I like to seek out wildlife biologists who are doing unsung work in the field; they are helping to advance our knowledge for pitiful pay and very little recognition. Imogene Davis is one such hero and I’m very pleased to present a Q&A with her. Thanks, Imogene!
- How did you end up studying mesocarnivores in west Texas?
I chose West Texas A&M University because I wanted to combine landscape genetics and ecology as a master’s project, and I was able to completely design my research from the ground up. The Texas Panhandle, surprisingly, presents an interesting dichotomy on the landscape, where the Caprock Escarpment, a series of canyons (yes there are canyons in Texas), divides the two ecoregions in this part of the state: the High Plains and the Rolling Plains. Because I am interested in mesocarnivores, I’m able to examine how this landscape affects the movement of individuals and structures populations.
- Speaking of mesocarnivores, what drew you to them as opposed to the so called “charismatic megafauna” like grizzlies and mountain lions?
You can’t deny the coolness factor of megafauna- after all, their “larger than life” adaptations are what make them so appealing and mysterious. My interest in mesocarnivores took off when I worked for my good friend Dr. Roberta Newbury, whom you interviewed last year about her dissertation research on bobcats. Mesocarnivores can tell us so much about what is going on in an ecosystem. As both predator and prey, mesocarnivores play a vital role in their ecosystem by controlling “pest” species, being food sources for other predators, and even acting as the apex predator in some systems. Mesocarnivores can be indicators of ecosystem health- if your middle or high tier on the food chain isn’t doing well, those species above and below may likewise be experiencing problems in the ecosystem. Examining population vital rates and demography of mesocarnivores can help us determine habitat health, predict species persistence, identify threats, and even assist in determining how more sensitive species respond to the same landscape. Because mesocarnivores are important predators, then, what are the impacts on the ecosystem if those species are persecuted by humans or unsuccessful on the landscape? Mesocarnivores can replace wolves and bears and lions, to an extent, in terms of balancing an ecosystem, but if they too are absent from the ecosystem, everything is adversely rearranged. And, science aside, mesocarnivores are just cool! I like their bad attitudes.
- Can you speak a bit about your current research?
My research focuses on an individual-based genetic analysis of bobcats and coyotes as related to the landscape in the Texas Panhandle. Landscape genetics, simply, combines population genetics with landscape ecology, where one might find a correlation between a feature of the landscape and the genetic structure of a population. My project focuses on the effects of the Caprock Escarpment, a series of canyons that runs north to south in the Panhandle and divides the High Plains from the Rolling Plains. Bobcats and coyotes are highly mobile species, and as a result you can easily expect panmictic genetic structure. However, several studies have shown that landscape structures can alter the movements of even generalist species, therefore changing gene flow and genetic structure in populations. I am comparing the responses of these species to one another on the same landscape, specifically examining if isolation by resistance is occurring, and what factors of the landscape (elevation, habitat type, cover, roads, etc) might contribute to population structure. I have made some unrelated and interesting observations, however, so we will see what turns up in the next few months! I’m currently in lab-rat mode.
- How can knowledge of landscape genetics influence wildlife policy?
Genetic information can tell us so many things about a wildlife population: we can characterize genetic diversity, ascertain the impacts of gene flow within and among populations, identify what kind of relationship a population has with the landscape, and determine reproductive success, to name a few. Specifically, landscape genetics lends itself to determining issues in population ecology, historic versus contemporary changes, and identifying movement corridors or barriers to wildlife movement. Genetic information helps clarify the management approach of a given species in an area, as factors affecting one distinct population may not affect another. Knowledge of population genetic structure and awareness of barriers to gene flow within populations can also impact hunting seasons or bag limits, as some species have sensitive or competitive breeding strategies and the removal of certain individuals could adversely affect the health of that population. Additionally, methods in landscape genetics can identify wildlife populations based on genomic and mitochondrial DNA and correlate changes in that structure to landscape structures. We can identify important movement corridors, anticipate population success based on genetic health, and evaluate anthropogenic impact on populations. In the face of exponential human growth and global wildlife decline, habitat conservation remains essential to protect biodiversity, and landscape genetics can aid managers and policy makers in determining what places are especially important for wildlife conservation.
