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Students Study Sage-Grouse in Southern Utah, Cut Teeth on Field Science
Posted 06/08/2017 05:07PM

Environmental science and ornithology upper schoolers on an early April weekend drove south to frigid, beautiful Bryce Canyon National Park to study sage-grouse—an indigenous bird species that junior Sarah Kaye playfully describes as resembling a "fancy chicken."

The group of eight students and their teachers worked with biologists from the Wild Utah Project and Utah State University—most notably Dr. Nicole Frey, a sage-grouse expert. Ornithology Teacher Rob Wilson called the excursion an "uncommon opportunity" for students to do field science.

"This is a remarkable field trip," said Mr. Wilson, who also teaches biology and leads Rowland Hall's participation in a prestigious pilot program to bolster genetics and evolution curriculum in high school. According to Mr. Wilson, sage-grouse present the most important wildlife conservation and land-management question in the Western United States.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) doesn't list sage-grouse as an endangered species, but the species has had a precarious past. From 2010 to 2015, FWS considered sage-grouse to be "warranted but precluded" from listing, trumped only by other priorities of the Endangered Species Act. Sage-grouse is also an umbrella species, meaning that protecting the bird will protect other species of the sage-steppe ecosystem. Plus, the colony Rowland Hall students studied may need to be relocated due to impending mining, and Dr. Frey and her colleagues are figuring out the best way to do that, if at all possible.

Sage-grouse males and females meet on what's called a "lek," their strutting ground—an open area mostly free of sagebrush.

"The males puff out their tail feathers (which kind of look like pine cones) and their chests (which are big, white, and fluffy)...and they strut," Sarah said. "They chase the females around, and the females decide who they want to mate with." The females, she explained, are plainer—they look like brown chickens. And many of the females select the same male for mating. "The females are very choosy," graduating senior Marguerite Tate said. "They're looking for very specific things."

During the field study, Environmental Science Teacher Ben Smith, Mr. Wilson, and Dr. Frey placed flags in the ground to mark (1) random locations and (2) known locations sage-grouse have been, according to GPS trackers on the birds. Students divided into two groups to gather data. One group measured the height of all plants five meters north, south, east, and west of the flags. Another group measured ground cover—they'd place a hula hoop at the edge of the five-meter marks and record the types and percentages of plant coverage on the ground within the hoop. "It was cool to have an experience where you were actually taking in data that was potentially going to be used in (Dr. Frey's) experiments," Sarah said.

Marguerite and Sarah said the study aimed to show what kind of shelter the birds prefer—critical knowledge should they need to be moved. "In the past, trying to move them to a brand new place just has not worked. They don't mate, they don't start a new colony, it just does not work," Marguerite said. "But we learned from this experiment that you can expand their territory as long as the restored areas are right next to their older areas."

Mr. Smith said he hoped that by going on the trip, students gleaned the value of field studies. According to Sarah and graduating senior Marguerite, they did.

Marguerite said that while researching out in the cold was a sobering experience, "It's really cool to know what it's like to be a field scientist."

Sarah and Marguerite both trumpeted the value of environmental science and ornithology and said students shouldn't overlook the classes just because they're not APs. "It's really important for students to get this other grasp of science—that it's not all just sitting in a lab," Marguerite said.

Sarah said the knowledge is also useful for other classes—in AP Biology, for instance, she was learning about species and habitat, which she'd studied in depth for Mr. Smith's class.

For the students, one of the most valuable aspects of the trip was meeting and working with Dr. Frey, a renowned expert in the subject of their study. It proved to Sarah that a STEM job can be more than crunching numbers. "It was cool seeing how she wasn't just out there to make money, gather data, and kind of be a robot," the junior said. "She was really interested and really passionate about the sage-grouse."

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