Elizabeth Solomon has captured many beautiful scenes on camera while
doing field work in Alaska.
In the Field:
Wolves and Moose and Bears—Oh My!
GIS specialist combines science with wildlife in Alaska
By Tara Laskowski
Elizabeth Solomon, M.S. Geographic and Cartographic
Science '02, works with the backdrop of the gorgeous Alaskan wilderness
in her sight—and helps improve and maintain it. As a geographic
information system (GIS) specialist for the Alaska Department of Fish
and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation Research Group in Anchorage,
Solomon uses scientific tracking and spatial analysis techniques to ensure
that the beautiful and abundant wildlife of Alaska stays that way.
One of Solomon's current projects is a five-year study with a team of
researchers to track Alaskan gray wolves, which will help provide a better
understanding of the complex relationships among wolves and their prey,
wolf movement patterns, and population trends. The project is important
because with Alaska's many traditional lifestyles—fishing, trapping,
and hunting—there is a need to find efficient ways to regulate and
manage the balance of preserving wildlife populations and the livelihood
of the people who live and work off the land.
Solomon first came to Alaska during the summers of her undergraduate
studies to work seasonally for the National Park Service. She says she
loves working in such a varied and beautiful location. "The combination
of being surrounded by vast wilderness lands, abundant natural and native
cultural resources, incredible outdoor recreation opportunities, and rich
wildlife make for a unique and exciting experience—both personally
and professionally," she says.
Her research team is in the third year of its project and is looking
at a sample study from a population of approximately 300 wolves. With
the use of a helicopter, researchers capture the wolves and put radio
collars on them. At that time, samples are taken and data are recorded
to get an accurate picture of the animal's physiology and genetic structure.
The animals are then quickly released back into the wild. The collars
track the animal's whereabouts through use of a satellite. The signals
are transmitted to a receiver that records the information that will eventually
be downloaded into a computer system. Solomon is responsible for organizing
the data and maintaining accuracy, and designing maps, reports, or graphs
that will allow biologists to easily visualize the enormous volume of
spatial data that is collected.
While she spends much time thinking about and tracking wolves, Solomon
has little physical contact with the animals, which has both its advantages
and its disadvantages. "One of the huge advantages of this type of
technology [radar sensory equipment] is that we are able to observe the
animals with minimal invasive contact and, by doing so, can obtain a great
deal of information about them in their natural surroundings," she
Such heavy reliance on technology does have its disadvantages, though.
"Collars are expensive and can fail or weather and drop off the animal;
batteries have limitations; and radio signals can become obscured,"
says Solomon. In addition, the collars are manufactured by several different
companies, so each has its own way of processing data. And because the
area is heavily populated with hunters and trappers, sometimes collared
animals are lost, reducing the study's sample size.
Despite these problems, Solomon enjoys her work immensely and finds it
both challenging and stimulating. Along with her studies on gray wolves,
Solomon works with wildlife biologists, supporting the spatial analysis
needs for research that involves brown and black bears, moose, caribou,
wolverine, lynx, and otter. And she is not limited to the lab. Occasionally,
Solomon helps out with field research. "I get to go out into the
field and participate—such as by sitting in a tree and watching
the behaviors of brown bears and their cubs feeding on salmon streams,"
Although her job entails a lot of research and organization, Solomon
sometimes sees the challenge of living in a small wilderness community
as even more difficult. Navigating her way to places where the only access
to outside areas is by fixed-wing aircraft or boat and where her groceries
need to be flown in can be frustrating. "Life in such remote areas
has its challenges," she says. "But the vast untouched wilderness
and spectacular scenery make Alaska the most exciting place in this country
to live in by far!"