientists can protect socially and ecologically vulnerable populations by collaborating equally with them. Unless they’re sharks. He found out they’re typically not open to collaboration.


Richard Gill, PhD, is an ecologist and department chair in biology at Brigham Young University.

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Hello everybody and welcome to We Measure The World, a podcast produced by scientists for scientists.


We’re capturing imagery on the reef on the south side of Molokai, we sort of set up this beautiful sampling plan, right? We sat in our lab in Utah, and we sort of said, ok, here’s where we’re going to look. And we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that. And we’re perfectly set and we get to Molokai and we’re having dinner with one of our dear friends and collaborators there, a man named Kalani Johnson, and Kalani says, “Tell me what you’re doing tomorrow”. And we pull out the map, okay, we’re gonna sample here and sample here. And he just looks at that. And he’s like, Oh, don’t don’t go there. It’s like, if you go there, I’m not going to talk to you again. And I’m like, What are you talking about? Like, it’s like, that’s the perfect spot, you see that little blue hole in the reef. And it was exactly the sort of system that we wanted to be surveying. He says, there’s a 13 foot gray reef shark that lives there, that doesn’t like people. And he says, and if you go there, it’s not that I wouldn’t want to talk to you again, you just may not come back. And so it’s sort of that sort of local knowledge of a system. Always trumps the theoretical that’s developed in the lab. And so having that liaison that has a traditional deep understanding of the system, helps to better frame questions and to help us do the science.


That’s just a small taste of what we have in store for you today. We Measure The World explores interesting environmental research trends, solutions to research issues, and tools to better understand the entire soil plant atmosphere continuum. Stay current on applied environmental research, measurement methods and more. Thanks for joining us.


Today’s guest is Dr. Richard Gill, an ecologist and department chair in biology at Brigham Young University. Dr. Gill developed an interest in ecology as a child while exploring the forest and sea shores of Washington State. This attraction to wild places motivated him to study conservation biology as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, and to receive a PhD in ecology from Colorado State University. His PhD research on plant soil interactions in dryland ecosystems, dovetailed well with his postdoctoral research on plant physiology ecology at Duke University. In his first faculty position at Washington State University, he pursued research on global change ecology, studying the impacts of changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, temperature and drought. Currently, he’s a professor of biology at BYU. Rick, thanks so much for being here. We’re really excited to have you. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into the field of ecology? I know, we’ve kind of already talked about that it started when you’re a child, but can you talk about that a little bit more?


Yeah, I grew up just absolutely loving, being outside that I was heavily influenced by scouting and by neighbors. And we, I grew up in Tacoma, Washington. And when I was there, it seemed like every weekend, we were either on Mount Rainier, or out on the sea coast, on the Olympic Peninsula doing something. And that really sort of connected me in meaningful ways to these wild places. And then, as an undergraduate student, I was, like so many students today, a little adrift trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And then, as I started to move towards graduate schools, I discovered that there was this space in academic research where they combined chemistry and physics and biology in really meaningful ways. And for me, that ultimately was my home.


So not just those hard sciences, you know, the fundamentals of chemistry, but kind of the place where all of those things intersect and have human impact as well.


Yeah, for me, science becomes much more interesting when it’s meaningful to a broader audience, right that the National Science Foundation has always asked, what are the broader impacts associated with your research? And for me, those broader impacts have always been relatively straightforward, because the questions that I find compelling are the ones that touch on human wellbeing.


So what is the main connection between the ecology of a place and the communities of the people that inhabit it? I know a lot of your work kind of focuses on how these two things are interconnected in various places around the globe.


