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The species steward: ASU alumna monitors human impact on Arizona wildlife

October 27, 2015

Editor's note: Leading up to Homecoming, we'll be running several stories a week on ASU alumni. Find more alumni stories here.

A chance encounter with a gopher snake at the age of 12 was all it took to turn Christina Akins on to “herpsShort for “herpetofauna,” which are amphibians and reptiles..” 

Now, the 2008 School of Life Sciences grad spends her days searching out frogs, snakes and other reptiles in the “remote and rugged mountain ranges of Arizona” as a wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Akins was recently featured in an Arizona Highways story called “Getting Her Hands Dirty,” something she’s not afraid to do, frequently digging in hillside ponds or wading through vegetation all in the name of wildlife preservation.

Though she’d rather be active outside, the nature lover took some time out to talk with ASU News about how the university helped get her where she is today and what people need to know about wildlife extinction.

Question: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to pursue a career in biology?

Answer: My Opa and Oma (grandparents) built a cabin near the Mogollon RimThe long, steep cliff that forms the southern limit of the Colorado Plateau. when I was a small child. I grew up spending time at our family cabin, looking for fossils, catching tadpoles, etc. When I was 12, I was driving up with two of my uncles and we stopped for a large gopher snake on the dirt road. They picked the snake up off the road and let me hold it — I think that's when I began to have an interest in herps.

Q: How has your experience at ASU helped to put you in the position you are in today?

A: One of my college professors, Stan Cunningham, was instrumental in landing me a position within the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Stan worked for the department for many years prior to teaching at ASU, which allowed for his students to receive hands-on experience related to wildlife management and conservation and research activities the department was engaged in. It also allowed for us to build networking skills and connections with department staff. He encouraged me to apply for the department's internship program and, since I was one of the only students interested in herps, he thought I would be perfect for the Amphibian and Reptile Program. I became an intern for the Ranid Frogs Project in 2007 and have advanced within that project ever since.

Q: What is your favorite part of the work you do today?

A: My favorite part would be spending time in the remote and rugged mountain ranges of Arizona that most people don't have the opportunity to see. As a biologist working with amphibians, I survey and monitor frog populations in remote plunge-pool canyons, springs, "sky island" grasslands, and higher-elevation mountains ranges. Being outside is the best part.

Q: In your recent Arizona Highways feature story, it talks about how you are leading endangered-species recovery initiatives. Why should the general public care about species becoming extinct?

A: It's important to remember that we, the public, are stewards of Arizona's wildlife and each species holds intrinsic value. Because we are the stewards, we need to protect and preserve all wildlife species and their habitat for future generations. At the very least, outdoor activities bring people together, whether it's hunting, fishing, camping or a wildlife viewing opportunity. In addition, these activities bring economic value to the state to Arizona. 

Q: What should they know about how it could negatively affect them?

A: Extinction does happen naturally; however, because of human impact (habitat loss, movement of invasive species, pollution, climate change, etc.) we may be speeding the rate of extinction of some species. The loss of one species from an area could have negative consequences for the larger ecosystem. Additionally, we rely on wildlife species and habitat more than we think. Plants and animals play a significant role in medical research. Many medicines we rely on are derived from plants or animals. Even species native to Arizona have contributed to this type of medical research; saliva from Arizona's only venomous lizard, the Gila monster, has been used to create a drug to help type II diabetes patients.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring biologists?

A: The best advice I can give to students pursuing a degree in biology or ecology is to volunteer for wildlife agencies or the like. The best way to get experience and "get your foot in the door" is to volunteer or be part of an internship program. Take initiative, ask questions and be passionate about what you do.

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657

 
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Inventorying the ark: A pragmatic approach to extinction

ASU center's first tool is a water decision-making tool for corporations.
It's heartbreaking, but biodiversity center knows we can't save everything.
ASU center provides training for network that produces extinction Red Lists.
October 27, 2015

ASU Center for Biodiversity Outcomes creating solutions to conserve — where possible — including decision-making tools for corporations

Biological diversity is the variety of life on Earth, ranging from the microverse of crabs, barnacles and mussels nestled in a tidal pool to a macroverse of baboons, giraffes and elephants ranging across savanna and veldt.

And it’s disappearing. Too often we read about another species in danger of extinction. Ninety-eight percent of tigers are gone. There are four northern white rhinos left in the world — three at a conservancy in Kenya and one in the San Diego Zoo. Thirty percent of frogs are nearing extinction. Honeybees are vanishing across the globeAccording to National Geographic (tigers), UC Berkeley (frogs) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (bees). .

There’s no longer a question of how we're going to save all these species. The reality is we’re past that point.

“We can’t save everything,” said Anita Hagy Ferguson, program coordinator for ASU's Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. “We’re not operating in that la-la land. It’s heartbreaking, but we are operating with real data, with real reality, and you cannot save everything. You have to make choices in what to save and how to save it, so that we can move quickly.”

The center was created a year ago to pragmatically stem the tide of loss in what has been called the Sixth Extinction. Its mission is to make discoveries and create solutions to conserve, where possible, and to manage biodiversity for the long term as the world rapidly changes.

“If we don’t have anyone who can understand nature, how can we protect it?” said founding director Leah Gerber, a marine conservation biologist and a professor with the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences..

A tiger lies by a fallen log.

