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Rocky Gutierrez.

Habitat and humanity

U endowed chairholder works for wildlife, students

By Mary Hoff

From M, summer 2005

What can we do to help humans and wild things coexist? As development gnaws at the edges of natural resources, finding the answer to this question is increasingly urgent. It's also a primary focus for Rocky Gutierrez, holder of the Gordon W. Gullion Endowed Chair in Forest Wildlife Research and Education.

"We live in a world where conflict about the use of natural resources is commonplace," Gutierrez says. "My goal is to provide strong science as a basis for either reducing conflict or discovering new information that allows the sustainable use of forests."

An internationally acclaimed wildlife researcher who was drawn to Minnesota five years ago by the offer of the endowed chair, Gutierrez has been exploring the link between habitat and wildlife since he was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-1970s. In 1980 ("before it was fashionable," he says) he began studying habitat needs of the spotted owl. As the conflict between environmentalists and loggers grew in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, so did his interest in finding ways to reconcile development and protection.

"I began to try to understand relationships of species so we could have some legitimate use of forests while not completely destroying their habitats," he says.

"My goal is to create an environment in my lab where students can maximize their creativity and intellectual growth," says Gutierrez.

Over the years Gutiirrez has studied habitat needs for a wide number of animals, including mountain quail, ruffed grouse, sage grouse, spotted owls, bighorn sheep, elk, California quail, and acorn woodpeckers. Certain types of habitat may be good for breeding, while others are better for overall survival. Some surroundings provide optimum foraging, while others make great shelter. Despite the complexity of his research, the applications are down to earth. Gutierrez's work on ruffed grouse in Minnesota, for example, is directed at finding ways to integrate grouse into forest harvest plans as well as explaining their population cycles. "The results can provide guidance to people who are interested in forestry or land preservation or any kind of land use so that we can minimize the impact of development on species of interest," he says.

More endowed chairs

Rocky Gutierrez is one of more than 386 faculty--up from 17 just 20 years ago--who hold endowed chairs or professorships at the University. Endowed chairs and professorships are created through gifts from alumni and other individuals, or from foundations, corporations, and other organizations. The positions are often named for the benefactors.

Endowed faculty positions are used to attract or retain top faculty. They make it possible for the University to offer more competitive salaries and support a faculty member's ongoing research with funds for graduate students and equipment.

Raising gifts to endow faculty chairs and professorships has been a priority for the University since 1985. The increase since then has been a major factor in placing Minnesota among the top public research universities in the nation. "University benefactors have helped us to build an astounding community of scholars," says President Bob Bruininks.

A critical component of his research, Gutierrez says, is the contribution of numerous students. Over the years he has mentored close to 50 graduate students and hired hundreds of undergraduates to help with summer fieldwork. "They're the ones who are really pushing the frontiers," he says. "My goal is to create an environment in my lab where students can maximize their creativity and intellectual growth." "I really enjoy working with him," says Ph.D. student Guthrie Zimmerman, who is studying how forest management and weather interact to influence ruffed grouse populations at the University's Cloquet Forestry Center near Duluth. "He lets people have a lot of responsibility--he treats us as peers." That nurturing but challenging approach has clearly paid off. One of Gutierrez's former students now holds an endowed chair at another institution. Several are directors of research centers. And Gutierrez couldn't be happier. "When you help undergrads or graduate students achieve a goal and then you see them going on and doing something really good with their careers and enjoying them, it's really satisfying," he says. "It's like having kids--they're the thing you're most proud of."