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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

November 9, 2001

For Peter Houlihan, a Day at MHC Is Often a Walk in the Woods


Peter Houlihan (left), conservation biologist and Mellon postdoctoral fellow, works with students to survey and certify campus vernal pools.

You will understand why Peter Houlihan often wears comfortable jeans and walking shoes to the office when you seem him trekking through the unpaved areas of the MHC campus, taking water samples, identifying habitat types, inspecting manure storage structures, or cradling fish and eels as he records their statistics. There are cleaner days of teaching and library research, of course, but the postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Environmental Literacy (CEL) regularly gets his hands dirty as he labors to assess and "map" the ecology of the entire campus.

Through this field work—part of a larger plan to integrate environmental content across the curriculum—Houlihan is establishing a campus environmental monitoring, assessment, and restoration (EMAR) program that will help ensure the integrity of the diverse habitats of the College's ponds, stream, vernal pools, marsh, shrub wetlands,
forested wetlands, open fields, and forests. "This campus is a nature preserve in the middle of suburbia," said Houlihan, "but it is threatened by human activities on and off

With degrees in environmental studies, biology, wildlife conservation, and zoology, Houlihan is a natural at the monitoring work that makes up phase one of the EMAR program. That work includes tracking water quality in the campus stream and lakes and mapping the location of land shrubs introduced as ornamentals in the 1940s and 1950s that have crowded out other plants and made unsuitable habitats for breeding birds. After assessing Mount Holyoke's land and water habitats, Houlihan will propose "best management practices" (BMPS) to control threats to them.

To improve water quality in campus lakes, for example, Houlihan has proposed ways to minimize manure-runoff from the equestrian center. Currently, manure mixes with rainwater and creates nutrient-rich runoff harmful to the health of the lakes. A buffer of plants around the center's manure storage structure and a roof to protect it from rain are two small changes that could make a big difference in how much contaminated water reaches the lake (and whether nutrient-loving algae is able to choke off other plants and animal life). To improve the biodiversity of the stream and lakes, Houlihan is working to secure state and federal funding to build fishways on the campus dams. The fishways would act as stepladders, helping several species of migratory fish gain access to the Stony Brook watershed.

Similarly, Houlihan has suggested ways to minimize visits by Canada geese, whose populations have abandoned long-distance migrations in favor of short hops between human-made ponds, including MHC's Lower Lake. Although liked by many, the geese present several problems by introducing nutrient-rich droppings into the water, carrying disease, and creating a dirty lawn. Having investigated many solutions, Houlihan is proposing warning signs and student patrols to discourage the public from feeding the geese, removable fences that would deter geese when they are caring for flightless goslings, and a "goose dog" trained to follow geese into the water, herd them into a cluster, and spook them away without disturbing ducks and other wildlife.

This year, Houlihan will work with volunteers, work-study students, and independent-study students on these and similar investigations. Together they will collect data on aquatic and terrestrial conditions, research restoration and control techniques, and funnel all their findings into BMP proposals and curriculum. Potential applications of this work beyond science courses are limitless. An art history class might compare the perceptions of turn-of-the-century Pioneer Valley landscape painters with today's data, for example. A history class might consider environmental transformation in light of cultural shifts toward and away from agricultural lifestyles. "In every case, students will learn in a way that connects them with the place they live," said Houlihan. "They will take field trips right on campus."

When he is not collecting EMAR data this year, Houlihan may be found working on his research on how one animal's activities change the natural landscape, which, in turn, has an impact on other animal species. For five years he has been studying beaver populations in the Adirondacks of New York state, where beaver population growth has resulted in thousands of animal-engineered wetlands and a positive impact on the regional diversity of birds. The Wildlife Conservation Society will release Houlihan's report on this research this winter. Closer to home, Houlihan is interested in how suburbanization and agriculture have changed the forested landscape along the Connecticut River. Using Geographic Information Systems technology to characterize the riverbank vegetation and a kayak and a pair of binoculars to census bird populations, he will work to understand how human activity influences landscape structure and the biodiversity of birds along the river.

This profile is one of a series that College Street Journal will run on the staff of the Center for Environmental Literacy. For more information on CEL's EMAR program, BMPs, and campus habitats, see For more information on CEL's student workers and volunteers, see www.mtholyoke .edu/proj/cel/students/.

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Copyright © 2001 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Office of Communications and maintained by Don St. John. Last modified on November 9, 2001.

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