Interest in water quality, ecology and aquatic invertebrates has driven the work of Nels Troelstrup. As assistant department head in the Natural Resource Management Department at South Dakota State University, his 26-year career showcases his dedication to his students and to his profession.
Troelstrup recently retired, having earned the title of Professor Emeritus of Ecology in recognition of his service and scholarship. As the founding director of the Oak Lake Field Station near Astoria, he created ongoing learning opportunities through the Field Station and through the biological monitoring tools he developed to support management of lakes and streams. The state of South Dakota has adopted tools developed in Troelstrup’s lab and provided ongoing support to enhance and adapt the tools for different regions of the state.
“I am trained as a freshwater ecologist, so I really enjoy working with all plants and animals which live in freshwater. However, I am most fond of aquatic invertebrates. Invertebrates in general contribute most of the biodiversity on the planet. They are critical in the food chain, provide important ecosystem services which benefit people and serve as excellent indicators of ecosystem health.”
Troelstrup grew up on a cattle ranch in western Nebraska. Hired to teach introduction to biology at SDSU in 1993, his position in the department included developing the Oak Lake Field Station into a hands-on learning center where his ideas stretched far beyond classrooms.
From the beginning, the 570 acres of grassland, oak forest, wetlands and lake environments which offered exciting potential to provide learning and research opportunities for students interested in the management of natural resources.
Through the years Troelstrup’s efforts molded the site into a location which attracts those interested in university instruction and research. A committee established by then SDSU president Robert Wagner developed a strategic plan for the station, outlining the ideas and providing the directions for the future, with the site becoming part of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station at SDSU system.
Troelstrup worked to transform the site into a biological field station with links to the National Science Foundation. Grants from the NSF helped develop the site, including funds for a classroom building. The structure provided space for regular-sized classes, established Internet access and developed lab facilities. It was a game-changer as they could examine specimens in the research lab on site. It changed the demographic from private use to an almost entirely campus use. The station also became a destination for students and researchers from other institutions, including the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, University of Texas and the University of Minnesota.
Several endowments were established, providing ongoing support for facilities maintenance and undergraduate research projects.
“It’s a constant work in progress,” Troelstrup said. “The area will continue to develop and to provide access and the capability to enjoy the outdoor resources hands-on.”
Troelstrup noted the facility is a great recruitment tool for the university, providing youth education through 4-H Horse Camps, public school functions and the annual Natural Resources Camp.
During his career, Troelstrup taught classes in limnology, (the study of the biological, chemical, and physical features of lakes and other bodies of fresh water), freshwater monitoring and assessment, freshwater invertebrate ecology and laws and policies in natural resource management.
“In truth, all of my classes are my favorites to teach,” he said. “The most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve had occurred while teaching introductory biology for non-majors. I worked with intro biology for over ten years. Biology for non-majors is a challenge to teach. Not only is it a large course, most students take that course to meet a general education requirement—most are not science majors. I always found it very rewarding when students came out of that class liking biology, even wanting to switch their major.”
All natural resource majors take NRM 230 Field Techniques. Taken after their freshman year, these summer sessions introduce students to techniques integral to their profession. Students stay at the Oak Lake Field Station for a week at a time, learning from and living in their surroundings. They learn how to net birds, how to trap mammals, how to take a water sample, and how to collect fish. Safety training is part of the learning experience.
“We have research at the station focused on freshwater ecology, pollinators, biofuels, invasive species management, use of fire for weed control plus many others. We accommodate areas directed at training those who work with natural resources. We work with agencies and private consulting firms to develop the technical skills needed in employees.”
Developing and overseeing the South Dakota Aquatic Invertebrate collection of 40,000 to 45,000 specimens served as an important component of Troelstrup’s position. Providing insight into biodiversity, the unique collection includes specimens from all over the state.
“I am an invertebrate ecologist. This collection allows students to study the species and makes students aware of what is present in the state’s waters. There were whole groups we knew nothing about. This includes freshwater clams. In the early 1900s, they were harvested in the James River and were highly sought for their commercial value in making buttons. Some of them are among the most endangered species in the world.”
Department head Dr. Michele R. Dudash said, “Dr. Troelstrup has been a valuable member of the Natural Resource Management Department. Throughout Dr. Troelstrups’s career at SDSU he has readily served in administrative posts beyond his other duties. The many contributions that Nels has made to the department in terms of his scientific expertise addressing the teaching, service, and research mission of SDSU will be sorely missed.”
As his time at SDSU draws to a close, Troelstrup reflects on his experience. “I’ve worked with a lot of good people. I’ve had opportunities to grow and to learn new things. I think the research and teaching we did together helped make the state a better place. I really thank my colleagues and all the excellent staff at SDSU for that. However, the most important thing I walk away with is my experience working with the students. I’ll really miss them, especially the times we had learning together at the field station.”