Ecological consultants: serving on the front lines of species and ecosystem conservation

I was investigating a large forested urban park in Pittsburgh with a soil scientist and stream geomorphologist to select monitoring locations for a project aimed at controlling erosion and stormwater runoff (https://youtu.be/caCGP0ZRxnA). The site was strangely barren of understory vegetation – too barren to be explained solely by overabundant deer populations, as even plants normally avoided by deer were absent. While the stream contained many gravel bars, indicating sedimentation, the geomorphologist pointed out the banks were mostly stable and therefore not the likely sediment source. He pointed to the outdated and unmaintained stormwater control measures along nearby trails and roadways as contributors to the problem, but much of the erosion appeared to be coming from the hillsides that lacked layers of vegetation to slow the water and hold the soil together. A kick of a boot unearthed an unexpected culprit: a particularly bad infestation of the invasive earthworm Amynthas agrestis. The entire humus layer had been replaced with a 10‐cm‐thick layer of worm castings, which easily rolled down the hillsides during rain. These worms are known to disrupt soil ecosystems, contributing to poor plant performance (Chang et al. 2017). Solving the sediment and runoff problem was clearly going to require an interdisciplinary approach to address these issues within constraints of client goals, existing park uses, historic preservation, and project budgets. – TN

While not all projects in ecological consulting are this interdisciplinary, most require interaction with fields such as civil engineering, landscape architecture, geology, environmental chemistry, and cultural resources (eg archeology) – after all, most problems that require ecologists’ insight are not entirely ecological in nature. Byers (2018) broadly described qualities and qualifications of ecological consultants who work in ecosystem restoration, especially internationally. Here, we describe in more detail the types of work ecological consultants typically perform in helping clients meet their regulatory requirements. In so doing, ecological consultants not only serve on the front lines of environmental protection but also work to correct and reverse negative impacts to species and ecosystems. Our focus is on US scenarios, though analogies can be made to other countries.

To read the rest of this article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, please click here.

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