Much of conservation policy is predicated on the idea that ecological reserves can protect species that cannot survive in human-dominated areas. Unfortunately, invasive species, including weeds, forest pests, and feral predators like cats and rats, don't respect reserve boundaries. They may establish within reserves and displace or consume the native species that the reserves were designed to protect. Understanding the factors that promote the spread of invasive species within protected areas is therefore a critical issue for conservation biology. Students in undergraduate Ecology and Conservation Biology classes from across the country will compile data on invasive plants in the National Wildlife Refuges within their own region. The classes will use these data to analyze the factors that tend to promote or inhibit plant invasions and the extent to which these factors vary from one region to the next. In addition to increasing our understanding of impacts of and controls on invasive species, this project also has a strong educational component. More than 200 students in eight classes will have the opportunity to participate in a continental-scale ecological research project. All of these students will gain experience in data analysis and data management at the interface of science and conservation policy. NSF funding will support travel of one student and one instructor from each class to an intensive workshop at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. At this workshop, each group will present the results of their regional analysis. Workshop participants will then complete an analysis of the pooled data from all the classes and create a database on invasive plants in National Wildlife Refuges. This database will be available to wildlife managers and other researchers, supporting management efforts and future research on the spread of invasive plants into protected areas.
We created a network of undergraduate ecology and conservation biology classes to compile and analyze data on non-native and invasive plants in U.S. National Wildlife Refuges. Invasive plants can have several negative consequences for protected areas, including displacement of native species and alteration of the habitats on which wildlife depend. Although National Wildlife Refuges put great effort into managing invasive species, no previous studies have examined patterns in invasive species across Wildlife Refuges. From a scientific perspective, our goal was to determine the factors that could best explain why some National Wildlife Refuges had more non-native or invasive plants than others. This analysis could then be used to help refuge personnel coordinate invasive species management across regions. From an educational perspective, our goal was to provide a meaningful course-based research experience for a large number of undergraduate students. More specifically, we sought to introduce students to a type of collaborative data-based research to which they had not previously been exposed. We enrolled one class from each National Wildlife Refuge region, with two classes from the Pacific and Southeast regions (these had the most refuges). Participating institutions were Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Western Carolina University, Jacksonville University, University of Wisconsin - LaCrosse, Utah St. University, Stanford University, and San Francisco State University. Classes incorporated the project as a 4-6 week course unit, during which time students tracked down and compiled data on invasive plants in National Wildlife Refuges. Because no central listing of invasive plants previously existed, students read refuge planning documents and contacted refuge personnel to get this information. Data on invasive species were checked by NCEAS, then entered into a database and analyzed individually by each class. NSF funding allowed us to bring one student and one faculty member from each class to NCEAS to compile the invasive species data across classes and regions. This workshop accomplished several major goals. First, it ensured data consistency across classes – in spite of our best efforts, classes had interpreted methods in different ways, and at the workshop we were able iron out these discrepancies. Second, the workshop provided an in-depth experience in data compilation and analysis for students and instructors. In addition, it introduced students to highly collaborative research as the group worked around the clock to prepare a final analysis of the data. Our analysis showed that invasive plants were primarily concentrated in refuges in the Northeast, Southeast, and Pacific regions. The best predictors of the number of invasive species were habitat diversity, refuge area, and the diversity of native species. Patterns were relatively similar when comparing invasive species to all non-native species (some of which were not invasive), but we did find variation in the importance of these factors among regions and between mainland refuges and island refuges. Our work led to the compilation of a database of invasive species in nearly 400 Wildlife Refuges – although this database is not complete, it represents the most complete resource to date. With respect to our educational goals, the project provided a collaborative research opportunity for more than 200 students, and an intense workshop experience for 10 students. We believe that our project can serve as a model for how undergraduate classes can be linked to participate in large-scale research and accomplish important data compilation goals for federal and state agencies.