Yeah, so all of the work that I do is embedded within a human and environmental landscape that early on in my career, I was really interested in a particular space that had been studied for a long time in the state of Utah, and so soon after Europeans arrived in Utah, they brought livestock with them. And this was before there was much focused irrigation agriculture. And so if you’re going to raise livestock, especially mid summer, when there’s relatively low grass productivity in these systems, you would have to move your livestock into the mountains. So by the early 1900s, grazing was having a major impact in Alpine systems in the state of Utah. And so one of the very first US Forest scientists set up a research program at the top of Ephraim Canyon. And so this is a place where the ecological questions naturally emerged out of choices that the human community were making. And so as they brought their livestock in, and there was no regulation, it was completely uncontrolled, there is near total consumption of the forage in the subalpine zone. And this spot that we visited in Utah is right on the border of the monsoons. And so you would get monsoons coming in, after the livestock had been up there sheep and cattle, they’d removed all of the plant biomass, and they would get major rock and debris floods. And so they began studying (Lincoln Ellison, Arthur Sampson) began studying the impacts of grazing. For me, what interests me is to come back 90 years after the initiation of this major disturbance, and try to understand how grazing continued to influence things like forage production, soil retention, the drivers of many of those things, including soil water.


I know that that probably had a huge impact on the historic plant communities that once were native to that area. Is there a lot of information on what those native species were? Is it possible to bring those species back and to restore that native state in some of those areas?


Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s a challenge to identify what it was like before, there’s anecdotal evidence. But oftentimes, those anecdotes that the early pioneers would share, were oftentimes embellished and they talked about grasses that grew to the belly of the horse, and you know that there’s really high plant biomass and productivity and, and so in all of this historical records, we look at them with a little bit of skepticism. One of the things that we know is that Arthur Sampson, in the mid 19, teens, actually went up there and mapped out individual plants, and he developed these permanent plots. And that was the first major NSF grant that I received was to go back, relocate all of his plots, and to compare what was there currently with what existed almost 100 years before. There are also some really interesting places on the Wasatch plateau. One of them is called the Elks Knoll. And this is a place that geologically, is almost a pinnacle, but with really steep sides on it, there’s no permanent water. And it’s relatively small. And so the early ecologist always looked at this, and they said, Okay, this is a place that livestock probably never really got to, in a major way. And so we’re going to look at it. And we’re going to say that that’s the type specimen. That’s what we think that it might look like. And it does look very different from what we’ve seen before. And as we think about restoring these heavily impacted systems, one of the key components that’s really hard to come to terms with is just the mass of soils that were lost during these major erosion events. And because of the soil loss, that loss of fertility, the loss of water holding capacity, my guess is that the communities that we have there will for the foreseeable future be less productive, and the plants will have to be more drought tolerant than we would have expected in the historical community.


Because the loss of that soil means that even if you were able to replant and figure out exactly what those native plant communities were, the ability of that soil to sustain those populations has kind of declined with all of the erosion and loss of that organic matter.


Yeah, that’s exactly right, that ultimately, for most ecological systems, the nature of the plant community is really filtered through the structure of the soil and there are things that we do in terms of human management that alter soil structures, soil volume, that those things long term are going to control what we can restore the system to.


Right. What are some of the biggest challenges in working with such a dynamic entity? Where really you’re not controlling very many of the variables at all, if any.


Yeah, when we look at trying to understand soil processes, our research group has never taken on really simplistic questions, right, we’ve never taken on something where it’s flat, the soils are homogeneous that they get equal sun exposure, it’s that for me that the compelling questions, especially in the system, we’re working with an E from a tree line is that just the, the really stark contrast between micro environment. And it’s those small scale micro environmental differences that I think are really compelling and trying to understand plant communities. But we on purpose are looking at micro environment at tree line, because it’s one of the places one of the Sentinel systems where we can understand climate change, that as we look at tree line, where we see changes in availability of water and temperature, we’re likely to see differences in the ability of woody vegetation to survive. And so across the world, scientists are looking to tree line to understand how systems are going to respond to warming temperatures and changing water availability. And so for, for a decade now, we’ve had small sensor networks up at tree line, that the transition between forest into mountain meadow and the scattered small tree islands that are embedded within these meadows to try to understand how the availability of soil water, the temperature, soil temperature, air temperature are influencing the ability of trees to move.


That brings me into my next question, which was with such complex questions that you’re asking in such complex communities? What types of tools are you using? And what type of data? Are you collecting to really answer the questions that you’re asking?


