Conservation: Ducks University

Ducks Unlimited is partnering with the University of North Dakota to train and inspire a new generation of wetlands and waterfowl scientists

Dr. Susan Felege, associate professor at  the University of North Dakota, works with students to launch a drone to survey breeding ducks.

© Shawna Noel Schill/University of North Dakota

Dr. Susan Felege, associate professor at the University of North Dakota, works with students to launch a drone to survey breeding ducks.

By Jennifer Boudart

Ducks Unlimited has many collaborative relationships with faculty and students at universities and colleges across North America. For example, DU regularly helps support graduate student research projects through annual fellowships, assistantships, and funding from major donors. It's a wise investment, notes DU Waterfowl Scientist Dr. Mike Brasher. "While there are a lot of federal and state agency personnel that do research, graduate students and their advisors are responsible for much of the scientific information upon which waterfowl management is based."

Brasher says DU is also working with students and faculty at the undergraduate level to help develop the next generation of wetlands and waterfowl scientists. Since 2015, staff at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota, have conducted a student research internship program in partnership with Dr. Susan Felege, associate professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of North Dakota (UND). Kaylan Kemink, manager of conservation planning for DU's Great Plains Region, and research scientists Kyle Kuechle and Catrina Terry coordinate the program for DU. Like Brasher, Kemink and Felege both report seeing a decrease in programs associated with game management and less focus on wetlands and waterfowl ecology. Both have observed that recent graduates often lack skills needed to be competitive. These trends were the impetus for the internship program.

Photo © Shawna Noel Schill/University of North Dakota

Each year, two UND undergrads are invited to participate in the internship program for academic credit. Felege guides them to develop their own research projects, which tie in with long-term research being conducted by her lab and by DU staff. Students conduct research over the summer at DU's Coteau Ranch and the Nature Conservancy's (TNC) Davis Ranch, both near Bismarck. Students work closely with DU scientists but also interact with TNC managers and ranchers as well as the media, donors, and visiting school groups. They're supervised by crew leads who are previous program interns.

Much of the summer work involves placing small infrared video cameras to capture 24-hour video surveillance of nesting blue-winged teal, mallards, and gadwalls. Students collect and analyze the video footage, using data to answer questions related to nesting behaviors such as timing, site selection, attendance, hatch success, and predation. Students may also do research related to technology or wetland ecology. In 2020, graduate student Mason Ryckman, with the help of undergraduate students, studied a variety of breeding behaviors using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Ryckman examined how breeding ducks react to UAVs and how to best use this technology for research.

DU scientists teach students about data collection, field techniques, and safety protocols. Students get practice flushing hens, locating nests, candling eggs, identifying species, and using various forms of technology. And they develop broader skills such as cooperation, communication, critical thinking, and leadership. In the fall, Felege helps students analyze their data; often, they'll present the results at scientific conferences.

Students may participate for several years and turn their projects into honors theses. Some had their research included in two scientific papers that were recently submitted for publication. Upon graduation, interns have gone on to enroll in master's programs or have taken jobs with state agencies and nonprofits—including DU.

John Palarski participated in the program's pilot season in 2015. At that time, Palarski was finishing his freshman year as a fisheries and wildlife biology student at UND. The internship appealed to his strong interest in waterfowl.

DU' s Mason Sieges and Cailey Isaacson examine eggshells for signs of predation.

Photo © Shawna Noel Schill/University of North Dakota

Palarski used nest cameras to study predator activity on blue-winged teal nests. He returned in 2016 and 2017 to serve as a crew lead. "Basically, my whole undergraduate career involved doing waterfowl studies through this program," Palarski says. "It gave me the opportunity to cover the entire scientific process over the course of the program. It really was phenomenal."

Palarksi says the program allowed him to quickly move on to graduate school, where he's continued to draw on the skills he learned as an intern. He recently defended his master's thesis on northern bobwhite quail at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, and has been hired as a research associate for the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation.

Cailey Isaacson is currently a junior at UND, majoring in fisheries and wildlife biology and minoring in unmanned aircraft systems. She interned in 2019 and 2020 and is serving as a crew lead this year. Isaacson says Felege invited her to apply for the internship after learning that she wanted to work in game bird conservation. Isaacson was excited to work in the Prairie Pothole Region.

During her first summer, Isaacson studied patterns of nest-site selection for various waterfowl species. Last summer, she used temperature probes to measure differences in nest temperature when the hen was on or away from the nest. She's studying how nest temperature might be useful as a means of nest detection with thermal sensors on UAVs. Isaacson also got to sit in on some of Mason Ryckman's UAV flights, a bonus given her interest in that technology.

When asked what she's taken away from her experience, the first thing Isaacson mentions is passion. "I really have a passion now, a deep understanding of what is involved in conservation. I know that I definitely want to do this type of work after I graduate."

Kemink says generating that kind of enthusiasm is part of what motivates DU staff, along with giving students a leg up and advancing long-term research. But she points out, "We couldn't do this without a dedicated professor like Susan." And Felege says she couldn't do this without a partner like DU. "Giving these students in-depth experiences takes a lot," Felege says. "DU invests in time, training, financial support, and mentorship. This partnership is incredibly valuable."

THE NORTH AMERICAN WATERFOWL PROFESSIONAL EDUCATION PLAN

Photo © Shawna Noel Schill/University of North Dakota

Research conducted since the early 2000s shows that the number of university-based waterfowl programs in North America is steadily declining. In addition, faculty positions once held by experts in waterfowl science are in many cases not being filled by people with similar expertise. Currently, only eight North American universities have endowed chairs that specialize in waterfowl. The outcome is that fewer people are working in higher education to teach and train professionals with the necessary skills for waterfowl science and management. 

In recognition of this trend, the 2018 update of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan includes a recommendation to "bolster training programs for future waterfowl management professionals." The North American Waterfowl Professional Education Plan was established in response in early 2020. The plan's main objectives include ongoing assessments of the personnel needs of public- and private-sector employers; an increase in faculty numbers as well as endowed chairs or professorships; funding of waterfowl-related scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships at the undergraduate and graduate levels; and increased diversity among professionals entering the waterfowl community. 

A steering committee overseeing the plan includes representatives from universities and state and federal agencies, as well as Delta Waterfowl, DU Inc., DU Canada, and DU de México. "We all are pulling together to advance these objectives," explains Dr. Mike Brasher, who serves on the committee. "It's central to DU and critical to the larger waterfowl management community."