Montana Chapter American Fisheries Society Meeting

A conference to talk about fish for three days? Count me in! A group of students, including me, from the UM Student Subchapter of the American Fisheries Society (AFS) attended the Montana Chapter AFS meeting in March. The meeting was held at Chico Hot Springs. Fisheries professors, students, scientists, and managers from all over Montana were all there to learn, network, and collaborate. There were interesting presentations about current fisheries research, an AFS business meeting, a student-mentor social for students to network with professionals, and a final banquet. In exchange for a few hours of volunteering, we (the students) were able to learn more about fisheries research in Montana, meet researchers and future employers, and get a feel for what we might want to do when we graduate. Everyone was really friendly and willing to talk with students. The few days that we were there went by in a whirlwind of new info, new people, and new possibilities for jobs and research. After the meeting I am even more excited about being an aquatic wildlife biology major and hopefully getting to present my own fisheries research at the Montana Chapter AFS meeting in the future.  Soaking in the hot springs was not too bad either!

Rennie Winkelman

To Count a Mountain Lion

How do you know how many there are if you can’t count them?  A perennial problem for managers of many wildlife species is figuring out the size of a population.  For some species it is possible to survey populations visually using helicopters or airplanes.  Elk are a popular western game species that is often surveyed in this way.  Other species are more difficult to count visually because they are small, spend their lives deep in the forest, underground or otherwise obscured from view.  When species are vocal one option is to estimate population size by counting the number of calls we hear.  This technique can works well for some bird species.  But when species are silent and difficult to see how do we estimate the size of a population? 

Mountain lions are a notoriously difficult species to count.  So, how do you count them?  You don’t.  As it turns out there is a little bit of information about population size within existing data.  For example, managers often have an idea of the number of animals harvested or some animals might be wearing GPS collars, which let us estimate survival.  If we just look at one of these types of data we can’t know how large the population is, but if we combine multiple sources of data about a species using a mathematical model we can estimate population size and many other characteristics of a population.  The math is fun for me, but it isn’t for everyone.  With this in mind our models are packaged into a user interface that allows managers to simulate and estimate mountain lion population size across the state of Montana with the click of a button. 

We aren’t stopping with mountain lions though.  A crucial partner on this project is Panthera, a world leader in large cat conservation.  Panthera works all over the world on a variety of large cats and because of this we plan to generalize our tools to the types of data available for tigers, leopards and other large furry felids. 

When I enrolled in my first wildlife biology course at the University of Montana I had romantic visions of sitting on a mountain side counting critters.  Looking back I can’t believe that I get excited about models, computers and ecological theory.  The application of these skills to real world problems is an immense challenge that is both exciting and rewarding.

By: Josh Nowak, Postdoc

Fish Forensics

Often capturing rare fishes is expensive and time-consuming, so what if there was a way to detect species presence with a water sample? There may be a way using environmental DNA. Environmental DNA refers to genetic material which is found free in the environment, much like genetic evidence at a crime scene. Fish and other animals release DNA into the water, where it can be captured and analyzed without ever seeing the animal that it came from.

Environmental DNA is a fast-growing field. Recent studies have ranged from frogs to porpoises, and suggest the method could be more sensitive than traditional methods to capture animals. While the technique has tremendous promise, much is still unknown about how DNA behaves in the environment, and about the sensitivity of current analysis techniques. I am working with researchers at the Rocky Mountain Research Station to develop and test environmental DNA techniques for detecting rare native and invasive fishes in streams. For more information see our recent publication in the journal PLOS ONE

By: Taylor Wilcox, M.S. student

Top 10 things about studying wolves at The University of Montana


1. Everyone near your study area in Idaho is interested in what you’re studying.

2. No one outside of Idaho is interested in what you’re studying.

3. You get to go out in the woods and howl like a wolf at the top of your lungs.

4. Sometimes wolves answer you.

5. Your kid grows up knowing that wolves roam the mountains near his house.

6. All of your relatives expect to see you on the cover of National Geographic with Anderson Cooper and his smoky gaze leering over your shoulder.

7. You will never be on the cover of National Geographic or meet Anderson Cooper.

8. You get to see some of the most remote and wild places in the lower 48.

9. You come to realize that lots of folks care a whole awful lot about wildlife of all kinds.

10. You get to force your advisor to turn off their computer and join you in the field for a few days so they can remember why they became biologists in the first place.

By: Dave Ausband, PhD Candidate

What can stress tell us about wild populations?

When I say the word “stress” what comes to mind? A racing heart, tight stomach, sweaty palms, loss of appetite? I’m stressing out just thinking about it!

Wild animals can get stressed out too, and for a variety of reasons, such as food scarcity, inclement weather, or predation pressure. The effects of stress on animals are similar to those we experience as humans. Stress can increase heart rates and suppress the immune and reproductive systems. This means that wild populations experiencing high levels of stress may be more susceptible to illness or disease, or have lower rates of reproduction. So, understanding the stress levels of wild animals and the causes of stress might help researchers and managers make better conservation decisions about these wild populations.


