FEATURE: Climate Renegade

By on May 10, 2016
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(Photo: Jay Nel-Mcintosh)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – We read about it. We debate about it. We ridicule politicians and their stances on it. We complain about shorter winters and rising temperatures, but Wyoming resorts are still thriving and this area’s rivers still full of fish.

Besides lamenting the effects of climate change, many folks aren’t really doing anything about it. Last year was the hottest recorded year since 1880 (when weather records began). The average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.62 degrees above the 20th century average, according to NOAA. This has piqued the interest and perked the ears of conservationists, scientists, policy makers, fly fishers and ski bums alike.

Dr. Corinna Riginos is a local ecologist and research associate for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative. The 37-year-old scientist is focused on climate change and how it will affect the future of Jackson Hole. “So much of our economy depends on the environment and our ecosystems,” she said. “Anything that threatens these is also a threat to our economy.”

Alongside Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb and Jonathan Schechter, executive director of the Charture Institute, Riginos published the seminal report, The Coming Climate in June 2015. The 42-page study is the first scientific work to outline the effects of climate change in the Teton region on both natural and social science levels, specifically, in relation to the local economy. Riginos said the project is intended to raise awareness and interest in the general public, as well as among leadership and decision makers.

According to The Coming Climate, “increasingly warm conditions can be expected to lead to significantly reduced depth and duration of snowpack (including more areas with transient snow). This means earlier spring snowmelt, lower summer stream flows, and generally more arid summers.

Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree on the threats of climate change. The data reflect our complaints about snowpack and snowmelt—climate change is arriving at an alarming pace. Riginos’ work is central to a local strategy of counteracting climate change through raising public awareness. Without her local scientific contributions, policy conversation and future projections were scattered and unclear. Her work has leveled the playing field in understanding what is at stake while sparking important dialogue.

A path to the Tetons

With a diverse background in biology and ecology, Riginos has always been connected to natural landscapes. She also has a knack for writing fiction and creative non-fiction.

Although she grew up in urban areas, she spent her formative years studying nature. Riginos grew up in Washington D.C., taking frequent trips to Greece, her father’s native country. In the Greek islands, she hiked all over, watching goats and their impact on the landscape over time. “This is where it began intuitively for me,” she said.

Later, she attended Brown University, and spent two years in South Africa as a Fulbright Scholar studying native plants threatened by land management practices and grazing. Two years into her doctorate studies at UC Davis, she moved to rural Kenya for the next seven years, where she loved watching elephants, giraffes and baboons from her veranda.

“I didn’t grow up in the great outdoors,” Riginos said. “But I have always loved nature, and I have always felt strongly compelled to protect the essence of it and conserve the spectacular species that live on this planet in the face of change that humans are causing around the world. This has been my main motivation since childhood and through my career.”

Riginos recalls the unique flavor of rural Kenya and its incredible wildlife, which she says she will hold dear for the rest of her life. She reminisces about the morning she was eating breakfast with her husband in their yard, when a rhinoceros charged in. This endangered species moved her, along with the hilarity of their British Kenyan landlord, whose reaction was, “Oh what a bother!” In Kenya, “Every day was so special and every day was challenging.”

Riginos’ doctorate work in ecology focused mainly on grazing and livestock on land with many native plants; land that supports both wildlife and human needs. Her work is a reminder that the fate of the land, the wildlife it supports, and the humans that manage it are tied together. “We humans rely on healthy, functioning ecosystems every day,” she said.

Riginos recalls her work in East Africa’s savannas as an example. “Land that is healthy and in good condition produces the grass that cows and wild herbivores both need to live. When the land is overgrazed and loses grass, it begins to lose topsoil and starts producing less grass, in a feedback loop that leads to less and less productive land that is able to support fewer and fewer cows and wild herbivores,” she explained. “This is a simple case where the condition of the ecosystem affects its ability to do the things that we humans want it to do. But the same thing applies to all ecosystems and the myriad things that they give us—clean water, clean air, moderation of floods and fires, etcetera.”

