Dirty Collabs: Karl Jarvis, Conservation Biologist

Dirty Collabs: Karl Jarvis, Conservation Biologist

Karl Jarvis began in evolutionary biology. As an undergraduate he worked on understanding the genetic patterns of animals affected by climate change, from earwigs to other insects. He spent time studying the diversity of phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that live in streams and other bodies of water, and the ways in which they are affected by wildfire. Now, as a professor of biology at Southern Utah University, he continues to focus on wildlife and the ways in which we humans affect them. 

Much of his recent work has revolved around the ability of wildlife, from insects to large mammals to birds, to travel. “Parts of a suitable habitat wildlife have to have are food, they have to have water, they have to have mates. And they can’t really find those things in one tiny area,” he says. In other words, travel and movement are crucial for wildlife to survive. In the U.S., Jarvis explains, 20% of the lower 48 states are in what they call the “road effect zone,” or the region in which noise pollution, air pollution, soil changes and water pollution, and light pollution from street lights all have an effect on wildlife. So while the deer in one habitat might be okay right now, as climate change comes in and makes their habitat unsuitable, they will have to adapt to survive. "What’s happening is that we’re causing huge problems because of that combination of climate change and limiting the ability of wildlife to move. Beyond taking the animal’s habitat,” he explains, “it’s also about preventing movement. And we’re fragmenting landscapes with roads.”

Roads are incredibly fundamental to human life, and while the best solution, to stop building roads altogether, is not a feasible one, Professor Jarvis says there are other ways to alleviate the problem. One solution focuses on human safety as well as the protection of wildlife: animal crossing structures. 

Road in Utah

What is your background in conservation science and what have you been working on?

JARVIS: I started out focusing on evolutionary biology, but I was always trying to connect it to conservation. So initially I worked on understanding the genetic patterns of animals that are affected by climate change. That moved more into looking at genetic patterns in animals that are affected by roads. Both are human impacts on wildlife. And then I kind of spread out from there as well. We had a student project on diversity of phytoplankton — microscopic plants in streams — and how they’re affected by wildfire. So it’s always been kind of an ecology and conservation focus. Community, ecology, and how people affect the environment. My PhD is in forestry — but that’s a much broader topic than it might sound.  My focus is primarily on wildlife and how we affect them. 

What are some things you’ve been working on more recently? 

JARVIS: I have a couple things going on. One of them is looking at the influence of roads on wildlife, this time looking at the human safety side. What are the factors that make it more likely for deer to cross the road in certain places, leading to a lot of road kill and a lot of dangerous road situations? I have some students working on how the topography of the landscape and fencing affect whether the deer will try to cross in those areas, with a goal of trying to help UDOT try to figure out where to build crossing structures for them to reduce risk. The other project we’re working on is looking at the diet of desert tortoises — these cool tortoises that live in a lot of areas of the southwest, but in particular a subspecies that’s only found in our region of Southwestern Utah. We are looking at how fires and invasive species affect their diet, using genetics to analyze their scat — their poop — to understand what plants they’re eating and how their diet is affected by the changes that have occurred due to fire and invasive species. 

What kinds of structures do you have in mind to help with wildlife crossing? 

JARVIS: There are a few of these crossing structures for wildlife we have in Utah — some of the first in the nation. Either they're going over or under the road, so they can be bridges or underpasses. Probably the best for the region we’re talking about would be more of a covert, or a bridge to go over the road. There is also fencing that prevents them from going onto the road and then kind of funnels them into these crossing structures that helps them learn where they are. They actually do teach their young where to go, so those have been very successful in parts of the state of Utah and other parts of the continent. So that would be ideal, getting structures installed in the right places to keep roads safer, both for people and wildlife. 

Did you find anything in regards to fires and the diets of the desert tortoises? 

JARVIS: We are just starting that so we don’t have much in the way of results yet. I can say we have seen that some of these desert tortoises have been eating cheat grass, a common invasive plant in Utah and other parts of North America. It’s a problem because it fills in a lot of the space between the native plants. It’s low, it grows very quickly and then dies off very quickly. It causes the fires to spread, so it’s an interrelated issue, fire and the invasive species. The tortoises we’ve seen eat some of the cheat grass, which would provide less nutrition than a lot of the native grasses and other native seeds, so that might be a concern. And then just the fact that fire is more likely where the invasive species have been means it could really be changing where the tortoises are living and how successful they are at living where the invasive species and fires are happening.  

