Photo (caption below)

Elizabeth Solomon has captured many beautiful scenes on camera while doing field work in Alaska.




The Mason Spirit: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of George Mason University

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 says.

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," she says.

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!"