Citizen scientists study endangered species in Nebraska

A pair of swift foxes move through a field west of Ogallala, Neb. (Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
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November 7, 2013 - 6:30am

An endangered fox species is fighting for its existence in western Nebraska, but it’s not alone. Students from across the state are helping conduct a new study to help the animal recover.

In the wind-swept plains of western Nebraska, grass-covered hills roll across the landscape as far as the eye can see. It’s in this vast openness, that scientists say an endangered fox species could be in a battle for its very existence.

Lucia Corral is a grad student in wildlife ecology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. On a cold fall afternoon, she crouched down to attach a small plastic box to a pole in the middle of a field.

“We have to find the location, and usually we look for open areas, flat areas with good visibility,” Corral said.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Lucia Corral attaches a trail camera to a post in the Nebraska panhandle. She's using thermal trail cameras in an effort to find out where and how many swift fox live in western Nebraska.

The box is a thermal trail camera, the type big game hunters use when trying to find where their prey lives.  But Corral wasn’t on a hunt.  She had set her sights on finding and protecting swift foxes.

“Right now, we don’t really know how swift fox populations in Nebraska really are [doing]. We don’t know--in terms of distribution and health of the populations,” Corral said.

The swift fox is smaller than most foxes. Standing just 12 inches tall, they're about the size of a house cat.

They make their dens in the sandy soils of open grassland prairies or deserts.

“Swift foxes actually prefer open areas, grasslands. They will avoid trees. They need areas where they can have good visibility and escape from predators, which is probably the main cause of mortality with swift foxes,” Corral said.

Photo Courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

An adult swift fox and three pups bask in the early morning sun outside their den in the Nebraska panhandle. The swift fox used to be quite common in the region. Their numbers began to dwindle in the 1930's, the unintended victims of efforts to eradicate larger predators like wolves.

Their predators, coyotes, are much larger and have adapted to man-made changes in the environment, stalking swift foxes from tree lines on farms and ranches.

The swift fox’s territory stretches from southern Canada all the way to Texas, but plans to develop their habitat in western Nebraska could threaten their survival.

Biologist Joseph Fontaine works for the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at UNL. He says a new four lane highway, called the Heartland Expressway, is currently under construction.  The next proposed section cuts through the heart of the region, and threatens to fragment the swift fox’s open territory.

Also, energy companies are planning to develop wind farms in the area, further dividing the landscape with service roads.

Fontaine said since the swift fox is considered endangered in Nebraska, those projects could be delayed.

“Things like putting in roads, developing gas lines, wind energy, pipelines all these sorts of things have the potential to affect a species like swift fox, but not if they’re not there,” Fontaine said. “So by knowing where they are, we can better understand where best to place these things.”

Sighting a swift fox is rare in Nebraska. The need to find where swift foxes live prompted Corral to set up her cameras in the first place.

Much of what is known about swift foxes in Nebraska is anecdotal. There hasn’t been a scientific study of swift foxes in Nebraska since the 1980’s.  

One of Corral’s greatest challenges is figuring how to survey the entire Nebraska panhandle, an enormous area- spanning 14,000 square miles.  That’s the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Students at Chadron State College will use thermal trail cameras to help document the number of swift fox in western Nebraska. This study is the first of it's kind to use citizen scientists as primary data gatherers. Each student will be responsible for setting up 10 thermal cameras.

To cover that ground, Corral enlisted the help of 50 students from Chadron State College.

Each student will be responsible for setting up 10 cameras, preferably a mile apart, for a total of 500 cameras. Each will have its exact location recorded by GPS.

The camera’s thermal sensors measure body heat and movement, and will take three photos when either is detected. Setting up cameras in a field, however, isn’t enough to ensure the desired results.

Placed in front of each camera, will be a lure, consisting of petroleum jelly and skunk scent, a preferred prey of swift fox.  When a swift fox is drawn to the scent of the lure, its photo will be taken by one of the cameras.

Corral’s strategy is based on her colleague’s research, biologist Teresa Frink at Chadron State.

“It’s not often as a student that you have an opportunity to work with an endangered species, and when you’re actually being asked to assist with this project, I think it’s very meaningful to them,” Frink said, describing her students’ eagerness to participate.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Teresa Frink instructs students on the importance of maintaining proper procedures when gathering data. Frink says using students to gather data can be risky, but she's confident her students are up to the task. Frink says this model of using students to help gather scientific data can be duplicated, and used in similar research projects.

Ashlee Wright is one of those student volunteers. She said she plans to set her cameras up on a friend’s ranch in the central panhandle near Scottsbluff.

“It’s exactly what my major is. It’s a good foot in the door for me,” Wright said.

Student participation in scientific studies isn’t a new happening; however, they usually aren’t the ones conducting the research.

“It’s definitely not common. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of anything like this,” Wright said.

To insure accurate results, Corral and Frink instructed the students on the importance of maintaining the proper procedure each time they set up a camera.

Once trained on how to uphold strict scientific standards, Teresa Frink said this study on swift foxes can be used as a blueprint in other areas to study endangered species; animals like the Mohave ground squirrel in California or the wood stork of North Carolina.

According to Frink, just as animals must adapt to survive, so must science.

“Especially as resources become limited in the field of natural resources, we really need to put our heads together and utilize the funding, the minimal funding that we do receive,” Frink said.

Besides helping to cover an immense survey area, Joseph Fontaine said he also hopes these "citizen scientists" can act as ambassadors in their communities.

Image Courtesy of Lucia Corral

A thermal image of a swift fox inspecting a lure. Swift foxes are nocturnal, which has limited the ability of scientists to study them in their natural setting.

“They’re going back to their communities, and you know their dad and their grandfather are going to ask, ‘What are you doing?’ That little bit of information those kids are able to translate back to the folks on the ground has some very important implications for conservation,” Fontaine said.

It will most likely take a couple of years to determine where exactly swift fox live in western Nebraska and how they’re interacting with their environment.

Once their locations are confirmed, the next step in Lucia Corral’s five-year-study will be to trap swift foxes and attach radio collars to the animals. This will give Corral more data about where swift foxes travel and live. That information can then be used to make better decisions about where to build roads, wind farms, or any other projects in the vast panhandle of western Nebraska.

To read more stories from QUEST Science, click here. Funding for QUEST is provided by the National Science Foundation.




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