Tag Archives: umass

Spring? In Vermont, Think Again.

It’s still winter in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and with three feet of snow on the ground, the only way to get around the Nulhegan Basin division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge is on snowmobile.

In the basin, winter temperatures sometimes fall to -30 degrees, but for dedicated refuge biologists it’s just another chilly day at work.

This past February, two interns (myself included) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Massachusetts, bundled up and headed north to brave the weather and experience the remote refuge life for a week.

From the rear passenger seat of the zooming snowmobile, half enthralled, half terrified (I was, at least), we saw the expanses of the refuge, covering many miles in a single day.

Stretching over 26,000 acres, the refuge is open for the public to explore during all seasons, either on foot or via a network of groomed snowmobile trails that act as a backwoods highway of sorts.

Through stunning spruce-fir forests we caught glimpses of red squirrels, ruffed grouse, moose and even a lone bobcat as it bounded across the trail in front of our snowmobiles.

At the very southern periphery of the boreal forest, the Nulhegan basin is home to species found nowhere else in Vermont except within these dense northern forests that stretch to meet Canada.

Species like the boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, and even the elusive Canada lynx are sustained by the thick conifers and pristine wetlands that define the boreal forest.

Only one lynx has been confirmed in Vermont since 2014, though the nation’s largest population of lynx resides in the state of Maine. That lone Vermont lynx made its home in the Nulhegan basin.

One of the best ways to identify Canada lynx, especially when compared to similar looking species like the bobcat, is by taking a look at its hind legs and paws. Canada lynx have distinctly long back legs.

Interestingly enough, lynx’s hind legs nearly match the hind legs of their primary prey, the snowshoe hare.

In the frigid north, these long back legs and wide feet allow both species to navigate through deep snow and hunt (or run away) more efficiently.

Here on the refuge, we followed UMass Amherst PhD student Alexej Siren as he tracked snowshoe hare using radio telemetry and camera traps that take photos when they are triggered by movement.

Earlier in the year, Alexej and his team fitted snowshoe hares with radio collars so that they could track the signal that the collars emit, detecting the location of the animal and gauging how the population is doing.

Not only did we get to see the incredible work being done by Service biologists and state and university partners every day on the refuge, we got to learn a thing or two about how to identify different wildlife tracks.

And at the end of a long winter’s day, who wouldn’t want this view from their office?

Partnerships for fish passage

As a Pathways Student in the Fish Passage Engineer Program, Kevin enjoys working in the field on mission critical projects. Photo Credit: USFWS

As a Pathways student in the Fish Passage Engineer Program, Kevin often works in the field on mission critical projects. Photo Credit: USFWS

Kevin Mulligan is a Pathways Program student working on the Northeast Region’s fish passage engineer team. The fish passage engineering program is the result of a successful partnership between the Service, U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Massachusetts. Today, Kevin shares with us his experiences on the team.

The term “fish passage engineer” may not be the most trending subject in media these days, but for fish species that need access to habitat in order to live, a fish passage engineer can be the difference between finding  successful spawning  sites or, literally, hitting a brick wall.

I was first introduced to the Fish Passage Engineer Team through a partnership between UMass, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. At the time I was working on my graduate studies within the UMass Department of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering. The partnership is designed to give students practical on-the-job experience, and at the same time provide the agencies with academic resources for doing research and having students assist with critical work. As part of the partnership, Service employees teach classes and work with students on real, working projects.  In September 2013, I began a research project at UMass funded by the Hydro Research Foundation.  My adviser, Brett Towler, is a member of the Service’s Fish Passage Engineer Team and an adjunct professor at the university.  In May 2015, once my graduate studies were nearly completed, I joined the team as a Pathways Program intern.

The Holyoke Dam on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts is another location where fish engineers work to move fish upstream to reach spawning habitat. Photo credit: USFWS

The Holyoke Dam on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts is another location where fish engineers work to move fish upstream to reach spawning habitat. Photo credit: USFWS

My primary focus as part of the engineer team is to develop the region’s first ever fish passage engineering design criteria manual. Creating the manual requires integration of numerous scientific and engineering disciplines that include fish behavior, hydraulics, hydrology and hydropower. But for the fish and aquatic species I am working for, the criteria manual means survival.

Kevin visits the Howland Dam bypass in Maine as part of his Pathways experience. Photo credit: USFWS

Kevin visits the Howland Dam bypass in Maine as part of his Pathways experience. Photo credit: USFWS

As a Pathways Program intern some of the perks of working with the fish passage engineering team are visiting fishways throughout scenic New England, participating in technical meetings and learning from professionals actively working in the field. Thanks to my education and the partnership with the Service and USGS I feel equipped to handle these experiences and projects that I am asked to assist with. Specific courses in the fish passage specialization program that have been particularly useful in my work for the partnership are The Design of Fish Passage Facilities, Open Channel Flow, Hydrology, and the Ecology of Fish.

