Wildlife ecologist Randall Boone earned two graduate degrees at the University of Maine, and is now an associate professor at Colorado State University. Boone hasn’t entirely left behind his UMaine connections, however. He and Rob Lilieholm, a natural resource economist at UMaine, are among the researchers involved in a project to look at wildebeest migration in Kenya and how alternative futures modeling can help people at local and regional levels understand the land-use decisions they make today can have far-reaching impacts in the future.
Where did you grow up? Was there anything in your childhood that influenced your research interests?
I grew up in El Monte, California, until I was 15, then my family moved to a very small town in western Oregon called Blachly. I was always interested in animals, and recall how exciting it was when a squirrel would spend time in our tree in Los Angeles County. That is part of why I became a wildlife ecologist.
Where’s home now?
Beautiful Fort Collins, Colorado, where Colorado State University is located.
Milestones in your professional career after graduating from UMaine?
I joined Colorado State University as a Research Associate in 1998, and became a Research Scientist in 2000, and am now a Research Scientist III. In 2010, I received a half-time Associate Professorship in our new Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.
How did you get involved in this particular project? Based on your work so far, do you have any predictions of what the project can accomplish for both the wildebeest and the people of Kenya?
In the mid-2000s, Dr. Robin Reid of Colorado State worked with a large team to map parcels of land that were unavailable to wildebeest in the Athi-Kapituei Plains, which are south of Nairobi National Park. Wildebeest and other species in the park migrate south to those plains to have their young. The map that resulted from their field efforts was striking. It was hard to imagine animals successfully moving through that landscape, with its thousands of fences and other development. That map inspired our proposal to study how wildebeest move through fragmented landscapes.
Our project has already tracked more wildebeest for a full year than any other we know (see http://www.nrel.colostate.edu/projects/gnu/tracking.php). These data are being used to answer questions like the likelihood of animals’ crossroads. The work by Dr. Lilieholm’s team will help land planners envision future fragmentation, and make changes in policy or practice if they want to change what is predicted. Our multi-agent modeling will provide a tool for conservation planners in Kenya to modify fragmentation in their lands, and improve the likelihood of animals being able to move about freely. We’ll also use these tools to answer more basic questions about animal movements as they relate to fragmentation and increased frequencies of drought.
In your opinion, what is the value of ecosystem modeling?
Ecosystem modeling has many uses. People tend to think it is only about predicting the future, but for me, that is not the case. In fact, I rarely speak of predicting futures; there are too many changes in ecosystems to be able to predict with great certainty events 30 years from now. Instead, I speak of the magnitude and direction of changes for that period in the future if one or two things change, and everything else remains the same. For example, if someone wants a sense of what the effects of more frequent drought might be, all else being equal, we can provide that. Because we have control over the attributes of simulated ecosystems, we can essentially run well-controlled experiments.
More generally, there are many reasons we use ecosystem modeling. It allows us to run scenarios that would otherwise be too expensive, too dangerous, or unethical, such as reducing people’s access to veterinary care for their animals. Simulation can guide data collection, show us properties of ecosystems that organize from the bottom up, tell us how relationships apply from fine to broad scales, suggest new questions, and help us inform the public about our findings.
You’ve done quite a bit of research in Africa. Where does this interest come from?
My specific interests in Africa were likely no different than any other wildlife ecologists. I have a fascination with big cats and the large herbivores of Africa, for example. But when I joined Colorado State University I worked on a project in East Africa. Within a few weeks I went from studying the amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds of Maine, to studying giraffes and elephants in Tanzania! Now I often frame the questions I have about ecosystems in an African context. That allows me to continue building experience in areas I have worked in and to continue working with our great team of researchers focusing on Africa ecosystems.
Your research includes what seems to be a broad variety of species of both plants and animals, including wildebeest, wood frogs, hazelnut trees, grizzly bears, birds, radishes, and fishers. Are there any common threads?
Yes. In my research on animals the questions tend to focus on their movements through or their distribution in landscapes. Most of my work with plants dealt with distinguishing different kinds of plants, although more recently I have worked on the distributions of plants.
Technology plays such a huge role in your field. You minored in computer science as an undergraduate at Oregon State – did you have a sense at that time of what you wanted to do in that field? How has technology changed and what’s the next big thing in your field?
I did have a goal of using technology in research, and providing assistance to other researchers interested in using technology in their work. That has certainly come to pass. Mostly, technology has gotten much cheaper and much better in the years over which I have worked. In 1987, while at Oregon State University, I bought a 40-megabyte computer hard drive for $400. Today, for one-quarter that cost I can purchase 26,000 times the storage! At that time, I programmed on a Commodore 64 computer, which had 64 kilobytes of memory. The machines I use today typically have 100,000 times the memory. I believe the next big thing in wildlife ecology will be in using the rapid advancements and miniaturization in electronics to improve monitoring.
In addition to your own research, you seem to be busy mentoring undergraduates. Why is this important to you?
Working with undergraduate students is enjoyable. I get to see their thinking change over the course of their education, and help form their scientific viewpoints. I especially like to help them with their research projects. The projects I did as an undergraduate were very influential for me, and I hope they will consider theirs the same.
Why UMaine for your graduate work?
I was interested in using technology in research, and Dr. Raymond O’Connor needed a student who was experienced in computer programming. I knew the University of Maine Department of Wildlife had an excellent reputation, so I was anxious to join.
What were your research subjects and areas while at UMaine? Was there a faculty member with whom you worked closely?
I worked with the late Dr. Raymond J. O’Connor using continental-scale bird occurrence databases and other US database, looking for effects of land use on bird densities. For my thesis, I talked about the designs I used to store these large databases, and described analyses I had done on resource limitations for birds in the U.S.
For my Ph.D. research, I worked with Dr. William Krohn on a program called Maine Gap Analysis. In that program, we mapped the predicted distributions of all the animals in inland Maine, and compared their distributions to the network of protected lands. For my dissertation, I analyzed how the number of species in areas across Maine related to the environment.
During my time at the University of Maine, I also worked with Dr. Malcolm Hunter on questions about the likelihood that grizzly bears would move between conservation areas in the Rocky Mountains. Dr. Krohn and I also worked on a variety of projects that weren’t directly related to Maine biodiversity, such as questions about fisher distributions.
Both courtesy and the truth that there are many good professors at UMaine make me hesitant to speak of a favorite professor. I enjoyed learning from many of the professors at the University of Maine. Instead, I’ll mention that I may quote Dr. William Halteman most often. He taught me statistics and the “Halteman’s Intraocular Collision Test” – when a result hits you between the eyes and statistics are not called for.
When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?
The Wildlife Habitat Analysis Laboratory, or GIS lab, in Nutting Hall. We built that lab in an office once occupied by the dean. It was where I spent most of my time, where I learned a great deal, and had some fun too.
While in Orono, I spent too much time:
No regrets, no regrets.
Any experiences at UMaine that nearly did you in?
I almost collided with a moose while driving one night – their brown color can be surprisingly dark.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have …
Learned the art of small talk.
How does UMaine continue to influence your life?
My time at UMaine most often influences me today through the words, attitudes, and training from my mentors while there. For example, when I work with students today I recall the easy, kind, and influential mentoring of Dr. Krohn, my Ph.D. adviser. So many times we would meet, and I would leave his office pleased with having had such a clever idea. Hours later I would slowly realize that the idea was gently and generously suggested to me by a clever mentor.
Best advice to your students?
Find work that you enjoy and are passionate about. If your employment and enjoyment overlap, life should be good.
If not a scientist and researcher, what would you be?
I may have continued the family business, running a small print shop.
Image Description: Randall Boone