Meet one of the People of the Sage, Dr. Anna Chalfoun, Assistant USGS Cooperative Research Unit Leader and Associate Professor at the University of Wyoming. Don’t let the titles intimidate you, Anna Chalfoun loves all types of hockey, loves horses—all animals really! Even snakes.
People of the Sage
She just finished reading “Circe” by Madeline Miller and is about to start “The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life” by David Quammen. And some of the songs on her playlist right now include “Cake by the Ocean” by DNCE, “Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam, and “Little Red Wagon” by Miranda Lambert. A coffee drinker, who fell in love with espresso in Italy last year, Chalfoun’s primary focus is on understanding the processes and factors that influence wildlife-habit relationships. Her work in the sagebrush steppe spans disciplines of ecology, evolution, behavior and conservation biology, and diverse taxa including birds, small mammals, and amphibians and reptiles.
Meet Dr. Anna Chalfoun, in her own words:
What path brought you to sagebrush habitat and songbird research, and which came first?
It was actually kind of an accident. I really wanted to work with Tom Martin at the University of Montana and Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit for my doctoral work. He was known to be very tough and is a very well-respected avian ecologist. I knew he would push me and make me a better thinker and scientist. He indicated that he was seeking a student to work on sagebrush passerines because concern for them was really ramping up at the time. I was kind of a forest snob at that point because I grew up in beautiful, green Vermont which is dominated by mixed hardwood forest. I also spent a year working in the outrageously magical redwood forests in California after college, and then conducted my master’s work within an eastern deciduous forest. So more open ecosystems were new to me. Fast forward to today and I am one of the world’s more adamant advocates for the amazingness of the sagebrush steppe!
Was there anything about your upbringing, or any personal interests you have, that led you to this vocation?
Growing up, my mom would find toads in jars in my closet, and I was always outside exploring either on foot or horseback. So, it is not surprising that I converged on a career focused on wildlife ecology.
How long have you been working on sagebrush species?
Since I started my doctoral work in 2001— so 18 years.
What questions are you trying to answer right now?
Wyoming has some of the largest contiguous remaining tracts of sagebrush steppe and as such bears a lot of responsibility for the future of sagebrush wildlife populations. My graduate students (Michelle Gilbert, Matthew Hethcoat, Lindsey Sanders, Max Carlin and Ashleigh Rhea) and I have studied the mechanisms underlying the effects of habitat changes associated with energy development on the three sagebrush-dependent songbirds (Brewer’s sparrows, sagebrush sparrows, and sage thrashers) since 2008. This has also entailed an assessment of how other sagebrush-dwelling wildlife (corvids, raptors, rodents, mesocarnivores—animals whose diets are 30-70% meat) are distributed with respect to development. Another recent effort (Jason Carlisle’s dissertation) was a rigorous, multi-scale analysis of whether the Greater sage-grouse functions as an effective umbrella species for the conservation and management of lesser-studied, non-game birds, mammals and reptiles in Wyoming.
Recently we have segued to asking questions about the effects of weather (temperature and precipitation) on songbird behavior and nesting productivity. Tayler Scherr is investigating whether parent songbirds can modulate the effects of extreme temperatures on offspring via nest site selection and parental care behaviors. With the help of former post-doc Embere Hall and Research Scientist Lindsey Sanders we have also compiled existing datasets comprised of thousands of nests from all four of our study areas in Wyoming and Montana to ask questions about the influence of temperature and precipitation on reproductive success of birds. Finally, my colleague Tracey Johnson (University of Idaho) and I have some on-going, long-term research focused on how plant and bird communities change following sagebrush restoration efforts in Grand Teton National Park.
What are your favorite sights, sounds and smells when you are working in the field?
The smell of sagebrush after a rain is incomparable. I often crush sagebrush leaves and sniff them as I am searching for songbird nests. The long song of the Brewer’s sparrow is incredible. And of course, I love the wide-open skies of sagebrush country.
Do you have a favorite songbird?
I would have to say Brewer’s sparrows. They have taught me so much. And how amazing is it that this tiny, 11-gram bird flies over one thousand miles back to the same breeding grounds every spring! But I also love western tanagers…All tanagers really. They are so colorful!
Do you have a favorite place in #sagebrushcountry?
I love where we work in the Pinedale, Wyoming area. Within the sagebrush steppe, I love exploring areas with the tree-like, tall patches of basin big sage along drainages, etc. That is where you can find cool stuff like loggerhead shrike nests.
What keeps you motivated?
All of the contemporary challenges that wildlife face and getting to work with the next generation of biologists.
Do you have any mentors that helped shape your career path? Who were they and what’s something you learned?
Oh gosh, I have had so many fantastic mentors. Dr. Paulette Peckol at Smith College was a great role model during my undergraduate years. My master’s co-advisors Dr. Frank Thompson III and Dr. Mary Ratnaswamy were always so supportive and encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. And Tom Martin was a tough but incredible doctoral advisor. Without him, there is no way I would be where I am today. Through Tom, I was also introduced to the Cooperative Research Unit system and am lucky to now have the equivalent of his position in Wyoming.
What’s your approach to mentoring students?
It varies depending on their needs, strengths, and weaknesses. But scientifically I encourage them to first identify what I refer to as the “CGKs”— i.e., critical gaps in knowledge related to their study foci.
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom you would share with our sagebrush conservation partners and practitioners?
Yes! Not all areas or microhabitats within sagebrush lands have equal value to different species. The places, for example, that are ideal for sage-grouse foraging and nesting are not necessarily the best for sagebrush songbirds or pygmy rabbits, that tend to be found and do better in areas with taller, higher cover sage. So, we need to be careful to maintain variation in the structure and composition of sagebrush habitat within landscapes. Many areas that were historically composed of the taller, larger sagebrush have been converted because they are also the most arable. Moreover, once sagebrush habitats have been highly disturbed or converted, it is extremely difficult to restore or “reclaim” them back to their original state. So, having areas that remain undisturbed will be critical for the management and maintenance of sagebrush species into the future.
What is one piece of advice you would offer your 18-year-old self?
I had a bumper sticker on my first pick-up truck that said: “Fail until you succeed.” I think that nicely sums up my professional successes.
To learn more about Anna Chalfoun’s work, please visit http://www.uwyo.edu/chalfoun/
This edition of "People of the Sage" is published in the Fall 2019 Sagewest Newletter.