Research Opportunities at the Idaho NERP


Since the chartering of the Idaho National Environmental Research Park in 1975, more than 80 graduate students have conducted their thesis or dissertation research on the Idaho Research Park. This research has covered a broad range of topics and issues from studies on the basic ecology of native sagebrush steppe organisms to the potential natural pathways of radiological materials through the environment, and even to highly applied research on the design of landfill covers that prevent water from reaching buried waste. The research topics have included native plants and wildlife as well as attempts to understand and control non-native, invasive species.

The Idaho Research Park provides a coordinating structure for ecological research and information exchange at the INL Site. The Idaho Research Park facilitates ecological research on the INL Site by attracting new researchers, providing background data to support new research project development, and providing logistical support for assisting researcher access to the INL Site. The Idaho Research Park provides infrastructure support to ecological researchers through the Experimental Field Station and museum reference collections. The Idaho Research Park has developed a centralized ecological database to provide an archive for ecological data and to facilitate retrieval of data to support new research projects and land management decisions. The Idaho Research Park also serves as a point of synthesis that integrates results from many research projects and disciplines and provides analysis of ecosystem-level responses. The Idaho Research Park works to foster cooperation and research integration by encouraging researchers using the INL Site to collaborate, develop interdisciplinary teams to address more complex problems, and encourage data sharing, and by leveraging funding across projects to provide more efficient use of resources. The Idaho Research Park also provides interpretation of research results to land and facility managers to support the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process natural resources management, radionuclide pathway analysis, and ecological risk assessment.

The Idaho Research Park maintains several regionally and nationally important long-term ecological data sets. The Idaho Research Park is home to one of the largest data sets on sagebrush steppe vegetation anywhere. In 1950, 100 vegetation plots were established on the INL and were originally designed to look for the potential effects of nuclear energy research on native vegetation. Since then the plots have been surveyed about every 5 to 7 years. Although no effects of DOE operations have been detected in these plots, the vast amount of data collected provide a detailed chronicle of vegetation change as the area recovered from the drought of the 1930s and the overgrazing that took place prior to that time. This data set is now being used by researchers at the Idaho Research Park and from across the US to understand those natural recovery processes, to test new theoretical models of vegetation change in general and in the future will serve as a base from which to monitor for potential effects of climate change. Two sage-grouse lek survey routes are monitored in conjunction with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDF&G) and used by IDF&G in their statewide program to track the population status of sage-grouse. The Idaho Research Park also participates in the North American Breeding Bird Survey organized by the US Geological Survey. Each year 13 permanent breeding bird survey routes are monitored on the INL. Five of these routes are in remote areas of the INL site and are report to USGS. The remaining eight routes are adjacent to INL facilities and are designed to monitor the potential effects of facility activities on nearby bird populations. There are numerous other data sets available as well.

Since 2001, the Idaho Research Park has hosted 39 studies involving 22 graduate students, 35 university faculty and 25 DOE-ID contractor scientists. So far nine graduate students have completed theses. Funding for these projects has come from 30 different agencies or organizations.

There are currently 14 major ecological research projects taking place on the Idaho Research Park. The researchers are from Idaho State University, University of Idaho, Boise State University, University of Nevada Reno, Montana State University, Texas A&M University, New Mexico State University, Colorado State University, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the INL Environmental Surveillance, Education and Research Program (ESER). In addition the ESER program has formal teaming agreements with Idaho State University and the Great Basin and Rocky Mountain Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units that include more than 20 universities.

The current research efforts on the Idaho Research Park include 11 graduate students and involve 20 university faculty and 9 contractor scientists. The Idaho Research Park also provides opportunities for undergraduates to gain valuable experience doing field research along side graduate students, research faculty and contractor scientists. Each of the 14 research projects noted above includes at least one undergraduate technician and most have two or more. The ESER program also has six undergraduate technicians this summer participating in field research on the Idaho Research Park.

Some of these projects are funded by DOE-ID through the ESER program, but most are funded by other agencies and organizations. Those other funding sources include US Department of the Interior, US Department of Defense, US Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Idaho State University, University of Idaho, Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station, American Museum of Natural History, Inland Northwest Research Alliance, and the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping.

The DOE-ID funded research primarily, and much of the research funded by other agencies, addresses issues necessary for conservation planning on the INL Site. These issues include preparations for potential Endangered Species Act listings, understanding wildland fire effects, minimizing invasive species impacts, long-term trends in plant community composition, sagebrush health and potential effects of climate change. All of the knowledge gained through research conducted on the Idaho Research Park (regardless of the funding source) is available to the DOE for use in making decisions about how energy development and use may impact the environment. Much of this knowledge could be used to better understand the potential for impacts to sagebrush steppe from energy development (natural gas, wind, solar, etc.) and development of transmission line corridors.

The ESER program also provides public outreach opportunities that showcase Idaho Research Park activities. These include classroom demonstration and instruction to over 10,000 school children in eastern Idaho each year, sponsoring and featuring NEPR scientists and others through the "Ask a Scientist" program in support of Newspapers in Education and the Museum of Idaho in their "Meet a Scientist" program, and hiring summer high-school interns for the War on Weeds program at the Idaho Research Park and in support of surrounding county noxious weed control programs.




Contact:  Douglas Halford, Coordinator
Idaho National Environmental Research Park