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Environmental Resources Center

ERC Picture 1

Envisioning New and Evaluating Existing Environments

The mission of PFW’s Environmental Resources Center (ERC) is to promote the understanding and conservation of the region's natural resources through scientific research, educational opportunities, and community outreach. The ERC and its team of faculty, staff, and students actively seeks to work with other environmental organizations and expand its ties with the community. As ERC director and founder Professor Bruce Kingsbury (biology) explains, “The ERC and its staff are facilitators and collaborators on both campus and community projects. We are science based, not obstructionist. We want to provide good information to help our community and its natural environs prosper.”

The ERC opened in 2000 as the Center for Reptile and Amphibian Conservation and Management (aka, the Herp Center). As an expansion of the former Herp Center (herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians), the ERC “casts a wider net as far as the various research projects and outreach education that we do now,” shares alumnus and ERC staff member and researcher Sasha Tetzlaff (MS ’15, biology). Kingsbury adds, “By working with a diverse faculty, students get opportunities to conduct research in an often multidisciplinary fashion, which makes for an attractive environment and helps build a great skill set for a developing professional.” The expanded scope is reflected in the projects the ERC faculty, staff, and students work on.

Kingsbury also believes that local people are increasingly interested in environmental protection, “You don’t need a herp center in every town, but you certainly can benefit from having an environmental center in any metropolitan area.” Groups like the Little River Wetland Project  and ACRES Land Trust are growing. “And I think that the growing community interest in combination with other factors creates an environment that would lend itself to the development of a center that focuses more locally.”

And concern for the rivers in Fort Wayne and Allen County has intensified over the past few years with the availability of the Legacy funds. When the Legacy process was initiated, it became clear that people were interested in a project involving the downtown riverfront and connecting greenways. So $500,000 of the Legacy funds was spent to develop a vision for downtown that focuses on the rivers. For the ERC, this development and economic renewal focus “presents a variety of opportunities as we look forward to future of not only economic development but also for recreation and environmental protection,” shared Kingsbury.

So how does a center like the ERC connect to the economic development of the rivers? Kingsbury considers economic development broadly, including what he terms “quality of place”—the positive aspects that draw people to a place, like restaurants, entertainment venues, and recreational areas. As Kingsbury explains, the ERC seeks to “promote the environment without being obstructionist to economic development, rather we include it as a consideration. I think that enhances the quality of place and brings people in who stay and spend their money.”

The ERC’s Pillars

The ERC has several strengths or “pillars”—first, the herpetological pillar that, as the Herp Center, the team developed. Kingsbury’s own research involves reptiles and amphibians as well as birds and small mammals—what might collectively be call “non-game”—animals that aren’t hunted, but that might be endangered or need their habitat modified or protected.

The ERC can (and often does) run a variety of projects. One research team might survey to find out what animals live in a defined location. Another study may examine the habitat and consider how changes could impact the wildlife that live there. Other researchers will manipulate the habitat—like a land manager might—to study how that will affect wildlife.

Another type of project ERC researchers do uses telemetry (a transmitter is put on or in an animal so that it can be tracked). At the ERC, multiple projects tracking snakes and turtles have been successfully completed. By studying tagged animals, researchers can examine the same animals in an unbiased way as long as the transmitter is active. The transmitters also allow researchers to use GIS (geographic information systems) to map where the animals go, what habitat they use, how far they travel, and such.

Rivers and water quality is also an important research pillar. ERC member Associate Professor Robert Gillespie (biology) has worked with the City of Fort Wayne, the St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative (SJRWI), and other entities to collect and study water quality data. The SJRWI has been collecting water data since 1995, and Gillespie’s lab has managed the program since 2007. This ongoing project generated the online Water Quality Information Service, a public website that provides the collected data on water quality in the St. Joseph River watershed. While, as Kingsbury explained, “The limitation of [information] is that we can only report on the data that has been collected,” there are plans to expand the site beyond the St. Joseph to include information for the St. Mary’s and the upper Maumee Rivers as well.

The programming for the water quality database and site was done by Robert Sedlmeyer, a retired IPFW professor of computer science who continues to collaborate as an ERC associate. Gillespie’s and Sedlmeyer’s involvement are examples of what Kingsbury is “striving for with the ERC, which is to promote more research and educational opportunities for faculty and students at PFW, promote the visibility of PFW, make the community aware of what we have to offer at the university, and it also highlights that we were able to involve students and faculty from other areas.”

“So we might need someone with graphic design skills on a project. We might need someone who can do public relations or programming. What’s great is that this is not just about doing environmental biology, it’s actually a way of involving different people with different skill sets and interests under the one umbrella.”

The ERC also provides PFW students with a place to develop research skills, and many student researchers work on topics with tangible local and regional impacts. The work these students do also helps them obtain jobs or graduate school placements after graduation. For example, in 2015, four of Kingsbury’s graduate students produced research relevant to the ERC’s mission and all four were successful in their post-graduation professional or graduate school searches.

Savanna Vaughn, now a property manager at Pigeon River State Fish and Wildlife Area, completed a thesis on the response of two species of mice to shrub removal that was part of an invasive plant control project. Emily Stulik, now working as an ecologist for ASC Group, Inc., researched factors that would predict the distribution of frog species in a restored wetlands. Kevin McLane, employed as a wetland ecologist at Green 3 LLC, wrote “Ecology of the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in a Suburban River” and his research was featured in both PFW and local news sources.

