This entry is part 3 of 22 in the series Winter - 2017

Getting up close with species affected by climate change

by Mary Guiden

Joel Berger approaches wildlife conservation research in ways that differ from the norm.

He experiments with models — including donning polar bear and caribou suits — to approach animals such as muskox, to better understand how they interact with increasing numbers of polar bears in certain parts of the world as icecaps recede.

He experiments with the sounds of birds such as ravens and red-tailed hawks to see how moose react in the wild. Berger has also used scents and animal feces and urine in his research.

“I think of my research as creative because I don’t just ‘dress up’ as a way to be creative,” said Berger, describing the suits he incorporates into his investigations. He uses these novel approaches to answer the question: How do you subtly approach species to understand the changing environment they’re living in?

Studying a mystical mammal

When Berger sees a muskox, it is, for him, a mystical experience. “People think if they see a snow leopard or tiger, it’s spiritual,” he explained. “It’s a special feeling when we see black dots” – muskoxen – against white snow in the distance.

The muskox was once extinct in Beringia, a region north of the Bering Strait that includes coastal areas of Alaska and Russia’s very wild east. The wooly, bearded creatures were reintroduced in Alaska in the 1930s. Twenty muskoxen were sent to Wrangel Island in the Asian Arctic in 1975. Berger makes his research home on the island in alternating years in winter. 

Muskoxen are similar to polar bears, and are becoming a flagship species for climate change, said Berger, the Barbara Cox Anthony University Chair in Wildlife Conservation in the Warner College of Natural Resources.

“They are feeling the heat,” Berger said, pun intended.

“The opportunities for the muskox to go farther north are gone because there is no more land,” he added. “The frequency of rain-on-snow events, which accelerates the melting and subsequent freezing of snow, prohibiting access to food, is increasing. When that happens, gestating mothers aren’t eating, and the babies aren’t growing well. Once born, the babies are runts, and their subsequent growth is retarded.”

In addition to the muskox, Berger has studied saiga – a kind of long-nosed antelope – wild yak, rhino, and takin, Bhutan’s national mammal. He keeps photos of the animals in his wallet, along with a photo of his daughter. A frequent world traveler, he is often asked what he does for a living.

“I usually say ‘biology’ and the conversation ends,” Berger said. But sometimes, the passenger next to him will probe for more details. He tells them that he works with wildlife and “cool” species from far away.

“Some of the species they’ve never heard of,” he said – then uses the photos to supplement his explanation, taking the opportunity to educate the public. “I try to be a voice for these species that are unknown.”

Protecting Pronghorn

Protecting pronghorn

Berger led the charge to create the Path of the Pronghorn, America’s only federally protected migration corridor. It was established in 2008 and extends from Grand Teton National Park to an area just north of Pinedale, Wyo. Hundreds of pronghorn migrate along this corridor every spring and fall. Berger worked with the park’s senior biologist, Steve Cain; state, federal and nongovernmental organizations; and cattle and sportsmen associations to create the protected route, after more than 75 percent of the migration pathways had been lost. “On the one hand, it’s a lovely achievement that Americans celebrate,” Berger said. “On the other hand, it’s not all that heartwarming. How do we go from caring to try to do something? We need people to dream and then to inspire others. Yet, it’s not just about people.  It’s about animals and plants and finding better ways to retain them too. If we don’t, who will?”

Rocking the boat

Some educational opportunities aren’t so successful. Berger was kicked out of Namibia in the early 1990s after the government did not agree with his findings on a proposed method to stop poaching of black rhinos.

Officials there decided that removing rhino horns would decrease poaching – no horn, no incentive – and asked Berger to study the idea. However, his team found that without their horns, the females were left defenseless and their calves were more prone to being killed by hyenas.

“Why do you invite researchers in? They wanted the results to support their policy,” he said.

The Namibian action put a freeze on Berger’s research and personal funds. It eventually took a high-level U.S. official – Vice President Al Gore, to be exact – to intervene and remove the hold on his finances.

Berger’s research has not always risen to that level of controversy. He likes to focus on iconic species – think bison, moose, and pronghorn in the West, for example – because they seem to have more relevance to people.

Berger is spending time in Alaska this spring and will travel back to Wrangel Island next year, where he will experiment with the polar bear suit. He has used this technique before and will compare it with similar research in Alaska, where grizzly bears prey on muskoxen.

Working in this and other remote locations, Berger must also be a diplomat; he works closely with Russian research counterparts and the government. That’s something that he likes to relay to students, especially those who pursue a career in wildlife biology or conservation merely because they want to work with animals rather than people.

How to ‘do’ conservation

Berger came to Colorado State University in August 2015, and he serves as a guest lecturer when he’s not teaching. He likes to educate young people on how to conceptualize conservation science and also to show the challenges – and departures from what is taught in classrooms – that exist in the real world.

“I worked with a convicted felon who is a rhino poacher, who now embraces conservation as an alternative,” he said. “I bring these stories in, to help students understand how to move beyond what is in the textbooks.”