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Collaboration Among National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and United States Geological Survey Scientists Benefits Health of Pacific Northwest Ecosystem

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WIND RIVER Experimental Forest, Wash.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--By any measure, the Wind River Experimental Forest is a remote area. Yet two teams of ecologists managed to meet up and collaborate in their efforts to study the federally threatened Steelhead Trout species (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and map the long-term overall health of the aquatic system.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is a fact-finding research organization that has scientists studying the landscape across the country including its natural resources and the natural hazards that threaten it. For decades, its Columbia River Research Laboratory (a field station of USGS Western Fisheries Research Center) has worked in the Wind River watershed to monitor the health of salmonids and steelhead populations, their response to human activities, and the factors limiting their abundance. The lab works in close coordination with other agencies in the Wind River watershed including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and the U.S. Forest Service. Funding for much of the work is provided by the Bonneville Power Administration.

The NEON project, managed by Battelle for the National Science Foundation, is a continental-scale ecological observation facility that collects and provides open data from 81 field sites across the United States that characterize and quantify how our nation's ecosystems are changing. The data will contribute to a better understanding and more accurate forecasting of how human activities impact ecosystems and how society can more effectively address critical ecological questions and issues.

Martha Creek, a tributary to the Wind River, hosts a NEON study reach that is slated to remain active for the full 30-year duration of the project. NEON’s presence in Martha Creek has been in the works for years, and sampling finally began in November 2017. Through it all, USGS staff have been supportive stakeholders. For example, Ian Jezorek, a fish biologist who has been studying the steelhead population for years, provided training opportunities to NEON field ecologists in fish identification and recognition of redds, the nesting areas of steelhead and other salmonids. As a source of open data on stream and environmental conditions, fish populations, and more, NEON’s Martha Creek site now produces a rich dataset that complements the USGS and other Wind River partners’ efforts.

Once NEON had the Martha Creek field site up and running, the scientists realized they had an opportunity to be more efficient with their fish sampling goals by coordinating efforts.

A primary study method for USGS and WDFW is tagging of juvenile and adult Steelhead with Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags. These very small tags are uniquely coded and can allow researchers to follow movements and growth of individual fish through their lifespan. Detection and recapture sites in the Wind River watershed and throughout the Columbia River provide the ability to gather complete life histories of detected fish.

The USGS team PIT tags about 1,500 juvenile Steelhead a year in order to track their movements and growth, and to provide data to inform life-cycle models in development with WDFW. Each fall, NEON ecologists use electrofishing to collect fish, measure and weigh them, examine their overall health, then return them unharmed back into the stream. Revisits to the site as NEON has planned will allow opportunities to recapture these PIT-tagged Steelhead and track growth rates. “A plan to resample the same site for 30 years is relatively rare and provides a fantastic opportunity to learn about growth and behavior of any fish present,” Jazorek said.

The teams joined forces this fall so that when the NEON team pulled fish from the water and performed their assessments, they then passed them over to the USGS scientists who inserted PIT tags. Both teams said the collaboration was worthwhile and beneficial.

“Our sensors are active in the region and are capturing a lot of data that are useful to other researchers, including those at the Columbia River Research Lab,” Ben Vierra, science operations manager for NEON in the Pacific Northwest, said. Data from this effort should be published and available on the data portal around mid-December.

Brandon Jensen, an aquatic scientist and designer of NEON’s fish sampling protocols, said it’s not always easy to jump through necessary bureaucratic hoops to collaborate. “This set a precedent in that we were able to rally support and expedite approvals for this type of collaboration. Ultimately these opportunities provide the user community with more robust data and the ability to access NEON sampling sites,” Jensen said. For more information about using NEON research infrastructure go to the NEON Assignable Assets Program website: https://www.neonscience.org/assignable-assets

About Battelle

Every day, the people of Battelle apply science and technology to solving what matters most. At major technology centers and national laboratories around the world, Battelle conducts research and development, designs and manufactures products, and delivers critical services for government and commercial customers. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio since its founding in 1929, Battelle serves the national security, health and life sciences, and energy and environmental industries. For more information, visit www.battelle.org.