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Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership: Supporting Native American Graduate Students in Wildlife Biology

The Wildlife Biology Program (WBIO) at University of Montana is among the top-ranked wildlife programs in North America. In 2016, Academic Analytics ranked UM’s WBIO as the top program in the nation based on faculty research productivity.  WBIO comprises 24 faculty and approximately 350 undergraduate and 65 graduate students.  Based on current data, students in WBIO come from 44 states.

WBIO is committed to enhancing diversity through partnership with Native American Tribes and other partners to expand graduate education opportunities. In 2019, UM admitted three new Native American students into its graduate program.  Another Native American student successfully defended her thesis and graduated from the graduate program in 2020. UM is one of seven universities in the United States that are part of the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership (SIGP). The purpose of SIGP is to strengthen and expand university initiatives to recruit, train, and graduate Native American and Alaska Native students in STEM graduate programs. To that end, WBIO is committed to pursuing partnerships that support Native American and Alaska Native graduate students.

Alaska Landsat State Mosaic
Alaska has 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the United States. Denali is the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet above sea level. Denali, the native name for the mountain, means “The Great One.” Capital Juneau Image Source Landsat 8 Population 733,391 Number of Pixels 1,691,822,495 Visit Landsat Benefits, State By State to learn more about how Landsat brings science to your state.  

UM WBIO is excited to partner with USGS and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to advance Native American graduate education. The FWS is the premier federal agency charged with conserving our Nation’s fish and wildlife and is committed to enhancing diversity within the wildlife biology profession. 

Project Proposal

Following initial conversations with the USFWS, we propose to admit and mentor three Native American graduate students at the M.S. level in our Wildlife Biology Program at UM.  One student will be assigned to conduct work in each of the following USFWS Regions: Region 1 (Pacific), Region 2 (Southwest), and Region 6 (Mountain-Prairie).  Each student will conduct graduate research on species of greatest conservation need or species at risk. Specific research projects will be identified in collaboration with the USFWS and potentially other partners (e.g., Tribal and state fish and wildlife agencies) after the students have been admitted into UM’s graduate program.

Region 1 Graduate Project

We have admitted Sattie Whitefoot Fisher from the Yakama Tribe to complete the graduate research project in the Pacific Region. Sattie completed her B.S. in wildlife and fisheries at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana in June 2020. Over the years, Sattie has worked for the USDA Forest Service, the Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica, and in Alaska with the Sun’aq tribe of Kodiak in a variety of research and technician positions for threatened and endangered species. She has presented her research at the Native American Fish & Wildlife Society annual conferences and at SACNAS events. At SACNAS she received an award for the best student poster presentation. Sattie is a recipient of the Native Student Professional Development program offered by TWS in 2018 and 2019. Sattie is interested in a Ph.D. and moving back to Yakama to help her people in managing natural resources, fisheries, wildlife, and water.

Sattie has begun conducting field research on the Yakama Nation Reservation.  Her research is focused on addressing effects of wild/feral horses on elk and deer movements and landscape use. She is using cameras to document abundance and distribution of the three species across the Yakama Reservation. Sattie anticipates completing her MS Thesis in spring or summer 2023. 

Colored pencil illustration of an elk with a forest background
Part of a series of small inset drawings, this is quite simply, an Elk. The backdrop is that of pinion pine and Red Butte.

Region 2 Graduate Project

We have admitted Xavier Lovato from Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblo to complete the graduate research project in the Southwest Region. Xavier completed his BS in wildlife sciences at New Mexico State University in 2019. He has worked for the USDA Forest Service, NRCS and Purdue University in a variety of wildlife and research technician positions focused on endangered species. Xavier participated in the NMSU Natural Resource Career Track program where he had numerous opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities like honors programs, AISES, SACNAS and local/national TWS meetings. In 2016 and 2017, Xavier was a recipient of the Native Student Professional Development program provided by TWS. Xavier is recognized as a Gates Millennium Scholar, a noteworthy accomplishment that provides academic support for life. He is excited to be continuing his education at University of Montana and his career goal is to become the first wildlife biologist for his tribe in New Mexico.

Xavier Lovato is studying the use of acoustic monitoring devices for non-invasively and remotely monitoring northern spotted owl populations. Xavier is working on both Mexican spotted owls at Apache Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico and northern spotted owls at Yakama Reservation in Washington. Xavier anticipates completing his MS Thesis in fall 2023.

Northern spotted owl perched on a tree branch
Northern spotted owls are mostly non-migratory, long-lived birds whose populations have declined in mature forests of western North America.

Region 6 Graduate Project USGS grizzly bear researcher snapped this picture of a mother grizzly bear and her cub in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Frank van Manen, USGS

We admitted Kenneth Edmo from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to complete the graduate research project in the Mountain-Prairie Region.  Kenneth completed his B.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries at Salish Kootenai College (SKC), Pablo, Montana in 2017. He received an All Nations Alliance for Minority Participation Scholarship and an American Indian College Fund Scholarship. He was involved with numerous undergraduate research projects while attending SKC. He completed two summers of research for his senior thesis project, ‘Bridge structures as roosting habitats for bats on the Flathead Reservation’. He worked with Dr. Scott Mills on snowshoe hare research at the University of Montana through the Native Fellows Program and as an intern with the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates internship, ‘Transforming Indigenous Geoscience Education and Research’. Kenneth also completed a project on agouti behavior at the Organization for Tropical Studies, Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica; assisted with Long-billed Curlew monitoring on the Flathead Reservation in a joint project with CSKT; worked on a fire history study with the Tasmanian Land Conservancy; compiled data on native plant phenology; and analyzed mosquitos for West Nile Virus through an internship at SKC. After graduation, he worked as a resource assistant with the US Forest Service Research Station in Missoula, Montana. Kenneth grew up on the Flathead Reservation and is interested in conservation research that would benefit his community and future generations.

Grizzly bear on a remote camera.
When looking for a place to set up a capture location, biologists look for existing bear sign such as scratches on trees and bear scat.  Sometimes traps are set in areas that have no obvious bear sign to determine if indeed bears are present.

Kenneth is working on grizzly bear-human conflict in Montana with a focus on standardizing external communication to stakeholders regarding how regulations, recommendations, and resources vary across agencies and jurisdictions.  Kenneth anticipates completing his professional MS in December 2022. 

Research and Education Outcomes

Each student has selected a graduate advisor and formed a graduate committee comprised of at least three UM faculty. The advisor and graduate committee are mentoring the student throughout the degree program. Responsibilities broadly include guidance on coursework, research, and professional development. Students are additionally supported and mentored by Jennifer Harrington (UM’s Native American Natural Resource Program Coordinator), Serra Hoagland (USFS Liaison Officer, SKC), and Janene Lichtenberg (SKC Wildlife and Fisheries Department Head) and a robust Native American community at UM. Students will further be supported through the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership at UM. 

In accordance with UM Wildlife Biology Policies and Procedures, each student has or will soon defend a research proposal on their selected project.  Students are required to complete their research, analyze data, and write and defend a thesis before their graduate committee.  UM will make every effort to support each student to attend professional conferences and present research findings. The USFWS and other contributors will be acknowledged in all presentations and publications. Data summaries and the approved Thesis will be shared with all project collaborators, consistent with any data sharing agreements that might arise through identification of the specific research projects. Students will be strongly encouraged to submit Thesis chapters for publication after completion of their degrees. The UM Wildlife Biology Program has an exceptional reputation for publishing graduate research. During 2017-2019, wildlife faculty at UM published approximately 450 peer-reviewed journal publications, equating to an average of 6.3 publications/faculty member/year. Most of these publications were co-authored by graduate students.