Yeah, fantastic question. And really, we’re trying to use two different approaches. One thing that we need is good long term, high resolution data. And so at select sites, what we’re doing is we’re using data loggers connected to sensor environmental sensors, in order to get high resolution, hourly, daily, daily data on things like soil moisture, soil temperature, electrical conductivity, air temperature, wind speed, right, sort of trying to understand really the physical environment as it exists in these systems. Coupled with that, we’re looking directly at the plants themselves using spectral reflectance sensors, things like we’re measuring NDVI to, that’s an indication of plant greenness. We’re using PRI sensors to look at patterns of fluorescence, and coupling these with dendrometers that are high precision, high temporal resolution to look at plant growth. And so we are able to couple these things together to understand how the physical environment is influencing a sort of small plot scale space. But it’s insufficient, because the places that we’re looking at are really large, and spatially complex. And so in the last several years, we’ve been collaborating with geographers, and getting students who are really well trained. And we’ve been using UAVs. So unmanned aerial vehicles or drones that are equipped with different sensor types and, and the sensors allow us to, to measure NDVI over much larger spatial scales. But capturing these high resolution areas as well, that hopefully will allow us to extract some of our high temporal resolution data with spatial data. This sensors that we have on our UAVs include LiDAR, which allows us to get high precision measures of topography and even plant canopy dimensions. We have spectral sensors that allow us to do NDVI, and other remotely sensed measure indices, we have a thermal camera that allows us to look at temperature differences across this complex landscape. And so really, our hope is that we’re going to be able to couple high temporal resolution with high spatial resolution data in order to understand the broad system.


Does some of that research along with this project? Does that get into any predictive modeling of what you’re seeing, what could happen or what the potential impacts or remediation efforts or other things like that in that area?


Yeah, so one of the things that we’re really excited about with using this UAV data is to be able to develop physical and biological maps that are well classified that we can couple with things like the century ecosystem model, or start to look and say, Okay, what are the areas most likely to anticipate changes? So our driving question isn’t one to say, we’re going to go to the forest service. And we’re going to tell you, here’s what the impacts of climate change are going to be across your forest. But what we can use these data for, is to begin to say, if we anticipate that climate change is going to lead to increased seedling germination, where’s that most likely to occur? As we look across this landscape? What are the spaces that are likely to remain over the course of the entire summer, what are the places where we get the latest snow melt? Are these really important ecological drivers that control plant communities? And what we’d like to be able to do is use machine learning, and some of our UAV data to start to better understand those parts of the system that are most sensitive.


And it sounds like you have really precise, really temporally dense training data to ground truth, the data you get from your drones, do you have some stuff on the ground, that’s recording data with very high precision. And then to extrapolate that across a larger spatial area, you’re able to fly the drones and train that model, based on the data that you’ve collected on the ground with the sensors? Is that kind of the goal?


Yeah, that’s really well said, right and that really is the way that those two data sources can complement one another, right? That it’s impossible to fly a drone every day to understand how the system is changing, in the same way that it’s impossible to put out a sensor network that would capture the full spatial variability. But when those two things can go hand in hand, in a single experimental study, it allows you to make some inferences that you can make with any one source of data.


I’m interested in the, again, the practical application of your research findings. And I think you had said that you’re not necessarily consulting with federal agencies or state agencies or even private entities, are you just putting your information or that data out there, and allowing decision makers to do what they will with it?