Three years ago, Riginos and her family moved to Jackson. Her husband, biologist Siva Sundaresan, is the conservation director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

“Moving to a smaller town and doing field work while living in a place where you could get into nature more immediately felt right to me,” she said. “The thought of living in Greater Yellowstone, the gem of wildlife, with a vast and thriving ecosystem, and the stronghold of conservation in the lower 48 was very appealing to us.”

But living in the area is a gamble for Riginos, professionally. Since the Teton Research Institute of Teton Science Schools was closed down and she lost her position there as lead scientist, she has been working on a soft-money research basis, raising her own salary through grants and projects. “I have been doing a lot of soul-searching about my career and what is important to me in life,” she said. “The decision to stay in Jackson is a risky one—there is no job security in what I’m doing right now, and no institutional backing. I am running from project to project and always worried about where the next piece of salary will come from.”

Despite this uncertainty, she remains committed to Jackson, to this community, and to doing her part to conserve the diverse ecosystems of the Tetons and Greater Yellowstone regions. “Staying here feels right,” she said. “I think many people make this kind of [difficult] choice about living in Jackson, and that is part of what makes this such a special place.”

Along with the difficulties of making a life in Jackson, Riginos says we should remember something else we all have in common as citizens here. “Many of us recognize that the Tetons and Greater Yellowstone are so special. I am always impressed by how much people care here about wildlife and conservation. I think people sometimes get acrimonious because they care so deeply,” she said. “There is so much emphasis on the environment here, and people have many different opinions on how it should be managed. We should pause and realize that we are trying to achieve the same thing: protecting and conserving.”

Breaking into the boys club

In the field of science, traditionally dominated by men, Riginos has found unique ways to manage the demands, although she admits: “The challenges of being a mother and a biologist are definitely significant.” Keeping up physically is difficult during and after pregnancy in terms of fieldwork, especially in the backcountry. Her two sons are one and five years old. “You can’t go into the backcountry when a newborn is dependent on you,” Riginos said.

International fieldwork demands even larger chunks of time. Her new project—The Big-headed Ant Project—which examines the effects of non-native ants on the tree cover in Kenya, is funded for the next four years, and she will have to visit Africa several times per year for multiple weeks at a time. Her family will travel with her.

Corinna Riginos leads a training on rangeland health monitoring in Ethiopia.

Corinna Riginos leads a training on rangeland health monitoring in Ethiopia.

“I never felt discrimination,” Riginos said, “but it is true that in a field dominated by men there is a male club that you are trying to break into, although that has never really held me back.”

Indeed, Riginos is an anomaly. The majority of senior management positions in research and science remain male dominated. “There is a switch that happens,” Riginos said, “as a student you are surrounded by a lot of women, but the role models and people who have made it big tend to be male.”

Science attracts many women, Riginos added, but does not often retain them in the higher ranks. “Every year, you see major articles trying to figure out why women leave science. It seems like the post-Ph.D. early professional phase is really critical, and a lot of that centers on intangible things like lifestyle choices that lead women away from research careers.”

As in many fields, connections and collaborations are key. “Building relationships is easier with people you have a lot in common with or hang out with outside of work,” Riginos said. “It’s a natural part of human nature, but it means that it’s harder for people who are different from the majority—whether because of gender, race, or any other reason—to build those partnerships and friendships that lead to opportunities. That said, I think that doing good, solid work opens doors, too, and that’s how I’ve always tried to operate.”

Women are often hit hard with family responsibilities at the same time they are required to meet research goals to secure tenure, the right to not have one’s job terminated without cause. According to Live Science, “The challenges of child care and the demands of running a research lab are often seen as incompatible. Women who plan to have children in the future drop out of the academic research race at twice the rate of men.”

