Colin Gillin, V98, shares his strategies for protecting the state’s fish and wildlife from disease, habitat loss, and future unknowns
Colin Gillin, V98, has spent nearly four decades working in wildlife conservation. He’s captured mountain lions and grizzly bears in Wyoming, biopsied blue whales in the Pacific, and performed radio-implant surgeries on wolverines in the Rocky Mountains. He has also radio-collared bighorn sheep and moose in the Rockies and tested deer and elk for chronic wasting disease in Oregon.
With so much hands-on experience with free-ranging wild animals, Gillin, the state wildlife veterinarian for Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, has his own approach to habitat conservation related to wildlife health.
He calls it managing “upstream.”
In a recent book titled Wildlife Population Health (Springer, 2022), Gillin wrote about protecting the health of free-ranging wildlife to help control disease. When people plan ahead to manage factors affecting animals’ health—an “upstream” look—wildlife may be better able to withstand the stress of challenges in the future, such as changing habitat or changing climates.
In wildlife conservation, prevention of disease is less expensive than managing disease. Unfortunately, wildlife management agencies tend to react after changes in animal populations occur, often due to human encroachment, loss of habitat, and other environmental alterations, which leave wildlife vulnerable, Gillin said. Building resiliency and sustainability into wildlife populations by maintaining and improving their habitat before a crisis occurs is “not only prudent and looking upstream,” he said—but it is “also quite difficult to implement because of competing sociopolitical, funding, and other factors from humans, and a rapidly changing climate and environment.”
Wildlife under stress is less healthy and has fewer offspring, so population numbers may decrease while the risk of disease spillover to humans increases. Gillin said identifying the wildlife populations that may suffer the most from human impacts or environmental changes is critical to addressing the challenge.
One “upstream” approach to keep wildlife healthy is to make large swaths of habitat more productive and reconnect fragmented habitats. This provides more diversity within an ecosystem, supports new species, encourages more productivity and resiliency of animals, and makes them less vulnerable to disease, Gillin said.
“We are experiencing global disease events affecting not only humans, but also wildlife, such as highly pathogenic avian influenza and SARS-CoV-2,” said Gillin, who was a faculty member at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine for four years following a residency there in conservation medicine. “Acting for wildlife health now before another cascading problem occurs will take a coordinated effort among state, federal, academic, and private partners. Keeping wildlife healthy and maintaining biodiversity requires thinking out of the box and on a larger and broader scale.”
"I’ve realized the job has been to join a fight you're never actually winning. But it's important to protect wildlife and promote ecosystem health at every opportunity, find value in nature, and know you are helping in some small, but important way."
Early in his career as a biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Gillin responded to proposals for development, reporting on possible impacts—cumulative, direct, and indirect—to wildlife populations. He worked as Wyoming’s grizzly bear biologist conducting habitat and human-bear conflict research to protect grizzlies and their habitats, and to build resilient and more productive bear populations. He brought that experience to Tufts, where he emphasized to students the connections between wildlife population biology, health, and habitat requirements. He and his students mapped continental diseases in relation to wildlife populations and their vulnerabilities from habitat impacts as part of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
Gillin’s career has evolved from field biologist and wildlife veterinarian to a world of policy and problem solving. He travels frequently, serving on numerous committees and working groups and speaking on wildlife health topics of both national and international scope. Gillin serves as vice chair of the 50-state Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ (AFWA) Fish and Wildlife Health Committee. He also sits on the Interagency Steering Committee for Avian Influenza Surveillance in Wild Migratory Birds, which has a leading role in planning and implementing the country’s bird flu surveillance activities.
One of his biggest responsibilities is protecting Oregon’s wildlife from diseases that may enter from neighboring states and even abroad. One attacker, chronic wasting disease (CWD), is a fatal degenerative condition that affects elk, deer, and moose. There is no treatment, vaccine, or cure, and while there are no known human cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stressed the importance of preventing this class of diseases from entering the food chain.
CWD is one of the most serious and devasting diseases of North American deer species, said Gillin, who served as co-editor to the AFWA’s best management practices for CWD. Those guidelines were developed by more than 50 North American wildlife veterinarians for state agencies, which conduct surveillance and management of CWD.
Another threat knocking at Oregon’s door is white-nose syndrome (WNS), a deadly fungal disease of bats which is present in California, Washington, Idaho, and other U.S. states. Gillin helps direct the national effort to protect bats against this disease in his role on the national WNS Executive Committee.
International disease threats include another fungal disease called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal, which currently affects European salamanders but is also a threat to U.S. species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has banned imports of more than 200 species of salamanders, which is particularly important in Oregon where Bsal poses a contagion risk for the abundant and diverse salamanders native to the Pacific Northwest.
Gillin and his team also help manage sea lions in the Columbia River to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. Working with neighboring states and tribal partners, they help facilitate safe passage for 13 salmonid stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act as the fish negotiate their way past dams and hungry sea lions on their way to spawning grounds as far away as Idaho.
Gillin remains realistic about his successes. “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen reductions in almost every wildlife species with population recovery and rebound of very few species. And I’ve realized the job has been to join a fight that you're never actually winning,” he said. “But what is important is to protect wildlife and promote ecosystem health at every opportunity, find value in nature, and know you are helping in some small, but important way.”