So you bring up a really interesting sort of challenge that we all face? Right, sort of where is the science? Where is the decision support that happens in one’s career? And it turns out that with different projects that I work on, I end up doing this at different levels, right. So it’s for the work that we’ve been doing on the Wasatch plateau at tree line. Those have resulted in a number of papers that have been published, they’re really sort of science oriented to trying to to understand and test hypotheses about what’s happening at treeline. But there’s other spaces that we’ve been working in. An example is some work that we’re doing with the USGS. And with the Nature Conservancy, on the Colorado Plateau, alright, and so in addition to tree line work, we do work down in the desert. And this is one that we’re really excited about. And it’s a relatively new project that we’re not as far along as it’s not as well developed. But in this project, we are actually working directly with a ranch. So we’re working with the dugout ranch by Canyonlands National Park, and they’re really interested in you know, it’s the same sort of theme of how can we have livestock and manage landscapes in a way that are sustainable in the dugout ranch is a long term ranching family that recently sold their ranch to the Nature Conservancy. And, and so the Nature Conservancy, this ranching family and research interests are working collaboratively to say how can we ranch sustainably in the desert southwest. And so just earlier this month, I was down at the dugout, and I had a whole class of students, and we’re working with the dugout ranch and one of the questions that they’re really interested in is, can we change the breed of cattle that we use to make it less impactful? And so instead of using sort of the classic desert Southwest Red Angus breed, if we bring in a breed of Mexican cattle called criollo that are smaller, they browse more than graze they ostensibly move farther away from water, they may reduce the concentrated impact that cattle have on the landscape. Well, they came to us and they said, Hey, we need to understand this broad environment. The satellite data that we have access to is to coarse grain to let us look closely at our pastures. What we want to do is couple some GPS collar data that we’ve put on cattle with high resolution vegetation maps, to understand how, where cattle are moving, when they’re moving and into what plant communities they’re moving. So this is another one of those applications of UAV. That it’s actually designed from its very inception to address management issues. And it’s something that as it emerges, we’ll work with BLM, USGS and private ranchers to support the decisions that they’re making. In terms of Land Management. Wow. So


that family, they’re still involved in the process, even though they’re no longer necessarily the landowner for that ranch anymore.


Well, this is one of the really exciting things about the way that dugout ranch transfer occurred. Because oftentimes, people think about these nongovernmental conservation organizations stepping in and saying, we’re going to come in, and we’re going to fence off what we had before, keep people out and let it recover back to what it once was, right. In this case, what the nature conservancy was able to do is they came in, and this was a family that really loved ranching, they love the Desert Southwest. And they recognize that many of the practices were unsustainable, that they couldn’t continue, especially in the face of climate change. And so they negotiated with the Nature Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy came in with eyes wide open, and said, what we want to do as a conservation organization is graze cattle on the on the Colorado Plateau, and make an example, and have this be a laboratory that helps us to help all the ranches in this area. And so they set up the Canyonlands Research Center, the family that are still down there, there’s multiple generations that are still living in the old ranch house and moving cows and doing the things they used to do. They’re now just doing it with a much larger scientific support system, and is a collaboration between a ranch family and scientists and a conservation organization.


Wow, that’s amazing, especially because, you know, that’s kind of where my mind goes also, as NGOs maybe acquire some land, and they do try to do the best thing for it, which might be to just kind of let it rest and let it restore itself. But really, it sounds like the impact of continuing this on as a working ranch and a working business to an extent. And the ability to use that as an example for other ranches really has the potential to have a much broader impact than maybe just taking a single ranch out of production.


Yeah, it’s an exciting one, because having the Nature Conservancy involved in their full support allows this ranch to experiment with things that if a traditional family owned ranch wouldn’t be able to they can actually try things. And if they fail, they can still go forward. When we think about sustainability, oftentimes depending on what group you’re talking to, they miss the idea that sustainability involves humans as well, right? So you could say is grazing sustainable? Well, I don’t think we can ever graze. So let’s take the cattle off. Right. But that’s not


economically sustainable for the producers. And it’s not socially sustainable, because that’s their livelihood. Right. Yeah,


That’s exactly right. And so this is a great model, where we’re looking at sustainability being defined ecologically, sociologically, and economically working together. And one of the things that’s really exciting about it is that science is at the center, right? Because oftentimes, it is really interesting when you talk to long term farmers and ranchers, that they have anecdotes, right and that many of these anecdotes are powerful, and insightful. But they’re not really manipulative experiments, right? That they don’t allow you to identify controls and manipulations and measure the right outcomes. So we’re moving beyond just the one ranch one anecdote to let’s do some large scale experimentation and monitoring. And that requires the use of some pretty high tech instrumentation.


