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SDSU graduate student receives local Wildlife Society chapter award

labeling samples from disease testing bighorn sheep
Department of Natural Resource Management graduate student Austin Wieseler, left, organizes blood serum samples as part of disease-testing Badlands bighorn sheep through a grant from the National Park Service. He is working with Mandy Ensurd, a South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Wildlife Technician, and SDSU graduate student Samantha Fino. Wieseler received the 2019 Outstanding M.S. Graduate Student Award from the South Dakota chapter of The Wildlife Society. (Photo by Tony Willman)

Austin Wieseler, who is pursuing a master’s degree in the Department of Natural Resource Management, received the 2019 Outstanding M.S. Graduate Student Award from the South Dakota chapter of The Wildlife Society. The award recognizes students who demonstrate excellence in the study of wildlife ecology and management.

The St. Helena, Nebraska, native has been doing research on bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park under the supervision of Distinguished Professor Jonathan Jenks of the SDSU Department of Natural Resource Management. The three-year National Park Service study involves monitoring survival and mortality in adult and yearling sheep, as well as lambs.

The Wildlife Society, an international, nonprofit scientific and educational organization, seeks to enhance scientific, technical, managerial and educational capabilities and achievements of wildlife professionals.

“I am excited and honored to receive this award. This is definitely a highlight of my career at South Dakota State,” said Wieseler, a 2012 graduate of Wynot Public High School in Wynot, Nebraska.

Wieseler is the third SDSU student working on bighorn research with Jenks to receive the graduate student award. Tyler Garwood got the master’s student award last year and Brandi Felts received the doctoral student award in 2017.

Jenks, who nominated Wieseler, said, “I view what Austin’s accomplished as significant. He is a self-starter and is able to make connections with students and other wildlife professionals. He brings what he has learned at SDSU to the table and is very knowledgeable about bighorn sheep ecology and management.”

During his junior year, Wieseler began working with bighorn sheep as a research technician at the Department of Natural Resource Management’s Wildlife Research Facility. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he worked for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks from May 2016 until February 2017, when the Badlands research project began.

“It’s hard work, but very rewarding,” said Wieseler. In 2017, he collared 23 lambs and recorded a 74 percent survival rate through six months of age. By May 2018, Wieseler had collared 30 lambs.

When a collared lamb dies, the researchers quickly determine the cause, whether it’s predation, abandonment or simply falling into a crevice, he explained. “The goal is to get them to a year old.”

Though the researchers are looking at a broad spectrum of diseases, one of their biggest concerns is Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, a pneumonia-causing pathogen that has devastated other bighorn sheep herds, including those in Custer State Park and Rapid City.

“This disease affects bighorn sheep throughout the western United States,” said National Park Service Wildlife Biologist Eddie Childers, who manages the north unit of the Badlands bighorn sheep herd. “This is one of the largest populations in the state of South Dakota—and the healthiest. Austin’s work is crucial to protecting the herd’s health.”

12-week-old lambs in Badlands National Park
These 12-week-old lambs are near the Pinnacles Overlook in Badlands National Park. (Photo by Austin Wieseler)