- Do you have an opinion on predator control?
Selective predator control is necessary, but it cannot and should not be treated the same as game management and it should be managed with science. It would be unwise to argue that we don’t need to cull small percentages of healthy populations of carnivores, or that human safety is not a consideration when it comes to this policy. However, most predator control goes against the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation in that bag limits are not always based on current research, and the removal of carnivores because they are “inconvenient” is a frivolous use of publicly owned wildlife. Real data does not support many of the claims against carnivores, from the spread of disease to the eradication of game species. Carnivores naturally exist in lower densities than game species, meaning that human hunting pressure should be adjusted accordingly. This is not always the case. Local political pressure drives acceptance of the anti-carnivore semanticism, specifically where agriculture persists, and actions are not based on scientific management. I am specifically critical of the successful pressure land-leasing ranchers have on political entities. National land is owned by the public, yet habitat and wildlife policy is sometimes more influenced by land renters, not land owners. This is usually always bad for the carnivores. Predator control should be selective, not rampant, and never based on opinion.
- You’ve mentioned “anti-carnivore semanticism”. How do you define that and what is your experience with it?
The anti-carnivore semanticism comprises an insular range of ideas that involve an ill-supported hatred for, usually, mammalian carnivores. The entire premise is based on the idea that if the animal is “not good” for the human, then it is no good at all, and this results in a blatant disregard for (or, more commonly, no knowledge of) the importance of a balanced ecosystem where the predator in question is an important member. A few of the projects I have worked under recommended keeping our affiliation quiet in the local community for personal and equipment safety, as not everyone agreed with the research based on distaste for the species. I have collected genetic material from animals harvested for predator hunt competitions, where the goal is to kill as many animals in a 24 hour period. This is the worst example of the anti-carnivore semanticism I’ve experienced, not to mention a violation of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, though it is much worse when these viewpoints and activities affect wildlife policy. We’re all familiar with issues in conservation and IUCN listings, specifically with gray wolves in the United States, badgers in Europe, and pretty much any felid species in Asia, to touch the tip of the iceberg. This semanticism sometimes carries more weight than sound science, which is ludacris. Again, management and conservation should never be based on opinion or human convenience, though several constituents cling to this mindset because they do not acknowledge that a carnivore has ecological or intrinsic value.
- What are the issues in wildlife/conservation biology that concern you?
I am unsure how to prioritize my concerns, as every facet of wildlife conservation is threatened. The greatest global conservation threat, however, lies with reptiles and amphibians. These taxa are disappearing faster than we can discover and study them. It really is terrifying, because these species lie in the middle of most trophic cascades, meaning that they affect everything above and below them. Their loss impacts habitat and all other taxa, including predators. I am also perturbed by the issues in ocean conservation, as overharvest and international exploitation threaten to completely empty the ocean by 2058. With regards to carnivores, the loss of salmon and salmon runs threaten coastal woodland ecosystems, where both forest and carnivores, especially bears, need salmon to survive. While these are specific examples, I and most biologists are also concerned with the global decline of biodiversity and what it means for the future.
- What do you see your future consisting of? You mentioned loving research and public education. How might those two intersect for the future Dr. Davis?
I am very interested in using my education for a position that allows me to engage with the public in order to contribute towards a paradigm shift for conservation- we need to develop the mindset that we are members of the same community as wildlife. I would enjoy working for an organization that takes part in legitimate research based on sound science where the results can impact wildlife management as well as public perception. The rise of social media means that conservation must continue to find ways to deliver information to the public in a valuable and interactive manner, and I’m interested in contributing to that. I don’t want to cease doing hands-on research, however.