Finally, Tetzlaff’s research and work at PFW illustrates how students benefit from being able to perform research through a center like the ERC. For his thesis, Tetzlaff examined the influence of food supplementation on wild Massasauga rattlesnakes. He worked with multiple experts, including Kingsbury, while a graduate student. Now he has a post-graduation research position at the ERC, so he can remain active in the field while he waits to enter a Ph.D. program to study “different techniques to increase success of head-starting (rearing very young animals in captivity and releasing them into the wild after an extended period of time),” most likely for a species of conservation concern such as box turtles. 

Areli Gutierrez is a new graduate student who has worked as a teaching assistant for Kingsbury as well as at the ERC. She came to PFW after studying animal behavior at Southwestern University (Texas) and was encouraged to work with Kingsbury due to their mutual interest in snakes. At the ERC she handles social media and data collection for their various online presences. She also writes for the ERC blog  and helps with the newsletter.

Gutierrez’s research interests are with animal behavior rather than ecology. She is developing a research plan focused on kin recognitionwhether snakes can recognize their own relatives. “Many do not think that snakes are social, but it is because they aren’t social like we or other mammals are social.” Snakes rely on scent trails, so she is currently using past studies and other resources to develop her master’s thesis project which will probably involve lab work with wild caught snakes rather than field work.

Another on-going ERC project studies translocationmoving an animal from one location to another with the intention of augmenting or replacing a population that may have been lost. When a habitat has been destroyed and a population affected, after the habitat is fixed, “you put the critter back in there (repatriation).” In his research, Tetzlaff added supplementary feeding (gave some snakes extra mice, an improved life) and studied them as they thrived better than their peers in terms of calories and protein.

The work that students like Gutierrez and Tetzlaff do at PFW through the ERC benefits them in many ways. As Tetzlaff shared, “Having been one of those students myself, I can proudly and humbly say I likely wouldn't have had the same exposure and opportunities elsewhere. I've been fortunate to radio-track rattlesnakes, help sample fish communities in local streams and ditches, and educate people about natural resource-related issues.”

The ERC also has much to offer the community. Kingsbury advocates that promoting the understanding and conservation of natural resources shouldn't be limited to "hardcore" scientists. “It's about effectively communicating the scientific nature of what we and others do in a relatable fashion to people of all ages whether they're eight, eighteen, or eighty.” The ERC and its staff do this in multiple ways from the open-access online water quality website to public talks about various issues the ERC is involved with to outreach programs for children.

“We provide guidance on managing habitats, which might at first only seem to benefit wildlife, but provided people can use that area as well, we may have just provided more opportunities for people to better connect with nature. We're uniquely positioned to bring together various entities in the Fort Wayne area and beyond with common goals of making our City a more eco-conscious place,” said Kingsbury.

Recently the ERC has established collaborations with the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo and the Little River Wetlands Project in the form of “Families4Nature.” According to Tetzlaff, “our goal is to get families to spend time together in nature; we're accomplishing this by providing a downloadable passport with point-based activities families can do together as well as attending programs hosted by each partnering organization. Earn 100 points, and kids get a free zoo admission ticket and a prize!”

On MLK Day in January, a group of about 15 children braved the bitter cold for “Animal Investigators” during which they learned how to identify animals by tracks, droppings, and other signs of wildlife. Future events for young people are in the planning stages including a Bear Grylls style event and “Plug into Nature,” during which apps that help people learn about nature will be shared.


While the ERC has much to offer PFW and northeast Indiana, one area in which the local community and industry can help the ERC is in funding. PFW provides some funding, but most of the ERC's financial support comes from external sources for specific research projects. “So we might have substantial funds, but they are dedicated to student salaries, equipment, lodgings, and such, and can only be used for specific projects.” This limits the discretionary money the staff can use to promote the ERC and develop other projects. “So we are also trying to find funding for that,” Kingsbury said, “We’re striving to expand discretionary resources to help us leverage other funds to expand our activities.”

The hope and expectation is that “we will continue to expand the range of studies that we do, that we will be able to include more faculty and more students on campus, to find more partnerships with community organizations and individuals.” And according to Kingsbury, “We’re seeing signs that that is happening. A really exciting development is interest in an Environmental Stewardship Center (ESC) that would be part of Fort Wayne’s riverfront development project. The vision for the riverfront included the concept of an ESC. Currently the ERC and others are raising funds for a feasibility study for the development of such a center in Fort Wayne.

The ESC would be a facility downtown that would be focused on environmental education and research. Such a center would provide much to the community including educational demonstrations about or explanations of topics ranging from water quality to sustainable landscaping to climate change. The facility would be embedded in the landscape and be sustainably developed. For example, landscaping would be designed to store and purify run off from the building and surrounding area. The grounds would include ponds, wetlands, and a variety of local habitats, not only to protect them but also to provide educational opportunities about what they look like and how to protect them.

As Kingsbury elaborated, an ESC “would also have multiple uses where you would hope that other entities that were interested in environmental or similar issues could have offices. You could rent the space for weddings or conferences, and there might even be a café.” As part of Fort Wayne’s riverfront, an ESC would be a destination for not only tourists, but for students of all ages would could view the exhibits or participate in demonstrations and classes. There would be some research space, but the primary focus would be on educating.

So right now and, it appears, for many years to come, the people of Fort Wayne and Allen County and the students and faculty at PFW will have a resource for environmental development, protection, and education in the ERC. For more information on the College of Arts and Science's Environmental Research Center and its programs, please see the ERC website.