With your experience in working in this collaborative environment. Do you have any insight on creating similar collaborations between scientists between the public and private organizations? This seems to be a theme in some of our interviews here on the podcast is how can we best both translate our scientific research and findings to the general public? And then also, how do we get everybody involved to either mitigate issues or to create a more productive environment?


Great question, and it’s one that we confront every time we try to address one of these important issues at the intersection between human quality of life in the environment. And that is how do you move into communities that are not your own and facilitate science driven research? Right, or science driven insights. And ultimately, I think it comes down to trust, right and, and for a long time, and I spend lots of time on ranches and I spend lots of time in, in rooms with environmental groups. And what you hear is environmentalists, they don’t like this. And those ranchers, they do this. And there’s this high level of distrust, and until that distrust is diffused, it’s nearly impossible to get people to work together. And what’s fascinating is that when we’ve sort of been people that say, Okay, well, the Nature Conservancy, that’s an environmental group, and we’re going to expect it to act a certain way. And the Redd family at the Dugout Ranch, they’re a ranching family, we expect them to work a certain way. But what’s fascinating is when they actually sat down and got together, what they discovered was an enormous amount of commonality. And one of the things that I’ve really noticed over my career is that there’s a number of people that are really important liaisons that are able to sort of freely move from one community to another. And as they move between community and community, they can bring people in, right? A great example of this is we’ve been starting some work in the South Pacific in Samoa, which is a place that I dearly love. And it’s a place where I think that there are real opportunities, it’s a place that is data deficient, there just isn’t enough data about the environment there for them to be making informed choices. But as a Westerner, from a university in the U.S. They’re highly skeptical if I just showed up on their door. And for many years, they’ve seen, you know, Europeans, come through their community and say, Stand back, I’m going to solve your problems for you. And what we found is that easily the most productive thing is where a dear friend of mine who’s a Samoan High Chief, says, Rick, why don’t you come to me with me to my village and come, he said, I don’t want you coming to solve problems, I want you to come and let’s see how we can collaborate. And even just coming in with the notion of it being a collaboration as opposed to a data dump, or a, you know, I’m the expert, what I find is in Samoa for 1000 years, on a really discrete piece of land, they’ve had a sustainable human community, right, that they’ve managed that really, really well. And so if I show up saying, I think you’ve got problems, let me solve them, then they’re gonna look at me and just say, you can’t even define what the problem is. But as soon as I sit down, and start talking with them, they’ll say, here are my concerns, here are the things that I see that are happening. And that sort of gets me thinking, okay, what can I bring to the table, right? And so what they’re bringing is not just their problems, but their insights and in their collective traditional knowledge. And the same way, at the Dugout Ranch, the Redd family, for generations, had been riding horses on a landscape, making observations, you know, sort of developing this traditional understanding of what was going on in that system. And when they sit down, and a scientist says, here’s the type of manipulative experiment that I would like to do and the type of monitoring that I think we should be doing. What the Redds are able to do is say, You know what, I don’t think that that’s the major driver. Let’s think about this. And that’s what we’re doing in villages in Samoa as well is moving towards collaborations rather than sort of problem solving.


Right? And then you chase fewer rabbit holes as a researcher because you have some background and some context for the place that you’re looking to set an experiment up in.


Yeah. So here’s a funny story for you. We were on the island of Molokai doing some of this trying to do some monitoring work. It was mostly just trying to test out some sensors. We were capturing imagery on the reef on the south side of Molokai, we sort of set up this beautiful sampling plan, right? We sat in our lab in Utah, and we sort of started: Okay, here’s where we’re going to look and we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that. And we’re perfectly set and we get to Molokai and we’re having dinner with one of our dear friends and collaborators there. A man named Kalani Johnson and Kalani says, Tell me what you’re doing tomorrow and we pull out the map. I said, Okay, we’re gonna sample here and sample here. And he just looks at that. And he’s like, Oh, don’t don’t go there. It’s like, if you go there, I’m not going to talk to you again. And I’m like, What are you talking about? Like, like, that’s the perfect spot, he says, See that little blue hole in the reef. And it was exactly the sort of system that we wanted to be serving. He says, there’s a 13 foot gray reef shark that lives there that doesn’t like people. And he says, and if you go there, it’s not that I wouldn’t want to talk to you again, you just may not come back. And that sort of local knowledge of a system always trump’s the theoretical that’s developed in the lab. And so having that liaison that has a traditional deep understanding of the system, helps to better frame questions, and to help us do the science.


