By any measure, the Wind River Experimental Forest in Washington state is a remote area. Yet, two teams of ecologists managed to meet up and collaborate in their efforts to study the threatened steelhead trout species and map the long-term overall health of the aquatic system.
The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), managed by Battelle for the National Science Foundation, is about collaboration at every stage. The project collects data from 81 field sites across the U.S. that characterize and quantify how our nation's ecosystems are changing. By making the data freely available to any researcher who wants to use it, the NEON project contributes to a wide range of studies that forecast how human activities impact ecosystems and how society can more effectively address critical ecological questions and issues.
However, collaboration on the NEON project starts much before data are available to be used by researchers. It occurs from the start of data collection, whether partnering to improve the way standard open source data are collected or making NEON infrastructure available for investigator-driven studies through the assignable assets program
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has worked in the Wind River watershed at its Columbia River Research Laboratory for decades. At this site, USGS monitors the health of salmonids and steelhead populations, their response to human activities, and the factors limiting their abundance.
Martha Creek, a tributary to the Wind River, hosts a NEON field site that is slated to remain active for the full 30-year duration of the project. Sampling at Martha Creek, along with other sites in the Pacific Northwest, is conducted by Battelle field ecologists based in Vancouver, Washington.
With years of preparation, NEON sampling finally began in November 2017. Through it all, USGS has been supportive of the project, providing training opportunities to NEON field ecologists in fish identification and recognition of the nesting areas of steelhead and other salmonids.
NEON’s Martha Creek site now produces a rich dataset that complements the work of USGS and other Wind River partners, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 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.
The USGS team tags about 1,500 steelhead a year with Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags. These very small, uniquely coded tags 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.
Each fall, NEON ecologists use electrofishing to collect fish, measure and weigh them, examine their overall health, and 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.
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.
“This set a precedent in that we were able to rally support and expedite approvals for this type of collaboration,” said Researcher Brandon Jensen, who designs NEON’s fish sampling protocols. “Ultimately these opportunities provide the user community with more robust data and the ability to access NEON sampling sites.”