A series of animals photograhed via camera traps
Animal camera trap images courtesy of the Schell and Brashares labs.

Toward a New Legacy

Rausser College faculty are shaping the next era of wildlife and conservation research

a group of people standing in a forest

Left to right: Berkeley Wildlife faculty Arthur Middleton, Christopher Schell, Alejandra Echeverri, Stephanie Carlson, and Justin Brashares.

Photo by Anastasiia Sapon.

A hundred years ago, anyone picturing a wildlife biologist would probably think of a man with a shotgun on his shoulder, smoking a pipe while standing atop a mountain, surveying a vast wilderness stretched out before him. He would have considered himself a nature lover, and more than likely, he would have also had ties to UC Berkeley, either as a professor, a former student, or someone whose views were shaped by researchers working within a stone’s throw of Strawberry Creek.

Very few universities have dedicated wildlife programs, and among those that do, Berkeley’s history in the field is legendary. Alums George Meléndez Wright, BS 1927 Forestry, and Starker Leopold, PhD ’44 Zoology, son of the famed writer and naturalist Aldo Leopold, are both known for groundbreaking reports on wildlife management in America’s national parks. Joseph Grinnell, the founding director of Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, described the foundational concept of the “ecological niche” and conducted the first exhaustive survey of California wildlife from 1904-1940. A century later, Professor Steven Beissinger led a 15-year project to resurvey Grinnell’s sites and document the impacts of changing climates and landscapes on biodiversity. “Once I came to Berkeley I was surprised to learn how much of my thinking and training had been shaped by its legacy, without me even knowing it,” says Arthur Middleton, a professor of wildlife management and policy. “It’s exciting to be part of that tradition and also to have the opportunity to think about where the field should go next.”

Professor Stephanie Carlson, who holds the A.S. Leopold Chair in Wildlife Biology, is honored to be part of this storied legacy, and along with her colleagues, is working to build upon it. “We are in a moment of rejuvenation that makes this an especially exciting time to be part of Berkeley Wildlife,” she says. Today the group works hard to incorporate new and diverse voices, to ground their research in real-world policy discussions, and to reimagine what wildlife means in an increasingly urban and digitized world.

Beyond Definition

“I’m definitely not an elk biologist!” Middleton says, despite having written his dissertation on nutritional and predation factors affecting elk reproduction. His colleague Justin Brashares—the Goertz Distinguished Professor in Wildlife Management—feels the same. “When somebody calls me a wildlife biologist, all I can think is that biology is such a small part of what I’m trying to do.” And if you take a step back and ask Assistant Professor Christopher Schell to define the field of wildlife biology in general, he’ll push back on the very definition of what constitutes wildlife: “Is a rat wildlife? What about a domesticated dog? Can wildlife biology include talking about the whole framework of how we govern ourselves?”

Carlson emphasizes that “wildlife biology in the modern era recognizes that the biodiversity crisis, climate crisis, and pervasive social injustices are intertwined—and this realization requires new perspectives and approaches.” Assistant Professor Alejandra Echeverri, the most recent hire in the group, seems like she’s going to fit right in with new colleagues when she says, “If I try to think of myself as a traditional academic, then…I’m working in way too many fields!”

But what Echeverri says next cuts through the confusion and gets to the heart of why everyone teaching in Berkeley’s wildlife program struggles to define themselves cleanly. “If you start from the problem—say, trying to halt biodiversity loss—and work backwards to what we need to address (change human behavior? stop the spread of wildlife diseases?), then answering questions from many academic fields makes sense.”

Brashares arrived at a similar realization during his graduate work in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. “You couldn’t have been in a more pristine environment,” he recalls. “It seemed like the whole point of studying wildlife was to get somewhere you could pretend that humans had no role.” Even in the vast wilderness of northern Tanzania, though, Brashares found that human impacts were constant, from tourists to local communities hunting in the area. The model of wildlife biology was to find places where humans weren’t radically altering ecosystems and then apply that knowledge to everywhere else. But Brashares realized that he needed to do the opposite, and that “meant understanding local culture, history, policy, and economics—and particularly poverty.”

The idea that wildlife must be studied within a broader context is the animating principle that guides Berkeley Wildlife professors. Working with tribal colleagues at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Middleton had to learn to put a cultural lens on a species that he had mostly considered from an ecological perspective. “When there are ten bison that have been reintroduced, it doesn’t sound like a meaningful population for someone who has been trained in population ecology,” he says. “But from the perspective of residents, who had seen bison eradicated over a hundred years ago, the reintroduction of even a small herd had profound effects on tribal sovereignty, cultural revitalization, and potentially as a source of long-term, nutritional, self-sustainability.”