I just get so excited about projects like this, because I think they’re so important to protect communities that are really vulnerable, right, both socially and ecologically. What are some of the goals that you’re hoping to achieve? And this work you’re doing on coral reefs and the communities there in Samoa?


That’s a really important question, you know, ultimately, the goal that we have sort of the broad goal is to facilitate and to help Samoans address the climate change problems that they’re faced with. And, and there’s a couple of different things that we’re able to do, right. So one of the things is that this is a system that’s data deficient to date, it’s been really challenging for them to make environmental measurements, part of it is, is a really low GDP, that they don’t have access to expensive weather stations, they also don’t have really highly developed electricity infrastructure. And so if you’re going to run a large weather station, offline power, it’s always tied to electricity. And so they end up with a relatively robust understanding of weather along the coastline, where everybody lives, but all of the agriculture is inland air isn’t power there. So it’s a real challenge to make decisions about things like erosion and other things. So the first thing that we can do is help with data generation. But I think that that’s a relatively minor part of the challenge that we face, the big challenge is the human capital, right to be able to help and to train young Samoans in STEM fields. And right now, they’ve got an amazing education system. I am in no way critical of what they’re doing, given the country that they are in, and the economics that they have, they put nearly all of their resources into educating their children. But there’s a challenge, which is that they get to high school. And science is an elective, it’s not a required course. And, and really, most of that education is preparing them either for service industries, or to move back to the village where they’re doing subsistence agriculture. And so what we’re really trying to do is to collaborate on ways that we can make these linkages between Western science and traditional Samoan understanding. And so what we’re hoping to do is to be a model for other types of projects that we just got some, some foundation funding to build an Environmental Education Center. But we’re not calling it environmental education, we’re calling it the Center for Culture and Environment. Because what we think is that the real way to make links into science is to show how it connects to traditional Samoan understanding of the environment. And so over COVID, we were able to build this facility that we, you know, is it sort of classic, what I think is well done development, which is that we gave them the money that they needed in order to do the thing that they wanted to do, which was to build this community center. And now on our campus where we’ve brought in Pacific Islands, students that are on our campus who are in art, and who are in science, and they’re working with part of the Pacific Island community in Utah, and we’re developing displays that talk about how Samoans have developed resiliency plans related to climate change the legends that they use to explain the phenomenon but coupled with sort of a more classic natural history or scientific approach, but also highlighting Samoan scientists right to inspire the young rising Samoans to say oh my gosh, look, look at Tina Tavana and Tavailau Segi, who are now the these amazing scientists who are doing good work and I can be like them. So for me that the big part of this project, the most important part is not necessarily the science itself. But the scientists that are going to come out of this generation and the next one, where Samoan scientists are going to be answering their own questions.


So not necessarily the research you’re doing right now. But the research that will be done by the scientists, you’re currently empowering and inspiring.


Yeah. And for us to be a model to show them that science isn’t this mystical thing. That’s done in Europe, and it’s done in the United States. But it’s something that is done by Samoans in Samoa. And that the questions that are being asked in Samoa, are not the simplistic little local questions, but they’re ones that really relate to global problems. One of the big questions that is driving our research right now, is to understand whether marine protected areas along the coastline produce meaningful conservation outcomes. And in order to do that, we have to think about monitoring these systems long term, right, that it isn’t, necessarily, is this marine protected area different from what’s outside of it? But is it better 10 years from now? And are those changes systematic? And so what we’ve been doing, pre COVID, was working with Samoan scientists, and with locals to train individuals on how to use underwater cameras, how to use robotics, in order to do surveys on reefs.


