By Emily Senkosky and Elizabeth Harrison
UM News Service

MISSOULA – Whether it's donning wetsuits to snorkel for data or heading to the riverside lab to collect fish samples, the University of Montana's Fishing Techniques course goes beyond the classroom curriculum to engage students to get people excited about the real-world applications of fisheries protection and management.

Whiteley helps student Teal Eisendrath put on a drysuit as part of the Fishing Techniques course. Student Eben Mayer can be seen in waders.

Led by Andrew Whiteley, an associate professor of fisheries and conservation genomics at the WA Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, the course offers second-year students the opportunity to literally immerse themselves in the science of fisheries. Field work, which includes snorkeling in the Blackfoot River Basin and Gold Creek, allows students to immerse themselves in learning while making meaningful contributions to the conservation of Montana's aquatic ecosystems.

Whiteley's vision is to empower students to address pressing issues facing fish in Montana and the broader western region. The course goes beyond traditional learning and gives them the skills and knowledge they need to tackle real-world challenges in fisheries.

“At the heart of our teaching is the idea of ​​applied management and conservation,” Whiteley said. “We discuss major fisheries issues in the state, such as river and stream habitat fragmentation and the impact of non-native fish. We then learn techniques and concepts that fisheries biologists and researchers use to develop data-driven solutions.”

Fisheries conservation and management is a high priority for a state whose rivers and streams host an incredible 1 million anglers to fish. The Fisheries Techniques course is just one of the ways the University is leading innovative research and education in fisheries management in the western United States.

UM has been a leader in fisheries genetics research since the early 1970s, when Fred Allendorf, UM Regents biology professor emeritus, co-founded one of the first fish genetics laboratories in the country with Robb Leary, a former UM biology professor.

Recognizing the potential of this emerging area, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks worked with Allendorf and Leary on a statewide genetic survey of Montana's native trout populations. This collaboration has resulted in the creation of one of the world's most comprehensive native trout databases.

Whitelely came to UM several decades later and earned his Ph.D. in organismal biology and ecology in 2005. After several years in the field, he fulfilled his dream of returning to UM in 2016.

Whiteley's own research focuses on habitat fragmentation and dynamics between native and non-native fish populations in impounded river systems. In 2017, he secured $800,000 from the National Science Foundation to conduct a five-year study of small trout populations to determine whether genetic rescue — the strategic relocation of fish to restore small and isolated populations — works as a conservation tool. This award was a CAREER fellowship from the NSF, the most prestigious award for early career faculty, reserved for only a handful of assistant professors each year.

Whiteley said he feels privileged to continue the legacy of Allendorf and Leary as principal investigator of the Montana Conservation Genomics Lab. Montana State Fisheries Geneticist Ryan Kovach is based in the UM lab, which continues to play a critical role in most Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries management decisions.

“It’s a little unusual,” Whiteley said. “There are states where it is integrated, but there are a lot of states where it is not used to nearly the same extent. We are at the top. I credit this to the long-standing relationship and trust that Fred and Robb have built with FWP.”

UM student Jacob Steinle snorkels at Rattlesnake Creek.
A top view of Steinle snorkeling at Rattlesnake Creek for his class.

Both locally and in the classroom, Whiteley's students are actively involved in research aimed at informing the state's management of trout species. They are at the forefront of addressing critical questions in conservation genomics, evolutionary biology and ecology – all aimed at maintaining healthy fish populations in Montana.

Working closely with state fish geneticists and MFWP research scientists, Whiteley's team provides genetic and genomic data, analysis and decision support for diverse species, including Westslope cutthroat trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, bull trout, Arctic grayling and more.

“Our collaboration with MFWP and other agencies is critical to fisheries management decision-making,” Whiteley said. “We analyze thousands of samples each year and the partnership underscores our commitment to protecting Montana’s native fish and their habitats.”

Students' contributions extend beyond Montana, providing valuable data and research to entities such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Undergraduate student Max Posey, now a terrestrial wildlife biology major, took the “Fishing Techniques” course in fall 2021. He describes a field trip where he experienced electrofishing – a non-lethal method of collecting fish data – for the first time.

UM Associate Professor Andrew Whiteley works with students in his fishing techniques course.
Whiteley (gray hat) works with students in his Fishing Techniques class.

The process involves a small group of three or four students hiking to a stream with a backpack that can generate a small and controllable electrical power. While wading into the stream, students then control electric probes to temporarily stun fish so they can catch them with nets and collect data from each fish. Through this practical application, students can collect precise demographic information about the fish, such as: B. Species and size range, which ultimately provide estimates of populations in a stream.

“The two main things I took away from the course were that this type of work is fun and applicable,” Posey said. “It’s as practical as it gets, and you can collect a lot of really important data while doing it.”

For Posey, the walk from the classroom to the stream was enough to officially commit to fisheries management. The following summer he worked for the Nevada Department of Wildlife and believes he was chosen for the job because of the fishing techniques course. He now plans to become a fisheries biologist and hopes to continue working with Whiteley in graduate school at UM.

Classes led by Whiteley are designed to provide students with fun field work that will help them understand key challenges currently impacting Montana's aquatic ecosystems. His hope is to prepare students like Posey for future careers in biology while instilling in them a deep sense of responsibility for Montana's natural resources.

The passion sparked in the class has already had far-reaching effects, as one student expressed after a snorkeling trip:

“This is exactly what I imagined when I came to Montana.”

Anna Harden

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