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Manuela Huso in a blue shirt in front of green bushes.

Wildlife conservation: Devising statistical tools anyone can use

By Hannah Ashton

Research statistician emerita and alumna Manuela Huso (M.S., 88’) received the highest honorary recognition an employee can receive within the U.S. Department of the Interior.

She awarded the Distinguished Service Award last fall for her “significant and highly impactful advancements in biological statistics and wildlife conservation ecology.”

Huso led the creation of statistically robust estimators of wildlife fatalities associated with wind-energy development while accounting for uncertainty in how impacts of turbine collisions are monitored.

To make these tools accessible to everyone, she put the software into packages for public use. Those programs, GenEst and Evidence of Absence, are now often required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of their permitting process for incidental take of wildlife at wind-energy facilities.

“It feels really good that I’ve been able to provide something that can be used by a lot of people. Whether you’re in a rich country or poor, it’s still accessible. And you don’t have to be a statistician,” she said. “It’s not a black box. That’s very important to my philosophy that whatever we do, anybody can look at the code and see what we’ve done and modify it for their own purposes.”

Huso’s passion for creating useful tools for scientists and industry started long before her work for the U.S. Geological Survey.

‘Statistically fascinating’

After graduating from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, with a B.A. in Biology in 1978, Huso joined the Peace Corps.

Working as a forestry volunteer in Burkina Faso, located in West Africa, her experience was “life-changing.”

“There were incredible highs and pretty deep lows. It was an amazing opportunity to be in a part of the world and live a lifestyle that I would not otherwise have had a chance to do and work with people who were dedicated to their homes and doing the right thing for their place in the world,” she said.

During her free time, she started to think about opportunities that would combine her interests in mathematics and biology.

After the Peace Corps, she attended the University of Oregon and received her master’s in theoretical ecology, which she thought was the perfect fit. However, after entering the job market she realized her skills in statistics were worth more.

Oregon State Professor of statistics Fred Ramsey (now Emeritus) took Huso on as a student and she graduated in 1988 with a master’s in statistics. He asked her to do a Ph.D. but she declined, wanting to work in the field before making a long-term commitment.

“I went off and took a job with Oregon State in the Forest Science Department working on an acid rain project funded by the EPA,” she said. “And there I discovered that I really did like working in statistics. It was a lot of fun.”

Two women in professional attire in front of a blue background.

Manuela Huso accepting the Distinguished Service Award with the U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

At the time, her dream job was a consulting statistician position in the College of Forestry. This role worked with students and faculty on a wide range of statistical questions from experimental design to analysis and even teaching.

When the position became available, she applied but the job was offered to Lisa Ganio, current Department of Statistics head. A few months later Huso found out Ganio was taking on a new role, and the consultant position was open again. She applied and remained in the role for 15 years.

Ganio and Huso ended up working together on a number of projects, and even co-taught a graduate statistics course for non-statistics majors.

During that time, a fortuitous encounter with a graduate student in Forest Science propelled Huso down the path of wind power and its effects on wildlife.

“I realized there was a big opening there for somebody with a statistics background to help them understand how to best estimate what the mortality was at wind power facilities using rigorous statistical tools because what they were using before was pretty ad hoc,” she said.

In 2011, Huso published a paper suggesting a statistical answer to mortality questions. Simultaneously, the Corvallis USGS office opened a research statistician position focused on wind power and wildlife and she was offered the job.

The idea for Evidence of Absence came during conversations with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Huso worked with coauthor Jessica Kenyon (M.S. ’12), another Oregon State graduate, and David Dail, a former statistics Ph.D. student.

“I pointed out that when they go out and search for bats or birds, particularly rare ones, they didn’t have any tools to help them interpret what it meant when they found none,” Huso said. “If you have a high probability of finding something, like 90%, and you don’t find anything, you can say maybe you missed one or two, but you didn’t miss 100.”

The answer gets more difficult with a lower detection probability. If the probability of finding something is 1/10, then it would be easy to miss 10, or even 20. And when you are talking about a rare species those losses matter.

“It’s just so statistically fascinating. There are so many pieces to it and it’s so easy to think about it all the time, to think about where we can improve and what components we have missed.”

The program Huso helped design can tell government agencies and industry the probability of mortality rates based on the probability of detection. This helps them decide if mortality rates are too high for the successful management of any given species.

Her next goal was to develop statistical tools for people trying to estimate impacts, whether that was how many birds are killed at one facility, comparing across different facilities to find patterns in regions or habitat types, or testing methods for reducing mortalities. The result was GenEst.

Huso acknowledges GenEst was a team effort from the start. “I don’t want to take credit for the actual statistics and the coding of this. That was all done by Dan Dalthorp, a statistician with the USGS.” Jeff Mintz, an Oregon State statistics graduate, was also a coauthor on the project, and Lisa Madsen, professor of statistics, collaborated as well.

Beyond software creation, her work with USGS also involves experimental design. Her team takes methods that companies have proposed to reduce mortality rates and sets up experiments to test them.

After spending more than a decade working on wind power and avian species, Huso is still captivated.

“It’s just so statistically fascinating,” she said. “There are so many pieces to it and it’s so easy to think about it all the time, to think about where we can improve and what components we have missed.”