While women comprise 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, they are less represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Just 39 percent of chemists and material scientists are female, while 28 percent of environmental scientists and geoscientists are women, only 16 percent of chemical engineers and just 12 percent of civil engineers are female, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Riginos believes that many women in the previous generation have helped pave the way. She notices a shift in terms of parenting and social expectations, and it has become easier for women to succeed in the field of science. She notes that ecology itself has become largely female dominated.

“Statements about women ‘leaving science’ irritate me, because what they are really referring to is women who move away from doing research. But usually these are women who continue to use their scientific training to do something good and important in the world, like science education or science-based policy work,” Riginos said. “We should be congratulating women and men who put their science training to good use, rather than making them feel like failures for leaving the academic research path.”

Riginos also credits the Womentoring program for helping her transition into a local leadership role. This mentoring component of Womentum, a local nonprofit dedicated to empowering women, chooses 16 mentor/mentee partners, annually, and focuses on empowering women as leaders in the community.  Riginos’ Womentoring mentor is Pam Case, who works in development for the Jackson Hole Land Trust.

During their partnership year with Womentoring, Case helped Riginos to better cultivate relationships with people interested in her work, and those interested in financing her projects. Operating independently and raising her own salary and funding has been a new challenge. “Pam has helped me embrace this challenge,” Riginos said.

Riginos is also partnering with other women in the field of science. Her collaborations have the potential to illuminate the work of other females standing their ground in a male dominated sphere. She is working alongside Geneva Chong, research ecologist for United States Geologic Survey, on her flowering time in the Tetons project. Chong’s current research is focused on plant phenology (timing of life-history events such as green-up and flowering), as well as habitat quality and productivity.

For this project,  in addition to working with young female scientists such as Chauncey Smith, Riginos has also received “vital volunteer support from two outstanding female biologists in the community.” One is Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation’s Frances Clark, who headed the Nature Mapping program focused on local wildlife education and conservation. The other is Susan Marsh, naturalist and award-winning writer, who has been a wild land steward for more than 30 years for the U. S. Forest Service.

In May, the Ecological Society of America named Riginos Early Career Fellow, an honorary title given to eight or nine young ecologists, recognizing their contributions and expected future contributions to the field. Surprised by the award, Riginos said it was heartening to see that the Early Career Fellowship committee valued the conservation and outreach-oriented work she does, including working closely with WYDOT to try to reduce the number of deer-vehicle collisions on Wyoming’s roads. “I think the awards committee liked the mixture of novel science, and really applied problem-solving and outreach that I’ve pursued in my career.”

Inspiring younger women with her dynamic accomplishments, she admits that her non-work time is mostly spent with family, ideally doing something outdoors.

“It is really easy to fall into the trap of measuring oneself against traditional definitions of success, which, in science, tend to be about gaining notoriety rather than making a positive difference in the world,” she said. “Women tend to undervalue their own accomplishments. We need to remember that we can do just as well in science as our male colleagues, but that it is also important to value a wide array of accomplishments that may not fit the traditional mold.”

Jonathan Schechter has worked closely with Riginos on several projects, including The Coming Climate. The Charture Institute’s vision is focused on ‘co-thriving,’ or the idea that humans and the natural world can simultaneously co-thrive. It’s aligned with Riginos’ focus on human impacts on surrounding ecosystems. Schechter notes that Riginos’ skills as a writer allow her to write in a way that is accessible to non-scientists. “If I have a challenging problem that involves a multifaceted environmental question, Corinna is my go to; she is able to put it into a framework that people can understand,” he said.

Schechter and Riginos intend to continue their professional partnership. “Corinna has the intellectual brilliance to understand complex problems well enough to present them to other people,” Schechter said. “The ability to be a first class scientist doesn’t always overlap with ability to relay that information. You need both the intellectual capacity, and the empathy to convey that to those who don’t speak the language of science. Corinna has that gift.”

The Coming Climate is here

Planet Jackson Hole: What did you want to accomplish with The Coming Climate report?

