Janene Lichtenberg is the Head of the Wildlife and Fisheries Department at Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Pablo, MT. We were eager to learn more about her work at SKC.
Hi Janene, thanks so much for taking time to chat with us and tell more about yourself and your work. First, can you give a brief description of what your current position is and what an average day on the job looks like for you?
Currently, I am faculty and head of the Wildlife and Fisheries Department at Salish Kootenai College (SKC). During the school year, I teach a combination of field, lab, and lecture classes. I try to get students outdoors as much as possible. We are in the perfect location for on- and off-campus field trips. There are forested areas and a pond on campus, and we are a short drive from montane, forested, wetland, riverine, and grassland sites. I advise students on coursework, career goals, and campus support. I also mentor some student research during the school year and supervise a bunch of student-led research projects during the summer.
Salish Kootenai College (SKC) is a public Native American tribal college in Montana, which serves multiple tribes and is located on a reservation. Can you tell us a bit more about those tribal entities and what it’s like working at a tribal college?
The Flathead Indian Reservation is home to the Selis (Salish), Qlispe (Pend Oreille), and Ksanka band of Kootenai. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are governed by an elected tribal council. Tribal Council appoints members of the SKC Board of Directors for planning, development, and the formation of goals, objectives, and policies for SKC. Two culture committees, the Kootenai Culture Committee and the Selis Qlispe Culture Committee, guided by culturally knowledgeable Elders, advise tribal entities on projects and policies. The majority of students attending SKC are members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of the Flathead Reservation but native students from over 65 tribes have attended SKC as well as students without American Indian or Alaskan Native affiliation. Some of the unique aspects of tribal colleges are the focus on culture and community. Also, our small size allows for more active learning, field trips, and focused advising.
You mentioned in an earlier conversation with me that the tribes are creating a pollinator plan for the reservation. What are some of the aims and methods for this plan?
The CSKT Natural Resources Department Pesticide Program is currently creating a pollinator plan for the Flathead Reservation. According to their Pesticide Compliance/Outreach Coordinator, Brittani Clairmont, "Some of the aims of this pollinator protection plan is to include not only domestic bee species, but also native bee species. Our program is well aware that all pollinators in general are extremely beneficial, but native pollinators in particular." The Pesticide Program Manager, Jasmine Brown, added that their program would like to see more community awareness, increased and enhanced community gardening, and more pollinator habitats in both agricultural and non-agricultural settings. Knowledge gained by native pollinator research will aid conservation efforts for pollinator planning and public outreach. According to Ms. Clairmont, "the pollinator plan is meant to provide people with a clear and distinct understanding of why the pollinators need our help, and the different ways people can help out, even at home".
I’m also really excited about your work on huckleberry pollination, which is focused on flowering phenology and pollinator visitation and involves a partnership between yourself, undergraduate researchers, your fantastic research assistant Rebekah Brassfield, and the tribes. Can you tell us more about that project, including what you’ve done so far and what you hope to accomplish in the future?
Huckleberries (Vaccinium membrenaceum complex) are a keystone berry species in the Pacific Northwest. Their berries support many animals including birds and small mammals, are an important traditional and contemporary human food, and are a primary black and grizzly bear food. However, much of their basic ecology remains poorly understood. We have conducted a variety of research projects to learn more about huckleberry phenology and ecology since 2014.
To learn more about the role of pollinators for successful berry production in the wild we set up a field experiment in 2018. We randomly assigned 30 plants to each of the following treatments: net (to exclude natural pollinators) and no additional (human) pollination, net plus additional pollination, no net and no additional pollination, and no net plus additional pollination. We found that the number of berries vary by an order of magnitude across the treatments and conclude that pollinators are essential to the production of large numbers of berries. Using focused assessments of the insects pollinating huckleberries, we determined that most of the floral visitors are bumble bees. Because huckleberries flower early in the growing season and bumble bees are the most common probable pollinators while huckleberries are in bloom, there may be a crucial codependence between huckleberries and bumble bees.
We have continuing work on huckleberry phenology and animal visitors. We hope to learn more about the mutualistic relationships of bumble bees and huckleberry plants as well as what other species support forest bumble bees once huckleberry flowering is completed. We have also expanded our work to learn more about bumble bee behavior, spatial distribution, and floral preferences both at huckleberry sites and at other locations on the Flathead Reservation. We are recording observations of the Western Bumble Bee (Bombus occidentalis), a species of concern that is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. We envision that our work will provide knowledge that can benefit pollinator conservation planning.
Can you tell us more about some of the folks you’ve partnered with outside of SKC, who have helped support or advance your pollinator research program?
The primary partnership is with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Natural Resources programs through their support of projects, interest in results, and permissions to work on tribal lands. Our primary collaborator is Dr. Tabitha Graves U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Rockies Research Station based in West Glacier, Montana. Dr. Graves initiated the huckleberry phenology and bumble bee research on the Flathead Reservation. She has provided valuable advice on research study design and methodology for many of our projects. She partners with a larger regional project to learn more about the potential effects of climate change on huckleberry phenology. She is overseeing several projects in other parts of Montana involving bumble bees, particularly surveys of the Western Bumble Bee. Montana State University faculty Drs. Laura Burkle and Casey Delphia provided a seminar and training for CSKT and SKC students and staff. Montana bumble bee expert Amelia Dolan is helping us identify bumble bees from photos. The SKC projects have been supported by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Tribal College and University Programs Small Grant for Research, NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Sustainable Land and Water Resources, an EPA EcoAmbassador grant, and a grant from the Montana Space Grant Consortium.
What are some of the tools, knowledge, or other resources that would benefit your research on huckleberry, or the development of the pollinator plan for the reservation? In other words, as we develop more of a national infrastructure for native bee monitoring, what are some of the components that you’d like to see?
I would like to see the development of and increased access to non-lethal methods of bumble bee identification. Non-lethal methods are especially valuable with the growing concerns about bumble bee declines. We are currently using photographs for identification of captured bumble bees but are aware that results should be viewed with caution. I am interested in learning more about the availability of labs that could identify bumble bees to species using genetic material. I would like to have more knowledge about where bumble bees are nesting, how far they are traveling from their nests, and which flowering species they are visiting. I hope that researchers will continue to create smaller transmitters or other technologies for tracking individuals of small animals such as bumble bees.