A banner displayed at the Fish Passage Conference held in the Netherlands. Photo credit: USFWS

A banner is displayed at the Fish Passage Conference held in the Netherlands. Organizations from all over the world come together each year to share the latest science in fish passage engineering. Photo credit: USFWS

One of the projects I have been fortunate to work on was developing computational fluid dynamics and physical models to enhance the design of downstream guidance structures for fish passage. In addition, the partnership started an Annual International Fish Passage Conference, to which I have been on the organizing team for the past five years. After being held in Massachusetts at UMass in 2010, the conference took place in Oregon, Wisconsin and The Netherlands. My participation in the conference has allowed me to connect with people in the field of fish passage from all over the world.

I am honored to be part of such an amazing team of fish passage engineers and biologists northeast whose mission is to improve the life of aquatic organisms in our rivers and oceans. My time with the Service and the work through the partnership has truly been educational and personally rewarding. Undoubtedly, the additional knowledge and skills I’ve gained will be useful throughout my career.

Learn more about the Fish Passage Engineering partnership with UMass.

Learn more about fish passage.

Studying black bears in the wild

Today we’re hearing from Anthony Ortiz and Tanya Lama, of the University of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Conservation and Pathways Biological interns with the Division of Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration, about their recent experience studying black bears in the wild. 

Tanya with cub_close up

One of the authors of this blog, Tanya Lama, with a female black bear cub. Credit: USFWS


In late March, staff from the Northeast Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) were generously invited by Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) to tag along on a black bear den visit. For many folks, even those with 25+ years of federal service, it was a first!

We gathered mid-morning to caravan together to the undisclosed location of the bear den – information which was picked up by MassWildlife via a GPS telemetry collar attached to the mother bear. GPS tracking has long been a part of black bear research and conservation in Massachusetts. Each collar is capable of recording the location of a bear over the course of two years. This highly valuable data helps biologists determine where bears spend their time foraging, rearing young, and hibernating.

Anthony Ortiz holds another black bear cub. They were only a couple of weeks old! Credit: USFWS

Anthony Ortiz holds another black bear cub. They were only a couple of weeks old! Credit: USFWS

Upon arrival at the site, we waited in our vehicles while a small team of highly experienced biologists and game wardens approached the den. The mother bear was safely and temporarily sedated from within the den, and mother and cubs were carefully removed to collect biological data on sex, weight, age and health. At this time, our group was called in and escorted about 500 yards to the den site.

The bear den, nestled in a landowner’s backyard woods, lay under the tangled root mass of a large multiflora rose. Hidden from view, the space within the den was ample and insulated by heavy snow cover. Each bear was weighed and sexed – three female cubs, each weighing in at about five pounds in comparison to their 178 pound mother! The cubs were estimated at about six weeks old, and until then had never left the den.  Exposed to the crisp air and bright sunshine, the cubs held tightly to our bodies and tucked their faces into our warm jackets while they awaited their return to the den.

Black bear research and the associated den visits are part of the longest standing Wildlife Restoration projects supported by the Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration. Federal funds, administered through the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Grant Program have enabled States to carry out black bear conservation work since the mid 1980’s. Black bear projects in the region include studies of wind turbine effects in Vermont, stable- isotope diet analysis in Massachusetts, and spatial ecology throughout the region.

The objectives of these studies have generally examined habitat use, home range, survival of adults and cubs, sources and rates of mortality, important landscape corridors and genetic profiles of bear populations.  Maine, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts have the longest running bear monitoring projects in place, tracking bear movements via radio collars for the past 30 years. Information collected during den visits is used to write statewide management plans for bears and to adjust hunting season regulations.  Black bears are classified most often as a big game animal in the Northeast Region, but sometimes as a furbearer elsewhere.

There are regulated hunting seasons in the fall, and most states have over 15 regulations in place for bear hunters.  Black bears are sought for their meat, for their pelts, as rugs, taxidermy mounts, claw and bone jewelry, and the fat is used in cooking and in water proofing leather. The sale of bear meat is prohibited under most state laws – a reminder that we value our wildlife intrinsically and not for profit.

As students of wildlife conservation and part of the WSFR team – it was a pleasure to witness some of our federally funded conservation work on the ground. Many thanks to the MassWildlife biologists and environmental police officers for sharing their knowledge and experience with us!

Credit: USFWS

Credit: USFWS