SDSU students learn restoration and conservation, on and off campus

South Dakota State University

Sponsored - South Dakota is home to a diverse range of species of both wild animals and livestock, and South Dakota State University is home to hands-on education that helps further conservation and research around these animals.

Through the convergence of technology, ecology and education, the endeavors within South Dakota State University’s Department of Natural Resource Management support a stronger future for the vital ecosystems the state values.

Read on to learn more about these efforts, and visit to see more ways SDSU’s students, faculty and alumni are building something greater.

South Dakota State University

Using AI to identify river otter habitats

While South Dakota’s river otters are no longer considered a threatened species, little is known about their current population or habitat needs. SDSU’s Amanda Cheeseman, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resource Management, and graduate student Jessica Speiser have embarked on an ongoing project to learn more about the rebounding population of river otters in the state.

Using innovative techniques to capture images of the elusive otters, the research team captured millions of images and employed artificial intelligence to identify otters and their habitats within the expansive data set.

With this information, Cheeseman is assessing the impacts of streambank land use, land management practices, habitat structure and water quality on river otter habitat quality to better inform river otter conservation and management.

Prioritizing pinyon jay conservation through predictive modeling

The pinyon jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus), found in the Black Hills of South Dakota, has seen its population decline by as much as 83% in recent years. These medium-sized birds, relatives of the blue jay, are known for their distinctive blue-gray plumage and tendency to travel in flocks, calling to each other often.

Cheeseman and graduate student Emily Macklin have partnered with the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Field Ornithologists, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife to identify locations of pinyon jay colonies in southern Colorado.

Other objectives for this project include using the information, along with nest and colony data, to map areas of potential high-quality nesting habit across Colorado, prioritizing pinyon jay conservation and minimizing the potential negative impacts of woodland management.

This research can inform predictive models of where high-quality pinyon jay habitats are located, which, in turn, will inform sustainable land management practices and aid in the pinyon jay recovery efforts in South Dakota.

Hands-on learning for large mammal ecology

Cheeseman has also shared her research with her colleagues’ students. Those enrolled in William Severud’s large mammal ecology and management course had the opportunity to observe Cheeseman’s research on the weasel population as part of their practical instruction.

Severund, another assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resource Management, is a firm believer in hands-on, experiential learning. He created the Large Mammal Ecology and Management Lab to provide students with those types of opportunities.

The students’ experience was broad. They searched for fresh tracks in the snow at Oak Lake Field Station, observed post-mortem examinations of animal species in the necropsy lab and traveled to Watertown’s Bramble Park Zoo to learn to care for bison.

South Dakota State University