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National forest, research station bring eDNA sampling to Eastern Region

MICHIGANHiawatha National Forest, Northern Research Station and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point are launching an environmental DNA sampling project within the national forest that demonstrates local implementation of the agency’s commitment to share scientific breakthroughs and new technologies.

What is eDNA sampling? As fish and other living organisms move through their surroundings, they shed DNA, genetic material found in body cells, such as sloughed scales. These bits of DNA accumulate in the environment, so a water sample from a stream may contain the DNA from any species (plant or animal) that has been in the water upstream.

Eric Miltz-Miller prepares the eDNA sampling backpack.
Hiawatha National Forest biological science technician Eric Miltz-Miller prepares the eDNA sampling backpack for use in Kilpecker Creek. The convenience of the backpack sampler in the field, and the proximity of the Northern Research Station lab in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, for testing mean that this technology has potential to increase both efficiency and effectiveness of stream sampling. USDA Forest Service photo.
Jason Krebill inserts a cartridge into sampling pole.
Hiawatha National Forest fisheries biologist Jason Krebill inserts an eDNA filter cartridge into the lightweight sampling pole. USDA Forest Service photo.

“This sampling method is becoming common in the agency’s western regions, but until now, there were no national forests in the Eastern Region using eDNA sampling. My goal is for the Hiawatha to be a regional leader in eDNA research, as well as in utilization of this sampling technique for our everyday jobs,” said Eric Miltz-Miller, a biological science technician on the forest’s fisheries team.

As a first step, Forest Service staff sampled several streams with variable but known levels of brook trout this fall to determine how detectable this species is using eDNA. Next spring, the main project focused on lake sturgeon will begin.

“Environmental DNA technology is revolutionizing the science of aquatic sampling by looking for genetic material in the water rather than by trying to locate individuals of a species,” said Miltz-Miller, the project’s instigator.

The National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation, located on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, has been a leader in the development of genomics and eDNA sampling. Staying abreast of the latest science, Miltz-Miller was interested in using the technology to better manage Hiawatha’s aquatic environments. This summer, the forest invested in the necessary equipment and Miltz-Miller invited Forest Service scientists Dr. Paula Marquardt and Dr. Deahn Donner from the Northern Research Station to join him in bringing eDNA technology to the Eastern Region.

This project launches the eDNA program at the Northern Research Station as well. Joel Flory, a wildlife biologist stationed at the station’s lab in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, shares Miltz-Miller’s enthusiasm for the project. “Scientists are still developing a genome register for plants and animals of the United States, but the potential sensitivity and efficiency of eDNA sampling compared to traditional sampling methods makes it an attractive tool,” said Flory.

The Forest and NRS purchased eDNA backpack samplers this summer. To familiarize themselves with the equipment prior to initiating the main project next spring, Miltz-Miller and Flory recently conducted brook trout sampling on an unnamed tributary of the Rock River, Spider Creek, Kilpecker Creek and Ogontz River. 

“The main project will be to build an occupancy model for lake sturgeon on the Hiawatha,” said Miltz-Miller. “We will be sampling in the spring when adults should be migrating to spawn, and in the fall when juveniles will be leaving the river for Lake Michigan.” According to Miltz-Miller, they chose lake sturgeon as the focus species for this project because the Michigan Natural Features Inventory considers the species “imperiled,” the state of Michigan identifies it as threatened and the Eastern Regional Forester lists it as a sensitive species for the Hiawatha National Forest. 

“Given the species' status, the data will be even more important,” he added.

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