Adaptation Through Collaboration: Integrating Genetics to Inform Wildlife Decisions


Organizers: Caitlin Ott-Conn, Michigan Department of Natural Resources; Randy W. DeYoung, ; Cassandra Butterworth, ; Antoinette Piaggio, ; Lisette Waits, University of Idaho and National Association of University Fish and Wildlife Programs

Supported by: TWS Molecular Ecology Working Group

Genetic techniques to inform wildlife conservation and management continue to revolutionize our ability to monitor populations and provide necessary data to estimate population size, detect cryptic species, and assess population connectivity. While the field of wildlife genetics is vast and ever growing, forging partnerships between managers and molecular ecologists will ensure these tools are utilized appropriately to expand knowledge, increase options, and reduce costs. This symposium will give clear examples of practical applications of genetic techniques and partnerships, and unveil the Molecular Ecology Working Group’s new “Geneticist Generator” tool to facilitate partnerships.

Please join us for an engaging lineup of talks and a live Q & A with the speakers accessible to anyone interested in how incorporating genetics through collaborative partnerships can facilitate a better understanding of a study population. No genetics experience required!

State and University Genetic Partnership: Michigan Black Bear Population Estimator
Caitlin Ott-Conn, Kristin Brzeski
Michigan’s current annual black bear population estimation technique relies on a statistical catch-at-age analysis (SCAA). To ensure the model does not overestimate the bear population and affect quotas, scaling of the SCAA model is done with information from independent estimates provided, in part, by tetracycline surveys. Recent changes in federal regulatory guidelines required the discontinuation of the tetracycline survey leaving the state with the potential to overestimate and over harvest. The first step to integrating a new independent estimate required forming partnerships and collaborating outside of the state’s wildlife department with genetic specialists to trial close-kin mark-recapture (CKMR). While funding has challenged progress, strong communication and clear expectations have allowed for the work to begin. By identifying and involving specialists early in discussions, questions of sampling and their later implications were easily addressed helping to strengthen future results. By working from the start with a genetic specialist, the state collected samples before the project officially started which were necessary to develop a genomic panel to discern relatedness of Michigan black bears and generate a baseline of genomic variation for the population. Additionally, training and protocols were integrated into contracts to ensure all procedures could be easily maintained for repeatable implementation. This strong collaboration will allow Michigan to trial CKMR for the state’s black bear population, which if successful, would save the state at least 2,000 hours of staff time per survey year and provide estimates 1.5 years earlier than the tetracycline survey.  While this work is in progress, it exemplifies the early stages of forming collaborations with genetic specialists by addressing how to find genetic specialists, the language barrier, important questions to ask, and the level of commitment necessary from all parties.
Federal Agency Integration of Genetics: USFS National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation
Michael Schwartz, Jackson Scott
The US Forest Service has both a management and a research branch that are independent of one another.  The goal of the management branch is to balance multiple uses of US forests, whereas the goal of the research branch is to provide the critical research needed to help managers make more informed decisions.  In 1998 the US Forest Service research initiated a genetics laboratory to help investigate the ability to use non-invasive genetic samples in detecting rare carnivores on US Forest Service lands. Shortly after the initial project, the management branch helped fund the Wildlife Genetics Laboratory, which was the precursor to the National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation.  In the subsequent two decades we have embarked on genetic projects together that have identified abundance of rare species, connectivity of wildlife populations, and developed new approaches that can be used to monitor a suite of threatened and endangered species.  In this talk we will discuss the science developed, how it is used, and keys that we think are essential in making a strong partnership.
Military Land Integration of Genetics: Kit Fox and Coyote Population Management
Robbie Knight, Robert Lonsinger
Department of Defense (DoD) managed lands support the greatest densities of species of concern among federal land management agencies. In accordance with the Sikes Act and Endangered Species Act, the DoD is challenged to conserve these species while supporting the military mission and military readiness. Thus, the DoD requires wildlife monitoring programs that are efficient, reliable, and can be accomplished with minimal interference with military operations. At the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis) have declined, presumably due to negative interactions with coyotes (Canis latrans). Research to understand the status and interactions of kit foxes and coyotes, and the influence of habitat on patterns of occurrence and densities, has been ongoing. Efforts have included live-capture (with radio-telemetry), camera trapping, and scat-deposition