The Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence is given annually to a WSU Vancouver faculty member whose research quality and quantity are exemplary, and whose work has had a positive influence on the broader community. It is the university’s highest research honor.
Associate Professor of Biological Sciences
Environmental news often tends toward gloom and doom, but that is not Cheryl Schultz’s style. She believes in the potential of science to improve conservation practices, and her work proves the point.
Schultz, who runs the Conservation Biology research group at WSU Vancouver, focuses on butterflies as a model system for endangered species. She explores the ecology of at-risk populations and how to translate scientific knowledge into on-the-ground conservation practices that both protect the environment and enable the people who live in a place to use its resources.
One of her earliest findings concerned “habitat corridors” to preserve endangered species. Through research for her University of Washington doctoral thesis on butterflies, she learned that dispersed habitats—the “stepping stone” approach—would be more beneficial than a long, narrow flyway corridor. That was a solution that dispersed nature reserves could manage.
The project also introduced Schultz to her longtime collaborator, Elizabeth Crone, a National Science Foundation fellow at the time and now a professor at Tufts University. Over the last 25 years, they have studied many species of butterflies, including western monarchs, the Oregon silverspot and—their primary model species—Fender’s blue. Schultz and Crone seek to combine ecological theory with natural history to develop “flexible guidance” useful to conservation- minded property owners and agencies.
In 2017, their study of western monarch butterflies made headlines across the country. In a paper for Biological Conservation, they reported that migratory monarchs in the American West have declined rapidly over the past 35 years, and could be extinct as we know them in another 35 years. Although the reasons are not yet clear, loss and modification of butterfly habitat, climate change and widespread pesticide use are likely culprits, the researchers said.
The main focus of Schultz’s work, however, is not so much to document risks to vulnerable species but to reverse them. Her studies have generated much hopeful news. For example, several nature reserves adopting study recommendations have made great strides in restoring land for butterfly habitat, reducing weeds and enhancing nectar resources.
Schultz and Crone are currently working on a five- year grant looking at the viability of various species on Department of Defense lands. The research will lead to three activities designed expressly to improve land stewardship: fact sheets, a decision support framework, and meetings with local managers to help make sure the framework addresses their needs. “We really can come together, do the science, build the partnerships and take the time to rebuild the populations,” Schultz said. “I want to leave people with a sense of the possible: It’s not going to happen overnight, but we can do this.”
Schultz joined WSU Vancouver in spring 2003. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, and her Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Washington.
Related: Office of Research and Graduate Education