New State Forests Wildlife Biologist Brings Vast Experience to Oregon Department of Forestry


ODF’s new lead state forests wildlife biologist grew up surrounded by state lands – just not Oregon’s.

Vanessa surveys an arboreal bear den. Photo: Chad Marks-Fife

As a child in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, state-owned lands sprawled for miles near Vanessa Petro’s home, providing endless opportunities for exploration and planting a seed for a future career.

And it was a documentary on black bears in Pennsylvania – produced by the Keystone State’s game commission – that drew her into the world of ecology.

“It followed a world-renowned bear biologist as he shared highlights from the state’s bear study that included radio telemetry tracking and winter den visits,” Vanessa said. “That combination of experiences led me to pursue my career choice.”

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Vanessa was co-leading her own multi-state black bear study – an outcome Vanessa admits she never imagined.  As a wildlife researcher with the OSU College of Forestry, Vanessa worked with the USDA National Wildlife Research Center to better understand the space use, habitat selection, and denning ecology of bears suspected of peeling trees on private industrial forests.

That’s just one highlight of a varied career in wildlife biology that has taken Vanessa to landscapes as varied as the shrub-steppes of Utah, the Sierra Nevadas in California, the gentle-sloped pine forests along the Savannah River in South Carolina, the “sky islands” near Tucson, Ariz. and the banks of the Missouri River in South Dakota.

“Working in a wide range of forest types in various conditions across the U.S. provided me an opportunity to draw from these examples to better understand the necessity to promote healthy and resilient forests using a diversity of management practices, informed by best available science and implemented using a ‘learning by doing’ approach,” Vanessa said.

Oregon was an appropriate place for Vanessa to land, as she specializes in the American beaver, having participated in research projects across the U.S. and providing technical advice on the species to a large variety of stakeholders.

“I was drawn to this semi-aquatic species because my professional background reflected a combination of terrestrial and aquatic field work,” Vanessa said. “Because of this, I felt I had a lot in common with this species and seized the opportunity to work with them hands-on for my master’s degree.” Vanessa’s graduate work at OSU examined the efficacy of using relocated nuisance beavers as a tool to enhance stream habitat for coho salmon in the Oregon Coast Range.

Vanessa joins ODF’s State Forests Division at a time of significant change. At the direction of the Board of Forestry, the state is pursuing a Habitat Conservation Plan on more than 600,000 acres of state-managed forestland in western Oregon. Vanessa will be developing ODF’s monitoring and research programs under the HCP, and providing guidance and technical support to field staff as they implement management activities.

Vanessa completing a soil sampling test. Photo: USDA National Wildlife Research Center.

“My current focus is directed towards learning our existing wildlife policies and contributing to our habitat conservation plan,” Vanessa said, “while participating in workgroups involved with fisher, barred owl, and red tree vole management strategies. I will be working with ODF staff, government agencies, and other organizations to fulfill our wildlife monitoring requirements and developing wildlife research projects that will allow us to directly contribute to the scientific community.”

Opportunities to work on a variety of forest stand types was a major draw for Vanessa to ODF’s state forests.

“I am particularly interested in the management of early seral habitat in actively-managed forests that will benefit wildlife species such as American beaver and black bear,” Vanessa said. “This stage of forest development is limited both in time and space across our region, and it’s exciting to be part of an opportunity to contribute to this often-overlooked phase of forest development that provides many ecological benefits.”

When not on the job, Petro enjoys outdoor adventures with husband Andrew and sons Aldo and Sawyer, going camping, fishing, hiking, checking out beaver dams and hunting for fire scars.

About Author

Jason Cox is Oregon Department of Forestry's Public Affairs Officer.

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