In your research, what have you noticed about the effects of climate change?

JARVIS: My master’s project was on these insects called ice crawlers — their scientific name is Grylloblattidae — a little known group of insects that generally live at pretty cold temperatures. They’re in a group of insects that includes the praying mantis, cockroaches, and another group of insects called mantophasmatodea. They’re also related to grasshoppers and a number of other insects. As I was going around to places they’d been found before, I kept finding what should have been a good habitat and there were no ice crawlers. It turned out the temperature was completely wrong. By now they have presumably gone extinct. I have a student working on listing these as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and near-threatened beings — and presumably extinct for some of them, potentially. So it’s a direct, obvious result of climate change for these insects. They have nowhere to go. They’re very active, they can run, but they can’t get themselves from the top of one mountain to the next because they’d have to go through temperatures too warm to make it there. So we are potentially losing an entire lineage of insects to climate change, a whole order of insects. It would be just a shame to see it lost. 

I just watched David Attenborough’s A Life On Earth. He offers some solutions that seem practical, actually, and doable.

JARVIS: Yeah, it’s great to see that kind of thing. You hear the complaints sometimes, that you cannot come away from it feeling bad, but that’s ignoring the reality of what’s there. We’re not going to have these nature shows, showing us the beauty of all the life on earth if it doesn’t exist anymore. We’re pushing these things out. He’s not saying what he is to make us feel guilty. He is providing solutions. We don’t have to completely get rid of all modern conveniences and all modern life, we can actually do some things about biodiversity. Technology and conservation have a complicated relationship, because as we invent things, as we build more and develop more, we tend to feel like we’re following this inevitable forward progress — that we’re learning more and that makes things better. But if you think about most of the environmental problems we have, they come from technology. It’s depressing, but if you’re wise about how you use technology, if you actually pay attention to its effects on so many different things, which results in a mix of good and bad. By taking the right approach, it is possible, I believe, to do a lot better than we have. We also, at the same time, can’t just say “technology will save us.” A lot of the time we’re not willing to use the technology we do have in the ways that are better. There are always unknowns and better and worse ways of using technology. 

In the bigger body of your research on roads and wildlife, a lot of possibility for change doesn’t come down to individuals as much as it would from governments. But are there basic things you’d want people to be aware of?

JARVIS: There is a lot of power to make change in government. But individuals can really change things just by opening up, communicating about things that matter, and getting those into people’s minds. We can’t all be Rachel Carson who wrote Silent Spring. But even so, the idea that she could take this approach of simply letting the world know about some of the things that scientists knew, once people started reading this book, it really changed the course of the way things were going, because people were talking about it and realizing there were major environmental issues from many of the pollutants we were indiscriminately dumping out there. The more people talked about it, the more it became something the governments had to pay attention to. There are different ways communities approach issues — there’s not one answer. But showing that you care about it, talking about it makes a big difference. 

Is there a practical solution?

JARVIS: It’s sad that basically the best solution is not to have roads. It’s sad in terms of human connections — we want to see places, each other. Fundamentally our roads are a huge issue. Canals, railroads, all of these are major problems for wildlife. What do we do about it? Well, we’re not going to get rid of our roads. It’s just not going to happen except in very limited circumstances. So we try to build crossing structures, increase connectivity from population to population — that’s one piece of it. Even more important is making sure that there is good habitat that does connect. There’s an old debate in conservation biology: is it better to have lots of small nature reserves, or fewer large nature reserves? As the debate has gone on over the years, people have become more and more convinced that fewer, large reserves are more important. One way to do that is to take the smaller reserves and find ways to connect them. Say there is a good habitat patch for the Florida panther in one place, and in another place it’s not living there but we’re trying to connect it to another population. Maybe all it takes to do that is to convert a band of farms in between to be a habitat for cougars and other species. Improving habitat, restoring small patches of land can end up connecting these reserves and make a huge difference.

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