It was 20 years ago when The Nature Conservancy first approached Mark Ryan to gather information on piping plovers. At the time, there was little information on the birds, which were under consideration as an addition to the federal endangered species list.
Ryan, who had just finished his doctorate in animal ecology, embraced the opportunity.
“I was looking for a way to make some sort of contribution to conservation,” he said.
As Ryan initiated his study, piping plovers began to take on importance when their numbers — as well as the outlook for the species — took a turn for the worse. Gathering the data sought by The Nature Conservancy was only the beginning of a career that has made Ryan one of the nation’s leading plover researchers.
“Once I started, I didn’t want to walk away,” Ryan said. “I thought the work was important.”
Piping plovers were declared an endangered species in 1986. Their role in the ongoing Missouri River debate has thrust Ryan and his research into the public eye. It’s not uncommon for the MU professor, who is the chairman of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, to field calls from stakeholders representing various interest groups involved in river management issues.
Ryan has spent most of his time studying the birds in North Dakota, using data gathered by graduate students, as well as from his own visits every summer.
“If we could do a good job at managing wetland areas, the birds’ populations could increase without further constraint on the river,” Ryan said. “We can’t think of the river and wetland birds separately.”
Ryan’s goal is to boost plover populations enough so that the birds will be taken off the endangered species list. His research has yielded important findings that could help him meet that objective.
“We are starting to see that management can work and that it is not horribly expensive,” he said. “We are also seeing a change of attitude in stakeholders. People are starting to say ‘this problem can be solved, and it is without an unimaginable price tag.’ ”Ryan uses computer models to predict trends in plover populations. One management strategy being used to boost populations is to protect young plovers by fencing off places where the birds nest to keep predators at bay.
Ryan’s research is the kind of work that he always hoped he would be able to do. Growing up in St. Paul, Minn., he was fascinated with the Lewis and Clark expedition. His interest in conservation was kindled in high school during backpacking adventures in the Minnesota wilderness.
In addition to piping plovers, Ryan studies grassland songbirds, whose numbers are declining.
MU graduate students Courtney Kerns and Kim Suedkamp Wells assist Ryan in his research — Kerns works with him on the effects that grazing cattle have on grassland songbirds in North Dakota; Wells helps with studies of Eastern meadowlarks and dickcissels in Missouri.
“His level of commitment to conservation is inspiring,” Kerns said, adding that Ryan has contributed to her own personal and professional growth.
Wells is also an admirer.
“He is the best adviser and teacher I have worked with,” she said. “He finds the balance between pushing us and helping us. Everyone respects him, even if they don’t necessarily agree with his ideas.”
Ryan’s work on the songbirds is funded by a grant from the Missouri Department of Conservation. His research helps the department make recommendations on how to best manage public lands for songbirds, said Brad Jacobs, an ornithologist with the department.
“We need to be able to prove that our recommendations are the best option,” he said. “That’s where Mark’s research plays a key role.”
Ryan was Jacobs’ professor while Jacobs was working on his master’s degree at MU. He has seen first-hand how Ryan conducts his research.
“He is always cautious,” Jacobs said. “He asks the right questions and he is very thorough. He is a classic, high-quality researcher and an excellent field biologist.”
As the number of grassland birds declines, several restoration projects on native prairies have been launched. Ryan’s data has helped make the management decisions involved.
“The grassland ecosystem birds are in trouble — more than other birds,” Jacobs said. “There is a higher percentage of grassland species in trouble compared to wetland species.”
Ryan’s research is just one of the concerns that keeps him busy. He teaches several courses at MU, including a senior-level wildlife conservation course, an ornithology class and a graduate class in conservation biology.
“Research and teaching are very different jobs,” he said. “In research it takes a long time to see the effects. In teaching, to the minute, you know if you are successful and the people are learning.
“I like to think that my students go out and change the world. I love passion and curiosity in my students. I hope my students come away wanting to know more and I hope they know how to use the information they’ve accumulated.”