The roles of Wildlife

There is no one who understands this new paradigm better than Schell, who joined the faculty in 2021 and has focused his work on wildlife in urban settings. In particular, the increasing presence of coyotes in urban and suburban spaces offers a fascinating window into how a single species can quickly implicate larger societal issues.

Two people crouching down by a tree looking at a box

Schell and Carlson examine a camera trap strapped to a tree on the UC Berkeley campus. The devices are used in several field sites to capture photos of wildlife.

Photo by Anastasiia Sapon.

Coyotes are polarizing; it’s indisputably cool to see one walking down the street, but also terrifying for people with small kids or beloved pets. Rapid urban development, rising disease, access to human food, and the societal inequities that underpin all those factors have contributed to increased human-coyote interactions. Wildlife and park officials often find themselves in peacekeeper roles yet are battling multiple issues across parks simultaneously. The resulting conundrum often pits neighbors—or even entire neighborhoods—against coyotes, and sometimes, each other.

But Schell sees these conflicts as opportunities for engagement. To understand why coyotes go where they go, scientists and policymakers must understand the ecological disturbances that underlie changing habitat patterns. “Those disturbances have been here for decades,” Schell says. And, he explains, they’re largely the result of race-based policies where pollution and blight are localized in poorer neighborhoods because of race- and class-based disparities. “So, we start the conversation by talking about charismatic coyote pups to engage folks reluctant to talk about racism, and we end by addressing how important justice and equity are for people and wildlife in our cities.”

Schell and his colleagues are nudging the field away from the so-called fortress model of conservation, in which reserves were set aside for animals, partly for their own protection and partly as a playground for recreational hunters and anglers. While sport hunting and fishing are still critical components of human-wildlife interaction, the stakeholders are rapidly broadening, and the result is a recognition that wildlife plays a broader role in our lives than previously thought, even in urbanized landscapes. Wild ungulates like elk reduce potential fuel load for wildfire as they eat underbrush and grasses, for example, which is critically important as climate change brings the threat of wildfire ever closer to cities. In addition, animal populations pose serious and ever-changing risks to human health. “We need to better understand how changing habitats affect the transmission of disease, and the ways that wild animals are central to outbreaks of COVID-19 and other pandemics,” says Brashares.

Moreover, the PBS documentary style of animal appreciation ignores the many people who don’t have the financial means or the privilege to go on safari or travel to remote locations. “Many folks’ experiences of wildlife are the common house sparrows, the pigeons, the raccoons, the deer,” says Schell. “In order for us to advance conservation efforts writ large, it’s these folks that we need to help push the narratives required to preserve the intrinsic value of places they may never get to see.”

Democratization and Modernization

A woman looking through binoculars in a rainforest

Alejandra Echeverri monitoring the forests of Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

Photo by Mollie Chapman.

The old fortress model was a top-down process, with the values of politicians and experts dictating outcomes. A wider array of stakeholders not only democratizes the field, but also improves the quality of the research. Echeverri works with farmers in Costa Rica to design wildlife corridors between national parks. By creating community-engaged groups to conduct real-time monitoring and bird counts, Echeverri enlists local populations as allies in conservation. Farmers tell her that they’ve seen a particular kind of bird they enjoy and ask her advice on attracting more of them. “Then they’ll decide to grow more plantains to get more toucans,” she says, which in turn encourages communities to steward the land because they acknowledge that they’re sharing space with other species.

It might seem obvious, but actually talking to local stakeholders is something of a new research method in the field. While studying cattle predation by grizzlies and wolves, Middleton had an “epiphany that is kind of hilarious to me now,” he says. He recalls getting stumped by how to scientifically measure something as complicated as whether particular deterrent methods successfully reduced the destruction of livestock by wild predators in rugged, mountainous terrain. “And then we realized we can just go ask the ranchers what they’re seeing, and we’ll get much better data than with any other technique,” he says.

Modern methods in wildlife biology span the range from high- to low-tech, all of which would be revelations to old-school biologists like Leopold and Grinnell. “We’re doing more partnerships with anthropologists and psychologists, using interviews and questionnaires,” says Echeverri, “and we’re even working with artists to incorporate photography and narrative to elicit what people care about in their landscapes.”

a bird held by a gloved hand looking right at the camera

A Red- Headed Barbet caught and released by researchers in the Colombian Andes.

Photo by Bryan E. Mateus Aguilar.

