Wild Success

Now in its ninth decade, OSU’s fisheries and wildlife department has gained elite status.


In its 84th year, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University is considered one of the best in the United States.

Its wildlife science program was ranked first in the nation in 2007 by the Chronicle of Higher Education. That same year, its fisheries science program ranked second. In 2015, Oregon State University was ranked third by College Factual in its ranking of “Best Places to Study Natural Resources and Conservation.” In recent years, the journal Conservation Biology ranked OSU first in the nation for conservation biology.

“We draw top-notch faculty because of our reputation, and also because Oregon State, as a land-grant institution, appeals to folks who want to collaborate on research and outreach with federal, state and local agencies,” says department head Selina Heppell, an OSU faculty member since 2001.

Selina Heppell, Oregon State University conservation biologist and head of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

The Department of Fish, Game and Fur Animal Management was established in 1935 at OSU, then known as Oregon Agricultural College. Also in 1935, the Oregon Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit became the second of its kind in the country. As its name implies, the focus in those early years was on the preservation of fish and wildlife as resources for human use—hunting, fishing, food, and the like.

That theme carried into the pages of Oregon’s Agricultural Progress, which began publishing in 1953. Pheasants graced the cover of the Fall 1954 OAP issue, with the inside story headlined, “Farm Raised Pheasants are Good Hunting!” The first instance of fish research in the pages of OAP came in the Fall 1956 issue, with a cover photo of—you guessed it—salmon fingerlings. The story highlighted the work going on at OSU’s fisheries laboratory on Mary’s River in Corvallis. Later in the 1950s, an OAP cover returned to fish, with the headline: “Needed: More Farm Pond Fishing.”

“At the time it started, it was fairly common for fisheries and wildlife departments to be in colleges of agricultural sciences,” Heppell says. “What has changed for many programs over the years is that non-consumptive use is a much larger theme. We broadened into conservation biology.”

Indeed, the department name changed to Fisheries and Wildlife in 1964. By the late 1960s and 1970s, departmental research included studies of bird populations and migration, stream health for fish, mule deer survival, and, with the opening of the marine science center in Newport in the mid-60s, research involving sea otters, sea lions, and whales.

The department’s ongoing research includes studies on the interaction between wildlife and land uses, migratory bird ecology, forestry-wildlife relationships, conservation genetics, predator-prey interactions, and population dynamics.

Fisheries and marine ecology researchers are focusing on marine and freshwater fish populations, marine mammal and seabird ecology and genetics, water quality, fish and invertebrate physiology, stream ecology, aquaculture, and fish genetics.

What has changed for many programs over the years is that non-consumptive use is a much larger theme. We broadened into conservation biology.

Frequent research collaborators are the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Forest Service.

The USGS-sponsored Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, embedded in the department, features four faculty members, making it one of two largest of the 40 cooperative units in the United States. The cooperative—a partnership between OSU, USGS, ODFW, USFWS and the Wildlife Management Institute—enhances graduate education in fisheries and wildlife sciences and facilitate research between natural resource agencies and universities on topics of mutual interest.

“Our unit is fantastic and incredibly productive,” Heppell says. “It’s been a tremendous asset for our department, OSU and Oregonians. Because of these close ties with agencies, we’ve been able to keep up our strong reputation and expand in some areas. We continue to be a powerhouse of expertise in salmonid biology and freshwater habitat restoration, and we have strengths in many wildlife fields, particularly bird conservation and management. Our faculty working on coastal issues are key contributors to OSU’s Marine Studies Initiative, as well.”

Heppell is especially proud of the department’s standing in the area of species conservation. In the theme of OSU’s current 150thanniversary celebration, Fisheries and Wildlife launched a website devoted to 150 species sustained by departmental research. There, the visitor can learn about OSU’s research that has contributed to sustainable use and conservation of dozens of species, from aardvarks to zebrafish. The interactive site includes fun facts about the animals and links to publications.

“A lot of the work we do is reactive because agencies will come to us looking for research partners to solve problems,” Heppell says, “but we’re also doing basic research about behavior, habitat needs, population dynamics—so that we can do the evaluations to keep the next fire from popping up for that species or a species like it.”

Coming next: OSU research lays the groundwork for one of the most famous Endangered Species Act listings of the late 20thCentury

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