WMI Student Fellows Ortega and Rodgers awarded prestigious NSF funding

Two WMI Student Fellows have received National Science Foundation fellowships to support research on Wyoming deer migrations.

Anna Ortega and Patrick Rodgers, both master’s students in zoology and Student Fellows with the Wyoming Migration Initiative, will be pursuing ambitious research thanks to National Science Foundation fellowships they received this spring. Both are supervised by WMI’s Matt Kauffman.

Anna Ortega, from Durango, Colorado, has a passion for conservation, wildlife, and public engagement that runs generations deep.

Her great grandfather, William J. Peters, was second-in-command and chief scientist for the Ziegler North Pole expedition of 1903. “I grew up hearing suspenseful stories of his two-year survival in the frozen Arctic after a shipwreck annihilated half their supplies,” Ortega recalls.

That ill-fated expedition wasn’t the end of the stories which inspired Ortega’s outdoor science career. Her grandfather also traveled over 92,000 miles to remote locations around the world, and Peters Dome and Peters Glacier (both in Denali National Park) are monuments to his contributions to modern knowledge of geography and the earth’s magnetic fields.

Ortega’s biology background has prepared her well to study the complex migratory strategies mule deer pursue in south-central Wyoming. She has contributed to research on oil-spill impacts on Piping Plovers; forage availability for Red Knots (another shorebird species); population dynamics and reproductive success of Emperor Geese; range health assessments, herbarium specimen and seed collection; sage grouse habitat mapping; and habitat preferences of bees in the Rocky Mountains. In the latter case, Ortega was an undergraduate researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado, one of the nation’s oldest research stations. There, she co-authored manuscripts, including a paper investigating which variables affect the quality of floral resources and nectar production, a study she designed and implemented herself.

Recently, Ortega has been a Wildlife Field Technician and GIS Analyst for several studies conducted by the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Working for the Coop Unit here in Wyoming, she has worked on sagebrush, mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose, and elk in the field, as well as mapping and database work for several of these species.

Throughout these experiences, Ortega has actively sought out opportunities to engage the public, particularly underrepresented minorities, in her research. For example, see our Facebook post about a Women in STEM day workshop she hosted for young women from around the state.

Through her NSF fellowship, Ortega will focus on identifying the factors which cause mule deer to make migrations of different lengths. Three different migratory strategies have been observed in a mule deer herd wintering in Wyoming’s Red Desert. These include:

  1. Long-distance migrants that travel 150 miles to the Hoback Basin for the summer (the longest recorded mule deer migration, named the Red Desert to Hoback migration);
  2. Medium-distance migrants that migrate nearly 70 miles to the southern Wind River Range for the summer;
  3. Short-distance migrants that either migrate less than 30 miles north for the summer or live year-round in the Red Desert.

“Some of my analyses include comparing fat dynamics, birth rates, fawn recruitment and adult survival among the different migratory strategies,” she says. In a world of increasing human disturbance and a changing climate, Ortega says management decisions could determine the fate of many species. She adds that it is imperative that people making these decisions are guided by well-informed experts, and she strives to be one of those individuals.

“With the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, I will now be able to devote more time to developing my skills and [developing the] knowledge required to make important ecological decisions in an ever-changing world,” she says. “Furthermore, I will be able to continue bridging the gaps between scientific discovery and the general public.”

Patrick Rodgers, from Casper, Wyoming, also grew up with a passion for the outdoors and wildlife.

“As the son of a wildlife filmmaker,” he says, “my curiosity about animals and ecosystems began inside my small-town, Wyoming home, where sound bites from interviews with the nation’s top wildlife biologists and ecologists played constantly.”

Rodgers also grew up outdoors, with hunting a favorite pastime. It was out hunting that his interest in the outdoors transformed from noting biological information to being curious about the processes and mechanisms underlying natural systems.

“It was late autumn, and I was tracking an elk in freshly fallen snow through a dense patch of aspen,” he recalls. He noticed teeth marks, where elk had peeled away the aspen bark. Although he knew this was a common forage for elk, he became curious about how the animals could digest such fibrous and dense vegetation. Years later, as a University of Wyoming undergraduate in Carlos Martinez Del Rio’s Animal Biology course, Rodgers learned how elks’ ruminant digestive system obtains useable proteins from the aspen bark. In the course of asking Del Rio about this process, Rodgers was offered the opportunity to work in Del Rio’s lab.

After that research experience, Rodgers went on to help develop a raptor education program at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. He also worked as an aide and later a mentor for incoming students in the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. More recently, Rodgers has worked with a range of entities across Wyoming, including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and as a wildlife technician with Western Ecosystems Technology, Inc. There, he co-authored a paper evaluating effectiveness of overpasses and underpasses built for mule deer and pronghorn. “Our results suggest that mule deer prefer crossing under the highway,” he says. Conversely, “pronghorn are more likely to cross over. Wildlife managers and state agencies can now use this data to more effectively place appropriate structures to restore habitat connectedness and decrease wildlife-vehicle collisions.”

Rodgers recently finished the first year of his master’s project, which his NSF fellowship supports. His research aims to get to the bottom of a key question: do migratory behaviors of male and female mule deer differ?

Research and conservation efforts around mule deer migration in the last decade have focused primarily on does, while major gaps in understanding of buck migratory behaviors remain, Rodgers says. In south-central Wyoming, near the town of Baggs, his research team captured and outfitted 81 buck mule deer with satellite collars (which collect hourly location data) in an area with ongoing GPS-location data for does.

“From these data, I will analyze sex-based differences in migratory patterns and behaviors – specifically, timing of migration, time spent on seasonal ranges (winter and summer foraging areas) and green wave surfing (the ability of individuals to track plant green-up in spring),” he says.

Additionally, Rodgers will assess shifts in buck behaviors in and around the autumn hunting season. This new information will be useful for local managers to more effectively prioritize mule deer migratory routes and adjust hunting seasons and regulations in order to reach herd objectives.

“Receiving this NSF Graduate Fellowship has been an incredible boon to my academic career,” Rodgers says. “Not only has it allowed me to better focus on my research and worry less about funding, but it also has expanded my opportunities as a student and a biologist.

“Specifically, this fellowship will allow me to expand outreach efforts — a component of science that I consider to be crucial — to convey information about migration and mule deer ecology to the general public. My hope is that this fellowship will enable me to better contribute to both scientific and public understanding of wildlife ecology and wildlife-related issues.”

Both Anna Ortega and Patrick Rodgers will be out in the field collecting data this summer.

WMI congratulates both of these Student Fellows, and we look forward to sharing their work with you as their projects progress.

Anna Ortega (left) helps process a bighorn sheep during capture operations in winter 2017. For her NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Anna Ortega will study different migratory strategies that have been observed in a mule deer herd wintering in Wyoming’s Red Desert. (Photo: Benjamin Kroushaar)

Patrick Rodgers (left) helps release a deer near Dubois with Wyoming Game and Fish Warden Brian Baker during a GPS collaring operation. In his NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Rodgers will analyze sex-based differences in migratory patterns and behaviors in mule deer in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Benjamin Kroushaar)

Student presentations from annual Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit:

Anna Ortega:


Patrick Rodgers