- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - A helicopter will circle southwest Wyoming with a crew shooting nets onto unsuspecting mule deer. The crew will bring the deer back to a base camp where researchers will test the animals for body condition and pregnancy. Each deer released will bound away wearing a radio collar transmitting its location for the next couple of years.

The sight is relatively common among some of Wyoming’s big-game herds as scientists monitor animals’ movements and well-being. But the process itself isn’t very accessible to the public. Helicopters, wild animals, remote locations and closed winter ranges usually prevent close access.

Newspaper, TV or radio reporters sometimes go along. Otherwise most captures go unreported until the data appears in a weighty scientific paper years later.

Matt Kauffman and a handful of others hope to change that.

“Red Desert deer 120 has a fawn but unable to download her collar. Will get data in a couple of days at #wyodeer capture” Kauffman tweeted.



Kauffman is leader of the USGS Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming. He and others are updating the virtual world on their deer captures during the week-long process, which began last Thursday. Data from the tests and collars will go to five research projects.

Reaching out on social media is part of a broader effort by some Wyoming scientists to explain their work in a clearer, easier-to-understand way such as videos, short papers and even museum exhibits. Lengthy scientific papers in journals are still relevant and necessary, but some researchers hope expanding their communication medium will also expand their audiences.

“There’s been a demand for many years from the public and also from agency colleagues to be less boring and to communicate more clearly and speak in plain English,” said Arthur Middleton, an ecologist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies working in Wyoming. “A growing number of scientists are . trying to figure out innovative ways of delivering information to the interested public.”

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Mixing science with the arts, or science with the public, isn’t really a new idea.

Yellowstone National Park’s creation could be dedicated in part to Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson, a painter and photographer, respectively, who went to Yellowstone with scientists to document the area’s geysers, canyons and other wonders, Middleton told the Casper Star-Tribune (https://bit.ly/1vJg7xY).

“They could provide visual evidence of a place that seemed like a fantasy to the people who read about it in the trappers’ journals and official reports,” he said. “Those pictures went to the Capitol rotunda, and they said, ‘It is real.’ Within months, this was a park.”

Somewhere between the days of Lewis and Clark and now, that connection between art and science diminished. Science became something accessible mostly to other scientists and agency officials.

But people in western states, particularly Wyoming, never stopped caring about wildlife or the outdoors, Middleton said. They just couldn’t access information in a digestible format.

Money is one of the main reasons he says that should change. The public pays for most scientific research through license sales and tax dollars or donations to nonprofits, he said. Shrinking federal and state budgets require scientists to communicate more directly with people who deserve to know where their money goes.

“It’s also more fun sometimes to think of a way to tell the story. We care too,” Middleton said. “I think as scientists we’re also individuals who want to share our enthusiasm for the subjects we study.”

Creating videos or brochures helps scientists articulate why their research matters, said Hall Sawyer, a researcher biologist with Western Ecosystems Technology Inc., an environmental and statistical consulting service.

“Most scientists want to be relevant, and they want their information to be used,” he said. “We talk a lot about science-based management and in order for any science-based management to be successful, that requires the science reach all of the stakeholders in successful and meaningful ways.”

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Some early efforts to reach out to the public are paying off, Sawyer said.

Kauffman, the cooperative fish and wildlife unit leader, launched his most recent effort with the Migration Initiative. It is centered in part on Sawyer’s discovery of the longest recorded mule deer migration in Wyoming’s Red Desert.

The public outreach included a short film on the deer migration, a photography exhibit, website, maps and a paper filled with images and digestible explanations.

A four-and-a-half-minute video detailing perils along the animals’ journey has received more than 2 million views in its various locations - almost 1.4 million on YouTube alone. The photo exhibit has traveled across the state.

Since the outreach push in April, the Wyoming Department of Transportation changed a fence along an important highway crossing, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department improved some of its fencing.

The media push helped The Conservation Fund identify and work to buy and preserve 364 acres of critical land between Fremont Lake and Pinedale, said Luke Lynch, Wyoming state director of The Conservation Fund.

“They’re visionaries in how they’re thinking about using their science to help people understand and make good decisions about how we allocate resources for protecting these animals,” Lynch said. “They’ve made the science really easy to understand and digestible for regular folks.”

An increase in public awareness can come with downsides. More people are hunting and photographing deer along the migration route since it was publicized, Sawyer said. The new approach may also mean scientists like Sawyer and Middleton publish slightly fewer academic papers in exchange for more public outreach.

“I think it’s one of those things where broadening that awareness and appreciation of the resources will outweigh the possible downsides,” Sawyer said.

Scientists will still publish academic papers full of equations, complex ideas and exhausting details. Peer-reviewed journal articles build a body of knowledge in a field, Sawyer said. The papers are also critical evidence needed in court cases or forming policy.

But complex papers don’t need to be the only way research is digested, Middleton said.

“If our understanding is a plate of food, it has meat and potatoes and broccoli on it, and there’s some dessert to the side. Right now, we as scientists are always trying to feed them broccoli,” he said. “Some people would rather eat potatoes, and some people would rather skip to dessert.”

That dessert could be a four or five-minute video, colorful map, or link in Tweet or a Facebook post. Each one is what Middleton calls a “portal to understanding.”

He then added: “We are still going to be sneaking in some of those vegetables.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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