MNFI scientist honored with national award

The Partners in Flight Awards Committee selected Dr. Joelle Gehring, senior conservation scientist for Michigan State University Extension‘s Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI), to receive a national award for her contributions toward bird conservation, specifically her work on bird collisions with communications towers.

Partners in Flight (PIF) came about in 1990 in response to growing concerns about declines in the population of many land bird species. PIF is a cooperative effort involving partnerships among federal, state and local government agencies, philanthropic foundations, professional organizations, conservation groups, industry, the academic community and private individuals.

Dr. Gehring’s research on lighted communication towers has paved the way for reducing collision mortality of birds, perhaps worldwide. More than 100,000 lighted communication towers are located in the U.S. It’s conservatively estimated that these towers cause the death of between four million and 50 million birds a year in our country alone. Dr. Gehring conducted the first fully replicated research on the effects of various types of communication towers with various types of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lighting systems on the collision rates of birds. She discovered that by extinguishing the red, steady-burning L-810 lights but leaving on the strobe or incandescent blinking lights, collision mortality can be reduced 50 to 71 percent. In other words, her work may save the lives of millions of birds a year.

According to Dr. Brian Klatt, MNFI director, the FAA is currently reviewing its regulations to incorporate Joelle’s findings into the lighting requirements for towers across the U.S.

Presentation of the award takes place at the 76th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Kansas City, Mo., during the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director’s Reception on March 17, 2011.

This story strikes close to home for me, since my own area of research and teaching has been in the area of fish (and wildlife) conservation. What I especially appreciate about Joelle’s work is that it runs contrary to a common theme I experienced earlier in my career: a common reaction of conservationists was to recognize that something causes a problem for wildlife (or fish) and the only solution we could come up with was to ban whatever caused the problem. That may be a prudent reaction in the short term, but often “stop the” whatever would be promoted as a long-term solution. Banning communication towers, airport lighting and wind turbines isn’t a likely short- or long-term solution to bird strikes. Joelle’s work reflects an attitude that “if we study this carefully and think about this logically, understanding the behavior of birds should give us some opportunities to find solutions that have a more lasting impact.” Her diligence and creative research really are monumental in their impacts on bird conservation. We’re fortunate to have colleagues like Joelle to help inspire all of us to think creatively and find solutions built on scientific understanding of a situation. I’m really pleased the Partners in Flight have seen fit to recognize her innovation and determination to solve challenges.

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