On the aquatic side, Berkeley researchers are using underwater videography to identify fish species, and the resulting video feeds open windows into the richness and beauty of life below the water’s surface. On the higher-tech end, Schell and his graduate students overlay data from the crowd-sourced app iNaturalist and the health monitoring tool CalEnviroScreen atop redlining maps and census tracts in Oakland to correlate wildlife distribution with air pollution, groundwater availability, and urban heat islands. Further afield, Brashares and Middleton work with remote sensing technology and machine learning to identify and map fence lines. They hope that eventually livestock can wear stimulus collars that keep them bound within virtual fences rather than physical ones that impede ungulate migration.

Advancing Past Origins 

There was a time when simply understanding the natural history and population dynamics of a species would have been enough for most wildlife biologists. But today’s faculty don’t have the luxury of remaining siloed into pure observation and description. “We’re running out of time,” Schell says. “Understanding how to build ecological and urban resilience will help us understand that biodiversity conservation and the environmental justice movements are joined at the hip.”

All the professors involved in the Berkeley Wildlife group work hard to ensure that their research is accessible for policymakers and tailored to address the specific problems that impact the inevitable conflicts between people and animals. For example, when Brashares and his team studied the burgeoning cannabis cultivation industry in California and the effects of greenhouse lights and generators on nearby ecosystems, they were careful to always refer to the specific text of the regulations that California had enacted. Ensuring that the questions they asked fit the facts on the ground gave them the best chance of finding answers with concrete applications. That desire to produce tangible results is part of what led Brashares to become a policy advisor to California’s 30x30 Initiative, an ambitious plan to conserve thirty percent of the state’s land and water resources by 2030 to both preserve biodiversity and fight climate change.

For some faculty, influencing policy even means becoming one of the policymakers. Middleton had been working on the migratory patterns of ungulates and the ecology of their predators around Yellowstone National Park and increasingly dealing with policy issues around land conservation and human-wildlife conflict reduction. He grew frustrated and vocal that agencies didn’t have the time, staff, or funding to prioritize these crucial issues. “But be careful what you wish for,” he says with a laugh. In January 2022, the United States Department of Agriculture appointed him as its first ever Senior Advisor on Wildlife Conservation. Now on the inside, with more connections and institutional muscle, he advances both national policy and exemplary local projects, like streamlining conservation easement and land rental programs and getting agreements on the ground to incentivize landowners to protect wildlife while also putting money in their pockets to keep ranches solvent.

The goal of making the field more inclusive is another way that the program has advanced far beyond its origins. “Let’s just start with the fact that I’m a black man in wildlife ecology,” says Schell. “The fathers of this field, the original arbiters, never saw me being here and never saw urban centers as part of the narrative. Those were the same forefathers who subscribed to removing Indigenous people from the land that they were stewarding.”

Elk ducking under a fence

Migratory pronghorn navigate fences and subdivisions in Wyoming. 

Photo by Joe Riis.

For a field focused on the inherent values of biodiversity, there was, for many years, a lack of awareness that a homogenous group of faculty and students would lead to a blinkered worldview and an incomplete set of questions being asked and answered. “Conservation biology has been shifting from an ivory tower discipline to a community-engaged one,” Echeverri says. “We’ve sought out much more participation from people of color, Indigenous groups, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.”

Carlson highlights that in river ecology, decades of tribal activism and advocacy are leading to improved outcomes for fish and people, pointing to the historic removal of the Klamath River dams and recent efforts to reintroduce winter-run Chinook salmon upstream of Shasta Dam as two local examples.

More generally, the team has been working hard to make the field more welcoming to people who have historically been excluded, revising curricula and case studies to send new signals about who “belongs” in the field. “We are working together to reimagine a wildlife program for the 21st century, one that centers justice and inclusion,” Carlson says.

Despite pursuing research that spans the globe from Berkeley to Botswana to Bogotá, the Berkeley Wildlife professors are a cohesive and interdependent team. “It’s a great environment,” says Middleton. “We’re always talking over ideas. Nobody retreats to the seclusion of their lab.” Their teams—from undergrads to postdocs—are an integral part of that mix. “We’ve got brilliant, inspired students,” says Brashares, “and we tell them our field and planet needs them to be experts in everything from biology to socioeconomics, urge them to learn new languages, train to communicate like a journalist, and, as though that’s not tough enough, publish a bunch along the way. I’m amazed by how they always rise to the challenge.”

The faculty intuitively understand that studying and managing ecosystems in the 21st century requires breaking down the barriers that have historically defined the field. Schell connects their collegiality back to the subject they’re all working on: “The greater the biodiversity, the more stable that ecosystem is. So why on earth, as scientists, would we start to think that we have to all be the same, do the same, and produce work in the same way?”