According to National Geographic, 98 percent of tigers are gone. As more and more species become at risk, wise — and swift — decisions must be made. “You have to make choices in what to save and how to save it, so that we can move quickly,” said ASU Center for Biodiversity Outcomes program coordinator Anita Hagy Ferguson. Photos by Freeimages.com

The centerThe Center for Biodiversity Outcomes is part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the School of Life Sciences.’s research focuses on five areas: biodiversity assessment and decision tools; governance and biodiversity; advancing corporate sustainability; public health and biodiversity; and engagement of underserved youth.

Educating two groups with little knowledge of nature — decision makers in business and government, and those underserved youth — is the key behind those five research areas, center officials said.

How will the center know it’s making a difference? When corporations automatically think about their impact on the natural world, when government agencies and conservation groups ask for help in solving problems, and when young people who traditionally aren’t involved with the natural world choose careers in conservation biology.

“As far as success, our metrics are impacts on decisions, on society and on building our capacity to address biodiversity challenges,” Gerber said.

New methods

Conservation scientists know they’re losing the fight. Traditional methods, like roping off a habitat and telling people "hands-off," aren’t working.

“A big reason is because biodiversity conservation problems aren’t really problems inherent with the animals and plants,” Hagy Ferguson said. “They’re human-social problems.

“We want to work with the local people who live in those places where those species live. We want to work with people who fish for a certain kind of fish that’s going extinct. Even though it’s a resource, they have an interest in its conservation from a resource perspective. Our objective is to work on multiple scales.”

Going out and studying something and tossing results back to interested parties hasn’t worked for conservation biologists either.

Instead of coming down from the mount of academia and bestowing knowledge, the center’s approach is to go to the outside world and ask questions. What kinds of problems do you have, and how can we help? What is your need? Researchers offer questions in a scientific framework, applying rigorous methodology. They then go back and say, “Here is how we’re going to answer this question. What do you think? How can you work with us?”

“Even when people make an effort to communicate science to the public, it’s difficult to do it in a way that’s meaningful to them,” Hagy Ferguson said.

When Gerber meets with non-profit organizations and other non-governmental groups, she often hears this: “I need a decision on this thing that needs to be made tomorrow and I have no data.”

Two ways the center aims to answer that type of query are with tools and people. “There’s a very practical way we’re trying to make some inroads and stem the flow of loss,” Hagy Ferguson said.

A stream runs over rocks.The first tool being created by the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes is a water decision-making tool that will help corporations assess risks to the public, the environment and their business associated with their water use. It will be presented to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Paris in December.

Decision-making tools

The general public cares about biodiversity. It reflects well on a corporation — it’s one reason why Dawn puts pictures of seals on bottles of soap. Coca-Cola has an intensive water-conservation campaign and plan. It looks good for them, but they are also aware that if there’s no water, there’s no Coke either.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Indices are a sign it’s an important issue in the corporate world. Launched in 1999, the family of indices evaluates the performance of 2,500 companies based on an analysis of economic, environmental and social performance, assessing issues like corporate governance, risk management, branding, climate-change mitigation, supply-chain standards and labor practices. The trend is to reject companies that do not operate in a sustainable and ethical manner. British Petroleum was booted off in 2010, 40 days after the Deepwater Horizon blew up in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, many corporations have no idea how to go about becoming sustainable.  

What Gerber recognized was a demand from the corporate sector on data and analytics.

“Not that necessarily the corporations altruistically care, but a lot of shareholders want to make socially responsible choices, so there’s a demand,” she said. “But they’re not scientists. They don’t have the capacity. So we have this opportunity to provide relevant information and to provide new tools that can be used. I would define success as large corporations using tools that consider nature’s services and resources in everyday operations.”

The first tool being created by the center is a water decision-making tool. The decision-support tool will help corporations assess risks to the public, the environment and their business associated with their water use. It will be presented to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Paris in December.

“I think people are going to see that and say, ‘I want in,’ ” Gerber said.

The center is also creating a biodiversity offsets tool. A logging company using it might decide to cut down five trees in that area, but to plant five others in this area.

“What we’re trying to do is to get them closer to doing that equal thing,” Hagy Ferguson said. “Help people to recognize that that place you actually want to pull out trees is a super-biodiverse area.

“It might not even be a tree-for-tree thing; it might be we’re going to take these trees and contribute to the tiger fund. It’s trying to see if we can have corporations replace the impact in some way. ... The tool helps them make decisions, but it also protects their bottom line.”

Another focus of the center is to produce highly trained scientists who will have an immediate impact in a field that is beginning to seek them. Traditionally, graduating with a conservation biology degree meant either academia or a competitive job market with few openings.

Non-profits such as the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, and Conservation International all have programs targeted at youth.

“What we’re going to do is grab those youth and pull them through college, and then they’re going to pull them back from us when they’ve gone through our program and give them jobs,” Hagy Ferguson said.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the largest professional global conservation network, with almost 11,000 scientists volunteering. Most people know it from its Red List, which usually appears in the news as a headline that something is on the verge of extinction. More specifically the Red List tells the world what’s looking good and what’s not for a particular species. The IUCN is doing a worldwide inventory of everything.

“We can’t make decisions about what to save if we don’t know what we have,” Hagy Ferguson said. “Doing the assessing and Red Listing is a very particular methodology, and you have to be specially trained for it. They are the global standard because their data is good data, and their data is good data because they follow a very rigorous standard. It’s reliable.”

The center, which has several faculty affiliates who work with IUCN, is providing IUCN training.

“What we want to do is position ASU as an IUCN training center,” she said. “We’ll train people for Red Listing, which gets students out in the field and learning a practical methodology.”

The center has big goals and small, specific ways of moving towards them.

“I am confident we’re going to get there in the next couple of years,” Gerber said.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502