That’s got to appeal to young students to get out there and use robots. Well,


one of my favorite things to do, we’ve got a number of different UAVs that we take to Samoa with us to do forest surveys and even reef surveys, and they know me as the drone guy, right that I show up in the village, kids from three to 15, all run out, they’re like, are you going to fly, are you going to fly? And so I’ll have 30 kids around me and we’ll send a drone in the air. And it’s just, to me, it’s exciting, because as soon as that drone is 30 feet in the air, it gives these kids a different perspective on where they’ve lived their entire life, all of a sudden, for the first time, they see the totality of their village in a single scene. Right. And, and I think that that’s inspirational, and they want to fly. And so you know, you pass it along, and they can fly it for a little bit. And I think that they’re gonna be the next Samoan scientist, right, they’re gonna get into high school, and be given different options in terms of what they want to do. And they’re gonna say, I want to be a scientist, I want to be able to do the things that I’ve seen done in my village.


Some of what you’re saying just really resonates with me about how some of those communities are separated from the things that we do, even though they’re the most vulnerable and the most affected by some of these climate impacts.


Yeah, for too long, we’ve thought of science as being separate, that you generate the questions over here in society, and science will answer them for you. And what we’re finding is, is not just that the questions become more interesting, and the answers become more interesting when you’re collaborating. But the very nature of the process changes, it’s just so much better, right? Broader participation in science is going to be key to address global problems. And so when we look at things like climate change, we can’t just have the traditional engineers and traditional scientists standing back at the university. We need young Samoans who are out there who have learned how to use depth sensors and EC sensors and other things to to monitor water quality, so that they can in real time, make decisions and, and bring to those decisions, the traditional knowledge that they are so richly blessed with that we don’t have in the same way.


I’m wondering if we could spend a couple of minutes talking about Rush Valley, I know that you’ve got a substantial interest in the biodiversity of Rush Valley, could you just introduce us to that project? And you know, 30,000 foot view of that?


Yeah. So one of the big questions that we’ve had working in the Desert Southwest is to look at how these systems respond to different stressors. Again, the traditional view of science was you look at one stressor at a time. And my colleagues and I, 11 years ago now, decided the more interesting outcomes are when you sort of throw them all together in one bin. And so we are at a site in the Mojave Desert and a site in the Great Basin on the Great Basin site is in Rush Valley, not too far from Provo, we set out plots and we said okay, what’s the major disturbance in the desert southwest right now. And certainly in the Great Basin, it’s fire, these massive stand clearing fires. And then we said, oh, okay, so that’s what the managers are going to be interested in. But ecologically, what’s an interesting question? And one of them might be, how do trophic interactions and specifically small mammals influence the structure of communities. And then for me, the climate change person, what I was interested in, is understanding how changes in the timing and amount of rainfall influenced these communities. So we set up this really large experiment, it’s replicated five times at each site, where we burned half the plots, we left the other half unburned. On half of them, we remove small mammals, the other half, we have small mammal access, and then nested within them, we have rainfall manipulation shelters, and so it’s the big experiment. And then we instrumented the site. And we ended up with, you know, over 100 sensors, measuring each treatment combination, making measurements every 15 minutes, and generating millions of data a year. And it’s been just a really rich site for a number of reasons. One, it’s really pushed us to think about, what do we do with massive amounts of data? Right? So the first half of my career was really defined by not having enough data, figuring out ways to collect it. I think the second half of my career is how do we deal with gobs and gobs? Right, they call it the day to day lose, and the day to day lose? How do we monitor it? And so we’ve had graduate students who have strong interest in ecology, who ended up getting minors in Computer Science in order to manage the data. But it’s really exciting because what we’re able to do is to look at really interesting interactions. Nobody would ever say, small mammal communities have a strong control over soil water. But what we find is the presence or absence of small mammals fundamentally changes a post fire plant community that changes and plant community changes soil water, right. And so it’s an indirect effect. But it’s one that’s really important, right? When we start to think about water balance models, or things like that, nobody’s ready to put in deer mice. But deer mice are a major driver in determining how much water is in soil at a given moment.


How do you keep the small mammals out of your plots?


