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Dissection: A Smelly But Engaging Approach to Collaborative Learning

By: Retta Bruegger

If you had asked me a few years back to visualize my life in in the future, dissecting a sage-grouse gizzard while the pungent odor of digestive fluid distracted nearby office-mates would probably not have been my prediction.

Sometimes collaborative research is not predictable, either.

When I started my current job as Outreach and Research Coordinator on the Learning from the Land Project, I met with ranchers in North Western Colorado. I was tasked with encouraging involvement in a participatory research project, to build state-and-transition models of vegetation change, incorporating wildlife, local knowledge, and habitat treatments.

One rancher in particular always had new insights, observations, and ideas for what else we could study. From his detailed observations and endless questions, it was evident that he cared a lot about the landscape and wildlife, especially sage-grouse. But, in these conversations, I found that I was both inspired and overwhelmed, and for the same reason: because there is so much more to know. I wondered, were we answering the right questions?

In one of these conversations, the rancher brought up insects. He felt he had observed declines in recent years, and had read that insects were an important part of the diet for young sage-grouse. He felt that this was an important part of our rangeland system that we weren’t capturing in our research. “Insects!” I thought, “Can’t help you there.” Beyond swatting gnats and flies off my face while collecting data in the field, I had no professional expertise in the area.

Despite my skepticism, I arranged to talk with Bob Hammon, CSU Entomologist in Grand Junction. Bob Hammon is a superstar, or should be a superstar, in the Extension world. I went into the meeting hoping to find out about the bare-bones of common insects sampling methods. Instead, Bob offered us his technicians and equipment, if I was able to find funding for field sampling, which a Center for Collaborative Conservation fellowship ultimately provided. A collaborative and can-do attitude on Bob’s part provided the expertise we needed to make insect sampling a reality.

In the spring and summer of 2014, after discussing with Bob, the rancher and myself, we decided to address two questions: do the types and number of insects change phenologically throughout the growing season in the area? And, do areas with different types of vegetation and treatment history show different types and numbers of insects? A third question arose opportunistically when the rancher found a few sage-grouse that were road-kill, and one that had been predated. We knew what insects were in our sample, but we did not know, what did sage-grouse actually select to eat? Bob and I dissected the gizzards and crops, and found several hundred ant heads in one juvenile sage-grouse (see photos), despite the fact that ants were underrepresentation in our sample from the field (only about 3% of the total insects collected). Dissecting only a few sage-grouse leaves us with questions we can’t answer like what does a “normal” sage-grouse eat? Did this particular bird preferred ants compared to her peers? Despite limited conclusions, science is a process in addition to a body of knowledge, I now know that nothing engages people in participatory research like dissection.

In being a Center for Collaborative Conservation Fellow, I’ve had the unique opportunity to genuinely be a “co-learner”: the idea for the questions was not mine, and I am not the expert. Instead, I am facilitating knowledge exchange, and learning myself about new things that I never really considered. If research is a trip, I’m the cruise-ship coordinator on this one, not the boat captain. Left to my own devices, I would have pursued questions that I think are important, which might not be the same as questions that are relevant to a manager. And questions I pursue might be determined by the limitations of my own expertise, worldview and observations, in addition to what I think I can and cannot answer. Complexity and unpredictability are normal in the rangeland systems I study. Collaboration in this case has led to unpredictable places, but it’s also allowed us to take a more complex look at the ecological system. “Collaboration,” depending on your experience, might provoke either warm-fuzzy feelings, or visions of long conference calls and email chains. But on this project, collaboration is something else as well. Collaboration is practical.