surveys. Live-capture produced estimates of kit fox density, but failed to produce reliable estimates of coyote density. Live-capture was expensive and time-consuming, and tracking could be limited by active military training. Noninvasive camera trapping provided reliable estimates of occupancy but not density, and images can be a security risk at some installations. Scat-deposition surveys provided only indices of relative abundance. We implemented a noninvasive genetic sampling (NGS) design to improve monitoring efficiency and the reliability of population parameters. Here, we review the successes of our NGS approach for improving monitoring efficiency, increasing data reliability, and improving the rate of data return. Relative to alternative monitoring approaches, NGS had fewer potential conflicts with military training or security risks, while providing value-added population parameters on genetic diversity, effective population size, and connectivity. We discuss the importance of developing strong interagency partnerships, conducting rigorous science with high relevance to decision makers, and the implementation of defensible results to meet our stewardship obligations while supporting the military mission.
Zoo Integration of Genetics: Captive African Painted Dog Management
Cassandra Miller-Butterworth, Joseph Gaspard
There are fewer than 7000 African painted dogs (Lycaon pictus) remaining in the wild. However, there is a growing captive population of this highly endangered species, which is supplied by imports from southern Africa and by captive breeding programs. Facilities in North America hold almost one quarter of the global captive population and thus form a critical component of ex situ conservation efforts. Traditionally, captive breeding populations have relied exclusively on studbooks to record lineages, estimate kinship, and make breeding recommendations to try to ensure the captive populations maintain high levels of genetic diversity and do not become inbred. However, in practice, studbooks are often incomplete and may contain errors, and the true origins of, and relatedness among, wild imports may be unknown. Zoos typically lack the facilities and expertise to conduct genetic testing in house, and thus cannot confirm their studbook records. This collaboration between the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and the Penn State Beaver Conservation Genetics Laboratory enabled the use of molecular techniques to verify, and where necessary update, existing studbook data to augment the Species Survival Plan for African painted dogs. The Zoo coordinated the opportunistic collection of blood samples from dogs housed at 34 institutions in North America, and the subsequent DNA analysis of the genetic diversity and relatedness among the dogs was conducted at Penn State Beaver. We confirmed the majority of studbook parentage records and resolved 10 cases of uncertain paternity. However, we also identified three errors in studbook records. We also found that overall genetic diversity is lower than that predicted by the studbook and Species Survival Plan. This information will be used to define a more accurate genetic management plan for African painted dogs in North America that ultimately will form part of a global management plan for the species.
Tribal and University Genetic Monitoring Partnership: Cougar and bobcat abundance and genetic diversity in the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s historic use area
Lisette Waits, Cameron Macias, Kim Sager-Fradkin
As a sovereign nation, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (LEKT) sets wildlife harvest regulations independent from those of Washington State. However, there are currently no data on predator populations in the Tribe’s historic use area, so the Tribe lacks key information for setting sustainable harvest regulations. To address this data gap, the LEKT wildlife program sought funding and a university partnership to launch a research project to estimate the abundance, genetic diversity, movement and dispersal patterns, and diets of cougar (Puma concolor) and bobcat (Lynx rufus) populations on Washington’s north Olympic Peninsula from 2018-2020. First, we used scat-detection dogs to locate and collect cougar and bobcat scat samples across our 606 km2 study area. Of 665 scat samples collected from 2018-2020, we had an average species identification success rate of 91.8% per year, identifying 424 bobcat and 168 cougar samples.  We identified a minimum count of 55 individual bobcats in 2018 and individual ID for all other samples are ongoing. Second, we used 70+ cameras in 2019 and 2020 to estimate cougar and bobcat abundance using space-to-event analyses. We will compare abundance estimates derived from the cameras and genetic analyses to determine which of these two non-invasive methods best meets the LEKT long-term monitoring goals. Third, we equipped 17 cougars (11 adults and 6 sub-adults) with GPS radio-collars from 2018-2020 to observe diet, movement, and dispersal patterns. Our challenges included low samples sizes of cougars in 2018-2019 but adjustments to survey protocols in 2020 addressed this weakness. Our project has provided the opportunity for graduate school training of a LEKT member and will generate baseline data that will help the LEKT develop non-invasive and cost-effective methods for long-term monitoring and management of cougar and bobcat populations.As a sovereign nation, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (LEKT) sets wildlife harvest regulations independent

Location: Virtual Date: November 2, 2021 Time: 2:00 pm - 3:00 pm