Oh my gosh. So this is where engineering gets really fun. So when we set up the experiment, this experiment was a collaboration between a plant physiological ecologist and ecosystem ecologist, a microbial ecologist and a wildlife biologist, right so that there were four of us that were hired within a year of each other at BYU. And so we had our startup money, and we said, here we go, let’s do something big. And so the wildlife biologists had done some of these small mammal exclusion experiments before. And so what we did is we got hardware fabric, we trenched, down about half a meter, and then brought the hardware mesh up above the ground and created a fence. And at the top of that fence, we put metal slashing, so that the critters couldn’t climb over it. And so we’ve got it, so they can’t come over it, they can’t go under it. And then the ones that were exclusion plots, we went in and we live-trapped all the mammals out and throw them outside the plots. And we go back four times a year and trap to make sure there aren’t any in there. Occasionally, we’ll get one that somehow, you know, they fly, I don’t know. Most likely what happens is it snows and they run over the snow and get in. But we’ve been really effective at creating a strong difference in the small mammal community. And most years, we’re able to keep them all out.


So you talked about deer mice, and you talked about small mammals. But are there other burrowing critters that contribute to that as well?


So in the Great Basin, I forget what the exact numbers are. But probably 85% of the rodent community are the deer mice. In the Mojave, we get kangaroo rats and other small mammals that as a plant ecologist, what I’ve discovered is that I’m okay, letting the animal people work with the animals. Right, right. I’ve trapped a few times, they are cute, and they’re fun. But it turns out the trapping requires you to be up really late and up really early. And you don’t get very much sleep and it’s almost always cold and my plants are there no matter what time of day I want to measure them. And they’re not trying to run away from them. They never ever run away right, and it’s even easier if I’ve got a soil moisture probe because I can just call it up on my computer. Look at it from home. Yeah, I can sleep in bed at night.


You also mentioned that you have this data deluge, what were some of those data points or datasets that you were working with in order to better understand the environment there?


Yeah, so we have in all of our treatment plots, in every treatment combination, we’re looking at soil moisture and soil temperature at various depths. We also have weather stations, so ATMOS 41s at the site to monitor incoming rainfall, wind speed direction. And really what we’re trying to do is to understand the feedback loops between the plant community and soil water, and the gobs and gobs of data are particularly useful at these really important transition points. So important transition points, when snow melt happens when the different members of the plant community start becoming physiologically active and start transpiring water. And the timing of that oftentimes, is only offset by a few days. So what we’re able to do is collect data year round, and get a sort of broad scale, is it in general wetter or drier in one spot or another? But likewise, we’re able to then segment it and look really precisely and say, Okay, well, what are the places where having a cheatgrass community versus a native bunchgrass community changes soil water or soil water promotes made a bunch of grass communities, instead of cheatgrass and trying to identify these transition points where we’re likely to see important plant community responses to the environment or environmental responses to the plant community. But we ended up, you know, the big challenge is to take sensor data off of 20 different data loggers, pull it together, create a lookup table and say, I now want to be independent of the logger. Now I want to ask questions about the treatment. And so I want to pull in the five sensors that have this certain treatment combination, or it turns out that there are multiple treatment combinations in an individual block. So now I want to look across blocks, right and, and so in order to manage all that data, just the data management part of it was really challenging. And then to come up with constructive and creative ways to do time series analyses and try to apply new Bayesian statistics that allow us to with confidence, say it looks like these two lines are diverging. Is that because they’re different sensors or one sensor is driving that, or is it a true difference driven by treatment? And what we’re able to do is use some of those new statistics with confidence. So you know what it turns out in this really narrow period. It being a cheatgrass community actually does change soil water compared to a bunchgrass community.


Our time’s up thanks again, Rick for taking time to share your research with us.


If you have any questions about this topic or some of the work that Rick’s doing, you can always feel free to contact us at metergroup.com or reach out to us on Twitter @meter_env you can also reach me @HLplants.


And you can view the full transcript from today in the podcast description. So that’s all for now. Stay safe, and we’ll catch you next time on We Measure The World.

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