Corinna Riginos: We brought together the best available scientific literature and best knowledge about trends and temperatures; this is not original research. We tried to translate it for Teton County. Climate change is a huge global issue and when you bring it to a local level, it helps people to understand why they should care. What we did was juxtapose information on ecological impacts and the economy of Teton County. It gives people more specifics through a comprehensive assessment.

PJH: What was the original vision for the project?

Riginos: We wanted to provide a reference point and then do an annual update, and every five years afterward, but we have not found financial support for this. This was a start, but not an end. It is difficult to convince people that they need to continue to address this information. In five years, we need to update it. My hope is that we will get enough interest and support for a comprehensive update.

PJH: Why do you think it is hard to drum up financial support right now?

Riginos: Getting funding is always the big challenge for research, not just right now. I think people are more willing to fund projects that have immediate results that lead to actionable outcomes. Climate change is a long-term problem, and there are rarely clear-cut solutions to reduce the negative impacts of climate change on our ecosystems. At the same time, there are urgent problems that are easier to solve, so those tend to get funded more easily. Climate change is like the slow leak in the ship that nobody has time to look for.

PJH: What struck you most about your findings from the report?

Riginos: I always thought of climate change leading to an ecosystem’s slow unraveling. What struck me, from the research I did for the report, was the potential for rapid and sweeping changes in the Yellowstone ecosystem to occur. Scientists predict that there will be much more frequent and extensive forest fires in the Yellowstone ecosystem by 2050. This could pretty quickly lead to a situation where trees cannot regenerate, and much of the Yellowstone ecosystem could become shrub land instead of a forest. This would affect pretty much everything about how the ecosystem works, what kinds of species it supports, summer stream flows, and on and on. The Yellowstone and Teton regions that my grandchildren see might be very, very different from what we know now, which makes me sad.

PJH: Why is it so important to get this information to the masses?

Riginos: If we don’t start collecting data, we won’t know what is close to baseline.

Since the 80s, it has been getting warmer. I’ve been looking at the flowering time of plants. The timing is really important because it affects birds and the food chain on up. If plants are doing things at different times than in the past, this changes the lay of the land for animals as well. If birds do not also change their patterns, this could lead to problems such as reduced food supply. Next are ungulates, because deer and elk are migratory. Also, if it gets green earlier in the spring, that means things will get dry earlier. Elk calving rates have declined. We know that the impacts are likely big on many species, but we don’t know the specifics for certain species.

PJH: What can we do to mitigate our carbon footprint on a daily basis?

Riginos: There are many small things we can each do that make a difference: reduce food waste, drive fuel-efficient vehicles, etcetera. I know that air travel contributes significantly to my own carbon footprint, so I have started buying carbon offsets for my air travel. Ultimately, however, the most important thing we can do is to push for climate change to be a priority in national and international politics.

PJH: What is the best way to push for climate change to be that priority?

Riginos: I really think the most important thing we can each do to tackle climate change is to talk about it. Talk about it with your friends and family and colleagues so that it stays an issue people think about. When people are aware of it and thinking about it regularly, they are more likely to make it a priority in terms of policy and urging for our political leadership to get serious about dealing with this problem.

PJH: What are some talking points the average person should use when trying to discuss climate change with other people?

Riginos: I would start with the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by humans. That is a pretty staggering percentage of experts that agree on what the evidence says.

Invasive ants and African savannas

Riginos has her hands in many projects beyond climate and economy in Teton County. Her interests and experience range from wildlife-vehicle collisions and large herbivore movement, migration and habitat selection patterns to rangeland monitoring, management, and restoration. She also studies the impacts of invasive species, land-use change, and climate change on natural systems.

(Photo: Jay Nel-Mcintosh)

(Photo: Jay Nel-Mcintosh)

With funding from Meg and Bert Raines Wildlife Fund, she is carrying out a project dubbed The Times They are a-Changing, looking at how flowering times—what date a plant starts making flowers—are changing in the Tetons as temperatures rise in this region.

