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Co-op researchers at NMSU train future scientists while protecting wildlife

Release Date: 21 Jun 2021
Co-op researchers at NMSU train future scientists while protecting wildlife

Colleen Caldwell, James Cain and Abby Lawson lead a federal research unit housed in the New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, collaborating on a mission to enhance graduate education in the fisheries and wildlife sciences while carrying out critical research to preserve natural resources in New Mexico.

Together, they make up the New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. 

Their unit is part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cooperative Research Unit program, a collection of 40 co-op units in 38 states that research renewable natural resources, participate in the education of graduate students, and provide technical assistance and consultation on natural resource issues as well as continuing education for natural resource professionals.

Since its founding in 1989, the New Mexico co-op unit has initiated more than 192 research projects, totaling $25 million in funding from federal, state, university and private cooperators, and supported more than 125 students in Ph.D. and master’s programs, a group that includes many women and Hispanics. Caldwell and Cain are also affiliate professors in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology at NMSU.

“Our job is producing the future scientists who are going to enhance, conserve and protect elk, deer, bear and fish. That’s our job,” said Caldwell, who joined the New Mexico unit in 1994 and became its leader in 2006. “We also provide free teaching and mentoring of graduate students and undergrads, while bringing in research dollars.”

Cain joined the New Mexico unit in 2010 as an assistant leader. He and Caldwell welcomed Lawson to the unit in May. Lawson also is an assistant leader. 

“We function a lot like a regular faculty member on a day-to-day basis,” Cain said. “But our jobs are focused on research, which primarily involves graduate students.”

Cain’s research interests include wildlife-habitat relationships, population ecology and the influence of management practices on native wildlife species. Currently, he’s working on four projects.

In one study, Cain and three students partnered with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to look at how Mexican wolf recovery is influencing elk populations in Arizona and New Mexico.

In another project, he and four students are collaborating with Texas Tech University, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Jemez Pueblo, and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to study how large mammals in the Jemez Mountains respond to forest restoration treatments such as fire suppression, overgrazing and logging.

“Specifically, we are assessing changes in forage conditions, movements and resource selection of mule deer, elk, black bear and mountain lion as a result of prescribed fires, restoration thinning, and previous wildfires,” he said. “The results of this study will allow for more informed design and implementation of restoration treatments that simultaneously mitigate wildfire risk and enhance habitat conditions for these large mammals.”

Meanwhile, Caldwell focuses her research around the ecological effects of environmental disturbances on aquatic systems, and she primarily studies aquatic contaminants and toxicology, fish physiology and native fish conservation biology.

One of her current projects involves wild brook trout, an invasive species responsible for extirpating native fish across the western United States, including the Rio Grande cutthroat trout in New Mexico. In collaboration with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Caldwell and one of her students introduced genetically engineered brook trout with two Y chromosomes into waterways in northern New Mexico.

“We call them Trojan trout,” she said.

The Trojan trout – some of which also live in Caldwell’s lab in Knox Hall – only produce male offspring, she said, and will theoretically drive the wild brook trout population to 100 percent male and eventual eradication. 

“In about five years, we anticipate there will be no more brook trout in these core conservation populations,” she said.

Caldwell also studies managed fish, and earlier this year, she and another student wrapped up a three-year project at Elephant Butte Reservoir involving largemouth bass.

Before joining the New Mexico research unit, Lawson was based at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Her research background includes Bayesian hierarchical modeling, demographic parameter estimation, movement ecology, structured decision-making and monitoring program optimization.

“I’m thrilled to join the New Mexico co-op unit, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with faculty and students in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology,” she said. “New Mexico’s diverse ecosystems offer a wealth of opportunity to study effects of climate change and species adaptations. For my first project, I will work with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to reintroduce white-tailed ptarmigan to their historic range in New Mexico.”

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