9. You have done research on a lot of carnivores (coyotes, bobcats, fishers, wolverines, etc.) over the years. Can you share some interesting anecdotes about “memorable mammals you have known”?
A majority of the research I have participated in has been non-invasive, meaning we don’t ever purposefully encounter an animal. However, two experiences come to mind. When I worked for Bobbie Newbury I got to know the collared bobcats from following them around as well as live-capturing them. I’d argue that most researchers identify personalities in their study animals, and these cats were no exception. I’ve independently trapped and handled a lot of foxes and a few bobcats for my own research, and while it’s always rewarding and they are all different, M1 was a pretty cool cat. M1 was the first cat collared for Dr. Roberta Newbury’s research, and the first wild bobcat I ever saw up close. We caught this adult male a total of 11 times during one winter field season, and each time the routine was the same: he growled rather authoritatively, Bobbie opened the trap, he shot off. He knew the drill. He didn’t care for us too much, but he seemed to know Bobbie and was calmer with her. It was fascinating to watch their reciprocity. Every few weeks he would run a trap line, select one, and sit it in until we came to let him out. He had a bad attitude and a torn lip and it was really cool to experience this basic level of interaction. If still living, which I don’t doubt, he should be getting on up there in age by now.
Another memory I consider fondly occurred while working in the southern Cascades of Washington state during winter. We were checking a camera trap and examining the fresh wolverine tracks around the camera. Of course there were marten tracks all around the bait station, but we didn’t expect to actually find a marten at the camera at the same time as us. While reading images on the camera, I heard a pipping noise. I looked up to find a marten sitting on a branch not two feet from my head. It was clear that this marten had never seen a human before, and we spent almost five minutes together as the marten hissed and pipped, rather cheerfully I might add, at us from above our heads. I did think he was going to come down on my back at one point, so I backed away as he hopped about on the branches to investigate us, sometimes from an upside-down perspective. My work partner and I eventually left him or her to his bait-destroying devices, and it was a simple yet profoundly enjoyable experience. I am pleased that I was not bitten prior to realizing there was a wild animal nearly on top of my head.
10. Did you have a wildlife hero or favorite book that influenced you when you were a kid?
I enjoyed James Herriot as a child because of his recognition of the intrinsic value of animals and his informative interactions with them. I also have an incredible amount of respect and admiration for Sir David Attenborough and his 62-year career in nature education.
11. What is the one thing you’d like to get across to the general public if you could wave the proverbial magic wand?
The wildlife in this country belong to you. Being uninvolved does not exempt you from doing your part. Whether you live in the city or work as a wildlife biologist, wildlife and natural resources are your responsibility as much as they are mine. An organism or a place has value and importance regardless of whether or not you perceive it to be valuable to you. You can make a difference in small and large ways: the companies you support, the groceries you buy, the representatives you vote for, and the people you talk to are all ways to support wildlife conservation. We have to share this space with nature and with wildlife- wildlife and nature are not encroaching opposition, but members of the same community.
12. Along those lines, when you meet people who want to help carnivores what do you tell them? Do you have a favorite website or organization to direct people to?
Regardless of whether you hunt, live in a city, are a master naturalist, or have never seen a live bobcat, you can help carnivores by learning about their natural history and ecology, their conservation status, and investigating ways to get involved in your community. Biologists and scientists need help in terms of influencing policy, so if you want to help carnivores, talk to your political representatives. Talk to everyone. A little knowledge goes a long way.
I’m a big fan of the organization Panthera, as they focus on international conservation research of felids, The Wolverine Foundation’s interest in wolverine status and ecology, and the work accomplished through Conservation Canines (who wouldn’t love to help conservation and hang out with research dogs all day?!). The Integral Ecology Research Center in northern California is another organization dedicated to the research and conservation of wildlife and their ecosystems, and I have nothing but respect for their success. Lastly, The Nature Conservancy has done a lot of good for conservation in terms of science, habitat conservation, and collaboration.