“By looking at the dates when plants first make flowers, we can start seeing how a warming climate is impacting plants, which usually translates to impacts on the various animals that eat plants,” Riginos said. She cites Frank Craighead’s data, collected in the 1970s, before much climate-change-caused warming had occurred, as central to the study. “We’re also hoping to set things up so that interested members of the public could help make observations in the future, as a way to get people directly engaged in thinking about how climate change is affecting this ecosystem,” she said.

Additionally, a large focus of her work in Wyoming is centered on wildlife vehicle collision mitigation. WYDOT and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation fund her current project, Oh Deer. The project seeks to understand the conditions of roadways, habitat characteristics, and migrations as contributing factors to collisions. She has identified the most problematic sections of road in Wyoming.

“For example, we’ve found some places where deer migration routes cross major highways, leading to a spike in deer-vehicle collisions for just a few weeks in the fall and spring. These are places where some big, bright signs warning drivers could be put up for just those few weeks and hopefully help reduce collisions,” she said. “In other places, deer get hit year-round. We know that permanent signs don’t work very well (drivers get immune to them), so these are places where some other solution—like highway underpasses for the deer—might be necessary.”

The National Science Foundation funds Riginos’ new project in Kenya. She will leave for Africa later this month to begin looking at how fast trees are growing, and how much damage from elephants they are sustaining before and after the invasive big-headed ant takes over the trees (and kills the native ants that protect the trees from the destructive actions of elephants).

“We will use this information to predict how much tree cover there will be in the future in places invaded by this ant. Our preliminary work suggests that elephants will reduce tree cover substantially in places where the big-headed ant has arrived,” Riginos said.

The young scientist and her team will also be looking at how fast the invasion is spreading, where it is occurring, and what it means for wild herbivores (like zebras, gazelles, rhinos, even elephants themselves) to have so many trees destroyed by elephants. Black rhinos, for example, are a highly endangered species that primarily eat trees; if lots of trees are being killed, then black rhinos may have much less food to eat, she explained.

The information will be disseminated widely to local land managers, as well as the broader scientific community. “Land managers urgently need information about the extent and rate of the ant invasion and what it means for the land and wildlife they manage so that they can plan how to cope with this ant invasion and stop its spread in places where it is just getting started,” Riginos said.

Her preliminary work was published in the scientific journal, Ecology, and was highlighted in The New York Times.

“In the field, the loss of defensive Crematogaster ants in invaded areas led to a five- to sevenfold increase in the number of trees catastrophically damaged by elephants compared to un-invaded areas. In savannas, tree cover drives many ecosystem processes and provides essential forage for many large mammal species.” This means the invasion of big-headed ants may strongly alter the dynamics and diversity of East Africa’s whistling thorn savannas.

Looking to the future

Spending arduous days in the field, Riginos longs to write again. “I was very passionate and serious about writing, but I have not had much time for it in the last few years,” Riginos said. “I hope that in the future I’ll find a way to integrate that back into my life. I have a lot of experiences from living and working in Kenya and South Africa that I’d like to write about.”

With her hands in so many projects and longing for the time to feed her creative writing passions, she admitted, “Sometimes it feels schizophrenic to work on so many topics, but it keeps me engaged in so many things. It all falls under the umbrella of how humans impact the world and have consequences for native flora and fauna.”

She emphasizes that conservation work must begin with the goal of trying to understand what we can do to reduce negative human impacts and continue to conserve.

“We can’t take away people and their needs and desires, but we can try to find ways to live side by side with the natural world in a way that tries to meet both of our needs.”

Schechter venerates Riginos’ determination. “She has an extraordinary stretch in the last year—she had a kid, lost a job, created a new career as a consultant, bought a house—and she has participated in several projects I have initiated. It takes a superwoman to do all this. She did it all with great grace and integrity. I admire her greatly.”

As the earth warms and many paint a grim picture of the future, Riginos remains optimistic. She believes the more information available to the public on scientific trends and findings will help unite the cause.

“We are faced with an enormous challenge with climate change,” she said. “The time to start getting serious about that is now.” PJH

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