A new state-federal partnership will fill an environmental-research void in Indiana and help develop data-driven plans for managing the state’s valuable natural resources.

The cooperative research unit is a collaboration of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Purdue University, the United States Geological Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Management Institute.

Dan Boritt, executive director of the nonprofit Indiana Wildlife Federation, said advocates across the state have been pushing for establishment of the research cooperative. While the project is new in Indiana, similar programs have operated for years in many other states.

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“The reason they are so important is state wildlife agencies, in my opinion, are woefully underfunded,” Boritt said. “They’re asked to do so much with not nearly enough. One of the really big issues that state wildlife agencies have is being able to afford and maintain high-quality wildlife research scientists.”

Here’s what you need to know about the new project in Indiana.

Here’s how it will work
Purdue University will house three full-time wildlife researchers, funded by the United States Geological Survey, under the program. The university will also run a graduate program to bolster wildlife research in the state and broader region.

The cooperative research unit will be primarily funded by USGS. Plans call for hiring for the lead scientist this fall, and then filling the other two spots as quickly as possible to kick start the graduate-level research program.

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There are currently about 40 of these wildlife research cooperatives in different states throughout the county. Michigan joined one in 2020, but the Midwest region has otherwise been behind the curve.

How it came together
U.S. Senator Mike Braun, R-Indiana, was instrumental in bringing the cooperative together and maneuvering the federal funding for the program. “The program will basically pump research into how that intersection occurs between conservation, wildlife, sustainable farming practices and a broad array of things,” Braun said. “This will put Indiana in the same place as many other states (with similar programs).”

Why more research is needed
Amanda Wuestefeld, director of DNR’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, said the program will help answer a lot the state’s emerging resource-management questions. The research will be important for developing and implementing on-the-ground management plans for the state’s natural resources.

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“It will also be a wonderful training ground for up-and-coming wildlife professionals,” Wuestefeld said. “Those students are then available to all of us (state agencies) to recruit from; it’s another way to garner and foster young folks.”

Collaboration can lead to better decisions
Indiana already has some great researchers, Boritt said, there just aren’t enough of them.

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The shortage can lead to important decisions being made without relevant data, Boritt said.

“All of a sudden,” he said, “we are leveraging the power of the federal government, Purdue and DNR to combine and have a much stronger presence on the ground.”

Unique approach will include human impact
Wuestefeld said the program will focus not just on the habitat and species data wildlife sciences is known for, but also embrace the data and science of people. The hope is to better understand human interactions with the environment and wildlife.

“Every decision that across my desk has a people component,” Wuestefeld said. “We have good science on the biology and habitat side, but not the best science on people’s interactions.”

The hope is to approach the research with that human interaction aspect in mind, answering questions related to initiatives such as handling invasive species and commercial fisheries, Wuestefeld said.

“I hope this gives us the opportunity to be more proactive as opposed to being reactive,” she said.