Building a Better Mousetrap

Biologist Rob Ramey isn't afraid of taking risks -- but taking on environmentalists may be his riskiest move.

He got his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, a free-spirited campus he refers to as Uncle Charley's Summer Camp. "It took me a long time to graduate, because after my first year at UCSC, I would take off every spring semester and go be a climbing bum in Yosemite," Ramey says. His experience scaling Yosemite's big walls paid off in the mid-'80s, though, when he was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to act as a human lifeboat for endangered peregrine falcons that were nesting on the sheer face of El Capitan.

"Basically, I'd speed-climb up to a nest wearing a backpack containing an incubator and two young peregrine chicks that had been raised in captivity," he explains. "Once I ascended to the nest, I'd take out the eggs, whose shells had been weakened by exposure to DDT, and I'd replace the eggs with the chicks." Then he'd put the eggs in the incubator and take them down so that they could hatch in the controlled environment of a laboratory, giving the chicks inside the best chance of survival.

After he finally graduated from UCSC, Ramey enrolled in graduate school at Yale University, where he obtained a master's degree in wildlife ecology. He met Laura at Yale, where she was studying conservation biology. They now have two children, ages eight and ten, who often accompany them in the field, whether it's in Costa Rica -- where Ramey cut net lines through the jungle with a machete, his youngest kid strapped to his back -- or the Baja, where he paid his children a dollar for every bighorn sheep they spotted on the island where he was conducting a population survey.

The great outdoors: Rob Ramey puts in a hard day at 
the office on a late December bighorn sheep-counting 
trip with research assistant Lance Carpenter.
James Glader
The great outdoors: Rob Ramey puts in a hard day at the office on a late December bighorn sheep-counting trip with research assistant Lance Carpenter.
No bones about it: Rob Ramey holds a Preble's 
jumping mouse skull.
James Glader
No bones about it: Rob Ramey holds a Preble's jumping mouse skull.

"My wife and I are a team, and our kids are now part of the team," says Ramey. "What could be better than to have your spouse be your partner and do wildlife-conservation research in remote locations? And then to bring up your kids doing the same?"

Ramey went on to Cornell University, where he earned a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology in 1991. Two years later, a post-doctorate fellowship brought him to Colorado. Today the family lives in Nederland, where Ramey volunteers for the local fire department and gives odd jobs to a self-proclaimed "mountain man" who lives in a squatter's cabin in the hills above the town.

"It takes a village to support a mountain man," Ramey says. "But hey, I admire the guy's spirit."

Ramey applied for his current job in 2001, after he saw it advertised in Science. One of his heroes is Roy Chapman Andrews, the real-life character who provided the inspiration for Indiana Jones. A curator at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1920s, Andrews led expeditions through Africa and Asia, collecting fossilized dinosaur eggs and fending off attacks by bandits.

If Andrews could make such a cool job out of a curator gig, Ramey decided, so could he.

"I don't think most of the people at the museum really know what I do when I'm not in the museum -- how hard it is, but how much fun," he says. "They can have my office, as far as I'm concerned. Give me a satellite phone, a laptop and a generator, and I'm set."

His home in Nederland is a short drive from the workplace Ramey greatly prefers: the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which he explores year-round as part of his research into possible causes of the ongoing die-off of bighorn sheep in the Rocky Mountain region.

On a cold Thursday in December, Ramey and his research assistant, Lance Carpenter, are on the job an hour after dawn, cross-country skiing six miles up Peaceful Valley, then undertaking a punishing backcountry ascent of St. Vrain Mountain, climbing to just below 12,000 feet by late afternoon. Last summer, the two biologists hauled 45-pound mineral blocks rich in the trace element selenium to bighorn habitats in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park, all places where they're testing the hypothesis that the decline in the bighorn population is caused, at least in part, by a deficiency of selenium in the sheep's diet. The mineral blocks introduced an outside source of selenium.

"The sheep lick them," says Carpenter. "It's sort of like giving them a daily multi-vitamin."

Recent population surveys of bighorn sheep have shown that while birth rates are consistent with historic levels, the survival rate of lambs is down. One possible explanation for this -- the one Ramey and Carpenter have keyed in on -- is white-muscle disease, a degeneration of skeletal and cardiac muscles in lambs caused by too little selenium in the mountain vegetation that the sheep graze on for most of their active hours. Carpenter and Ramey are now counting sheep in the areas where they placed the mineral blocks. If their count shows that more lambs survive the winter than in previous years, it will support the selenium-deficiency theory. The most likely cause of decreased selenium in vegetation is increased air pollution: Air pollution causes acid rain, and acid rain burns away selenium in plants.

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