May 15, 2014 – The college’s partnership with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) provides resources to build a sustainable environment and opportunities for students to work in the field. “The partnership advances research and education in the college as well as the Forest Service mission — ‘Caring for the Land and Serving People,’” said Andy Dolloff, adjunct associate professor and team leader for fisheries and aquatics with the USFS Forest Watershed Science research work unit, located in Blacksburg.
Through cooperative agreements, the Forest Service provides vehicles, equipment, time, and expertise in mentoring both undergraduate and graduate students across campus. “Our team also collaborates with departments to conduct research and serves on graduate committees in the colleges of Science, Engineering, and Agriculture and Life Sciences in addition to Natural Resources and Environment,” Dolloff added.
“Our partnership with the Forest Service leverages the mission, the passion, and the intellectual expertise of the scientists of both organizations, which is an enviable combination to match in any business or organizational setting,” said Dean Paul Winistorfer. “The leverage and outcomes are exceptional.”
In a current project, faculty members and students are working with Dolloff to measure the impact of climate change on mountain streams. He is collaborating with Paul Angermeier, Emmanuel Frimpong, and Eric Hallerman in the fish and wildlife conservation department and Eric Smith in the statistics department using $250,000 of a $1-million grant shared between the USFS and the U.S. Geological Survey.
“We asked ‘What is going to happen to cold-water habitats?’” said Dolloff. “Conventional wisdom says the habitat for cold-water fish like Brook Trout will retreat to the mountains above 1,200 feet elevation — below that, it is already too warm to support trout.”
The study benefits from a range-wide assessment commissioned by the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture (EBTJV) conducted 10 years ago. In 2005, alumnus Mark Hudy (’78 B.S. in fisheries and wildlife), at the time a USFS aquatic ecologist, did a state-by-state inventory of streams where Brook Trout were historically located. He plotted the results with GIS and made them available online through the EBTJV and Trout Unlimited. In 2009, he monitored the water temperature for one year in 50 of the approximately 3,000 streams in Virginia that historically supported brook trout.
“The grant has been used to expand the study from Maryland to Georgia,” said Dolloff. “We are now looking at 200 streams — 50 in western Maryland and West Virginia, and 100 in North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, along with the original 50 in Virginia.”
The grant was used to purchase instruments to collect water and air temperature every 30 minutes, making this one of only a handful of studies in which such data are tracked year-round. The equipment was first placed between October 2010 and January 2011. “This fall and winter marks the three-year point, with each site visited three times a year,” said Dolloff.
Currently, the biggest task is data management and quality assurance and control. The researchers contribute to a multi-agency website using Google Earth to plot where the temperature data are collected. “You can click on a dot and see who owns an instrument and when it was installed,” said Dolloff. “Ultimately, we hope to have readouts online as well. The idea is that people will see the value of having this type of information available.”
With three years of data, the researchers can compare air and water temperature relationships and tease out what is happening. “For example, streams with ground water may maintain a lower temperature,” Dolloff explained. “It’s rare, but there are variations. Those variations are what we look for.”
Such information will help with land management decisions, such as where to invest to maintain or restore streams. “Once we locate a stream that is a candidate, we can do intensive monitoring, such as deploying additional temperature sensors in individual watersheds,” Dolloff said.
Over 25 years, Dolloff and the USFS have been able to amass data that continues to be a valuable resource. “I can keep cycling back and add to long-term data sets. For example, American Eels on the Tye River have been studied for 15 years. This summer, we recaptured eels that we tagged 13 years ago. This ability to establish and maintain a long-term focus is just one of the advantages of being a federal scientist associated with the university.”
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service Center for Aquatic Technology Transfer.