A Kittlitz’s murrelet in Glacier Bay, AK; Photo Credit: USFWS

I study stress in a wild population of Kittlitz’s murrelets, which is a small seabird that lives along coastal Alaska and eastern Russia. Over the past couple decades, population declines were observed in many areas of the species range, although recently these populations have appeared to stabilize. Unlike most seabirds, Kittlitz’s murrelets are solitary nesters, choosing nest sites up to 75 km inland and 2000 m in elevation. Because of this unique nesting strategy, our understanding of the reproductive performance of this species is limited. The data we do have indicate that breeding propensity and breeding success are low. However the reasons for this are currently unknown.

For my Master’s Research in the Wildlife Biology Program at the University of Montana, I am particularly studying in the effects of ocean productivity (i.e. food availability) on murrelet stress physiology and how stress levels affect parental investment of the species. With this information, we’re hoping to understand if high stress levels are negatively impacting the reproductive success of the species and also the causes of stress in this population. 

By: Anne Schaefer, Master’s Student

Advisor: Dr. Paul Lukacs

What is UM AFS?

The University of Montana American Fisheries Society Student Subunit is a great way for students to engage with the fisheries science community, meet fisheries students and professionals, and have a pretty good time.  UM AFS is a subunit of the American Fisheries Society, which is a national organization committed to promoting fisheries science and sustainable management of fisheries resources.  Complete information about AFS is available at


What you might not realize is that UM AFS is not just open to students studying fish biology. We are a blend of graduate and undergraduate students in various majors, including Wildlife Biology, Resource Conservation, Wildland Restoration, and Organismal Biology and Ecology.  We have bi-weekly meetings that feature local experts giving presentations about various fish, restoration, habitat, and water issues.  This semester our speakers include professionals from Trout Unlimited; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Save Our Wild Salmon; and the US National Park Service.

UM AFS is a great way to meet and network with fisheries and aquatic professionals.  We host Fish Trivia Night every fall, where students and fisheries professionals team up to test their knowledge of all things fishy and aquatic.  At state and division AFS meetings, students can present research, attend scientific presentations, and socialize at mentoring mixers, allowing for further opportunities to make connections with professionals.  FWP and other organizations frequently use UM AFS students as volunteers and interns, as well as summer technicians.

We also like to get involved in the Missoula community – and have fun!  This year we held a fundraiser at Draughtworks Brewery, went backpack electrofishing in Glacier National Park, and continued our annual traditions of helping WestSlope Trout Unlimited with their banquet and participating in the Clark Fork Coalition River Clean Up.

UM AFS meets every other Thursday during Fall and Spring Semesters at 6pm in FOR305.  Join us!  You can find more information at, or find UM AFS on Facebook.

By Tracy Wendt, UM AFS President

Why I Chose Wildlife Biology

I have always known that I didn’t want a desk job.  In preschool, I hoped to become a cowgirl. From there, my career goals evolved from large animal veterinarian to wildlife biologist. 

In choosing which college to attend, I had similar expectations: I didn’t want to spend the entirety of my education in a desk.  During my first three months as a freshman in the Wildlife Biology Program, I have already had the chance to expand my learning outside of the classroom.  From going on excursions coordinated by the student chapter of The Wildlife Society, to participating in a golden eagle banding field trip with the Audubon Society, to electrofishing in the irrigation canal right off campus, I have already had some valuable, hands-on experiences in the field. 

Though I am only just beginning my career as a student at the University of Montana, I anticipate that my years here will continue to be just as enriching both in and, most importantly to me, out of the classroom.

by Emily Leonhardt (expected graduation date May 2018)

Finding a new fish species in Northwest Rivers

Michael LeMoine (PhD Candidate) and Dr. Lisa Eby (Faculty) of the Wildlife Biology Program collaborated with US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station to name a new species of freshwater fish: the Cedar Sculpin (Cottus schitsuumsh) pronounced (s-CHEET-sue-umsh).  This species is part of a group of freshwater fishes, the Sculpins, which are small stream fishes common in cool to cold tributaries with cobble and gravel bottoms.  They are generally mottled with green, brown, and black coloring, and they serve as an important food source for trout. They are considered an indicator of good water quality.

The Cedar Sculpin was discovered as scientists from the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station were conducting genetic comparisons of all fishes in the upper Columbia River Basin. After genetic work by the Forest Service, Michael LeMoine and Dr. Lisa Eby  compared different body characteristics between the 6 other known sculpin species to provide additional evidence for the new species. Sculpins are extremely challenging to identify in terms of physical characteristics. As such, genetic analysis was critical in making this identification.  

This new species is primarily found in the Coeur d’ Alene and St. Joe River Basins in Idaho and the Clark Fork River Basin in Montana. Because the current range of this fish overlaps the historical homeland of the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe, the team of scientists consulted with Tribal elders to select a scientific name for the new species.  The Coeur d’ Alene Tribal word schitsuumsh means “those who have always been there” an appropriate name for a species that is new to science, but commonly occurs next to Interstate-90 where thousands of people pass every day.