Jillian Howard

Jillian Howard is a PhD student in Integrative Conservation and Forestry. She completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at the University of California, Davis, in 2012.

Jillian came to the ICON program with a strong interest in conservation and an intention to eventually work outside of academia, in government or non-government agencies engaged in wildlife and resource management and conservation. Over the past three years as an ICON student, Jillian’s beliefs that successful conservation requires understanding of both human and natural systems have only been strengthened, and this has become a key component of her research.

Jillian is studying salamander population dynamics to predict habitat suitability across Macon County, in western North Carolina, and combining this work with participatory mapping research to understand how people value forest land in the County. Eventually, she will overlay a map of good salamander habitat and a map of places people value for conservation land uses to determine where these two perspectives intersect. The map of these intersections can then serve as a powerful tool to help land trusts and agencies in the County protect and conserve high quality forest land while avoiding conflicts over land use and land protection.

The southern Appalachian Mountains, where Macon County is located, are home to 15% percent of the world’s salamander species making them a hotspot of salamander diversity. Salamanders are key components of the forest ecosystem. They are found at extremely high densities: by some estimates, in high quality habitat the biomass of salamanders per square meter is greater than the biomass of birds and mammals combined. Because of their abundance, salamanders can affect nutrient cycling by consuming detritivorous and herbivorous insects and thereby regulating rates of leaf litter decomposition and herbivory on forest plants. The southern Appalachians have already undergone massive changes in the last hundred years, first as chestnut trees died out and over the last decade as eastern hemlock trees have been killed by an invasive insect. Climate change is predicted to exacerbate these kinds of broad scale ecosystem alterations. One possible outcome is the loss of salamander diversity as extreme weather events, particularly droughts and heat waves, become more frequent and limit salamanders’ ability to forage, breed, and survive during their summer active season. Additionally, the southern Appalachians are experiencing exurbanization, the movement of city dwellers to rural areas seeking natural amenities, at a rapid rate. Relatively pristine forested landscapes are being developed for housing to accommodate these migrants, and this reduces the amount of available high quality habitat for salamanders and other wildlife.

Salamanders are secretive animals and can be difficult to study. Jillian’s primary data comes from one of the few capture-mark-recapture studies that have been completed on the salamander genus Plethodon, a result of hundreds of hours of night time field work spent capturing, measuring, and individually marking animals over the last six years. This data set has made it possible for Jillian to model size-class-specific survival rates in rich habitat. A newer study sampling populations across a precipitation gradient is providing data to understand how survival varies with variation in precipitation. Jillian has also been estimating fecundity from gravid female salamanders collected across this environmental gradient. These estimates of survival and fecundity accounting for variation in an important climate parameter will allow her to build a predictive, mechanistic population model which will be the first of its kind for this particular group of animals.

In the spring of 2016, Jillian began conducting participatory mapping sessions with residents of Macon County. Participants are provided with a map of the township of their choice which has a set of basic demographic questions on the back, and with a list of possible land uses. They are asked to choose the 5 land uses they value the most, and then mark parcels of public and private forested land within their township to show where they believe each of those uses should occur. If most people agree on the type of use for a given parcel, then that parcel would have low conflict. Jillian will focus on parcels valued for conservation or preservation uses with low levels of conflict when creating her final maps. She is focused on integrating ecological and sociological research in creating her final land conservation tool and has high hopes that this tool will prove useful for land conservation organizations in Macon County.