Student wins grant to study muskoxen and soil
University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student Laura Starr is pairing ecology and economics in her research. Starr, who is studying natural resources management, was recently awarded a $25,000 Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant to continue her work. She is the second UAF student to receive a SARE award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the past 26 years.
The one side of her research focuses on grazing impacts of intensely managed soil and the other the economic sustainability of raising muskoxen in Alaska.
“I love soil,” Starr said. “It’s so humble. Few people appreciate how important it is. I feel like it’s almost magic with the microbes being between mineral and biological life.” Very little research has been done on northern grazing. “It’s exciting to start something new,” she said.
As for the muskox investigation, Starr said, “I like the possibilities. This is about place-based animals. Just like camels belong in the desert, muskox belong in the north.”
Starr grew up in Point Roberts, Washington, on a peninsula, and went to school in Vancouver, British Columbia. After high school, she was a translator for a British sound equipment company in France and Spain, then sailed the seas with a cruise line. She joined the U.S. Army, training to be a pilot until a car accident derailed that career path.
Starr earned a bachelor of science in ecology and a bachelor of arts in economics at Evergreen State College in Washington. She met her husband Dean, an Army helicopter pilot, at Fort Rucker, Alabama. The couple and their two daughters lived in Louisiana and Washington before being transferred to Fairbanks two years ago.
UAF was the reason the Starrs requested Alaska, so that Laura could go back to school. “We wanted a post with a good university nearby,” she said. “I told Dean ‘Let’s go to Alaska.’”
After discussing potential projects with her faculty advisor, School of Natural Resources Research Assistant Professor Jan Rowell, Starr decided to focus on grazing and muskoxen.
“I don’t have an ag background,” Starr said. “But I know landscape ecology, which looks at the big picture. I look at farms as an agricultural patch.” She has been studying the methods of Allan Savory of the Savory Institute, known for reversing land degradation through holistic management.
“I’m seeing if trampling the soil works the way Savory thought it would,” Starr said. “I already see some differences.” She is testing the soil’s parameters, change in microbes, the physical properties of soil and plant species composition.
She uses a mechanical tool that simulates animals crossing the pastures. “We are looking to optimize the decomposition,” Starr said. “I shovel a lot of poop.”
The challenges are determining the methodology that should be used in her experiments. “I’m still figuring out the judgment of it, all the details,” she said. “I learn a lot from my committee members on research design.”
Starr’s goal is to eventually earn a doctorate. She was thrilled to receive the SARE award. “I’m going to use it for soil tests, new equipment and a part-time assistant,” she said.
Starr’s economic skills have been applied to an analysis of qiviut production and muskoxen farming, an agricultural enterprise developed and fostered in Alaska, Rowell said. “The ecological portion of her study is investigating the components of grazing in subarctic agro-ecosystems. While this is a new direction for those of us working at LARS, it is critically important to the health, welfare and efficiency (economics) of grazing livestock and to the ecological compatibility of agricultural systems with natural habitats in this state.”
Rowell said Starr’s work is the first step in the process and will provide valuable baseline information that can be incorporated into multi-disciplinary grants on grazing systems throughout the state.
“Laura is an exceptional student,” Rowell said. “Without losing focus on the importance of family, she juggles classes and research with motivation, determination and intelligence.
“Western SARE is a very competitive program, and it’s a testament to her abilities that she was chosen as a recipient for their graduate student award,” she said.