Joel Berger, John J. Craighead Chair and Professor of Wildlife Conservation
Division of Biological Sciences and Department of Forestry and Conservation
2014 Indianapolis Award Finalist - video of Berger
Preamble - Two central tenets in conservation are – maintain what we have and restore what we’ve lost. These motivate me, although by no means do I believe important research needs to be applied. Questions about evolution, mimicry, behavior, and how historic factors shape the spectrum from individuals to landscape are as thoroughly fascinating as are single species –whether extinct (e. g. mammoths) or extant (e. g. long-eared jerboas or black rhinos).
As modern humans move forth, the sheer crush of humanity and our callousness is frightening. As I search for my way forward, I am motivated by conservation and finding ways to protect our planet’s spectacular diversity. This means understanding systems and species, their challenges, and proffering solutions. At the same time, while animals often have no true voices, people in developing areas find themselves caught between two worlds. It is somewhere along this interface, that I try to work.
What I do. - My interest is in targeting questions and problem solving issues in conservation biology. Actionable conservation is the goal, and science is one of many avenues in which this is achieved. I work primarily with species larger than a bread box, and thematically on population ecology, the behavior of predator-prey interactions (under a food web umbrella), migration, climate stressors, and persistence and restoration.
Among the key questions in my lab are: 1) to what extent are ecosystem processes driven by top-down and bottom-up forces? 2) What, if anything, might be done to assure the conservation of cold-adapted species? and 3) How best might we dampen human footprints so that connectivity can be maintained or restored?
To progress, we mesh applied with behavioral ecology. Overarching, we use empiricism (descriptive and experimental) in the field and blend geographical approaches: contrasts with- and between populations, ecological or environmental gradients, and settings that vary across community membership.
The geographical scale is writ large – with current or more recent projects situated in the Northern Rocky Mountains, Arctic Alaska, and some areas within central or high elevation Asia [Mongolia, China (Tibet), and Bhutan]. Why? The Northern Rockies possess the best chance for persisting intact ecological communities – including large carnivores and ungulates. Arctic Alaska is vast, unpopulated and with plenty of challenge. Central Asia, also very unpopulated, has far fewer biologists per species than other areas, and it’s an area where my star-studded colleagues and I continue to work.
Examples of research that colleagues and I currently pursue are evident from these questions:
- How do we assure long distance migrations beyond the boundaries of protected areas? This work involves diverse collaborators from university and NGO scientists to those working with federal and state agencies. There is no single geographical region although on-going projects concentrate on species like saiga (Gobi Desert, Mongolia) and, with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), elk and moose (Yellowstone Ecosystem).
- What factors are likely to affect the short- and long-term persistence of North American Arctic or high elevation obligates such as mountain goats or muskoxen? Study sites are in Glacier National Park and the western Arctic Alaska and federal partners (National Park Service) and state collaborators. We’re trying to understand how life-histories and vital rates vary between populations with differing growth trajectories (muskoxen) or the extent to which changing temperatures coupled with human disturbance buffer bode for future relationships, including those with predators. In essence, we want to understand species responses to dynamic changes in their environment(s) by capitalizing on nutritional correlates, predator-prey interactions, and corollaries of climate.
- In Asia the focus is on human–wildlife interactions but under a broader umbrella as suggested by the question: How do warming temperatures affect the biology and conservation of two species, wild yak (Tibetan Plateau, China) and on (Himalayas, Bhutan)? Each species face different challenges, but both confront the twin tests; peri-glacial change and growing human populations associated with economic needs. For neither wild yaks nor takin is much known about vital rates, which is one of several components we’re trying to address. The ‘we’’ is with Wildlife Conservation Society and other partners including Bhutan’s Ugyen Wangchuk Institute for Conservation and Environment, and members of the Kekexilli Park and Qinghai Forestry Department.
Wild Yaks in Kekexili, Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau, China