Better Together: The WDNR and CFL’s Strong Scientific Partnership

by Adam Hinterthuer

In the summer of 2021, Zach Feiner started a new job under less-than-ideal circumstances. Where he was used to being out on the water working with teams of researchers studying Wisconsin’s fisheries, he was suddenly stuck working from home and trying to get up-to-speed on his new job via meetings over Zoom.

Luckily, his new gig was pretty familiar. In fact, in many ways, Zach barely missed a beat moving from his office in downtown Madison at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) into his new role at Hasler Lab for the CFL.

Zach Feiner

“Basically I moved all of my DNR research responsibilities to this position [at the CFL],” he says. “I do a lot of the exact same stuff here that I did at the DNR – priority research that the agency needs to have done to know how to manage fisheries.”

While Zach’s title is officially “assistant scientist,” he also sees part of his role as being a “research liaison” between the WDNR and CFL who brings university and agency researchers together on projects.

“It’s a pretty unique position when you think about it,” he says.

While that may be true, collaboration between the WDNR and CFL is anything but unique – it’s standard operating procedure.

The WDNR has a long history of supporting CFL research on everything from walleye populations to invasive species to blue green algae blooms. Funding from the WDNR has also supported people. For example, Susan Knight and Carol Warden at Trout Lake Station (TLS) have both worked in WDNR-funded positions “on station” in the past and new hire, Maddie Mathes, was brought on after Carol moved into Pam Montz’s old position, currently filling some of the role in the invasive species group.

It’s a relationship that makes perfect sense, according to WDNR fisheries research team leader, Greg Sass.

The WDNR has a long-list of high priority research needs to help inform science-based decisions for fisheries and water resources throughout the state, he says, but limited funding and a limited number of scientists make it hard to answer all of those questions.

“From a DNR fisheries and aquatic ecological research standpoint, it is only logical that we partner and collaborate with the expertise and bright minds present at the CFL and TLS,” he says. “The partnership allows us to share facilities, equipment, supplies, staff, and students to conduct the best, most-relevant and cutting-edge scientific research possible.”

Not only does this support build collaborations and communications between the two organizations, it also helps students elevate their own research and get experience working on projects directly relevant to fisheries management and policy – experience that can pay off down the road.

“I’m a direct testament to that investment,” Sass says. “My masters degree research at the CFL/TLS was funded by WDNR.”

Aaron Nolan

New Hasler Lab facilities manager, Aaron Nolan, is also a testament to that connection. Aaron was a fish biologist, working primarily on studies of Wisconsin’s iconic trout streams, for the WDNR for a decade before the lab and facilities manager job at Hasler Lab came to his attention.

Actually it was yet another WDNR/CFL connection that led him here – his old supervisor, former WDNR fisheries research supervisor, John Lyons, called Aaron and said “Hey, this job just opened up and I think you’d be perfect for it.”

So, in early 2020, Aaron found himself down in the boat slip in Hasler Lab – the loneliest person at the CFL. Because of the pandemic, only “essential staff” were allowed in the building and Aaron was that essential staff member.

Now that the lab is full of staff and students again, he’s excited to really get to work.

“I can be the lab manager and keep the building running, but also help students with their research needs and hopefully get to go do research myself,” Aaron says. In other words, he can continue to strengthen the connections between the WDNR and CFL and use the expertise he gained in the field for the WDNR to teach new CFL students how to do things like set gill nets or any other “random research thing.”

It’s this spirit of collaboration and knowledge sharing that also drew Zach Feiner to the CFL.

“For me,” he says, “it’s a ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ kind of thing. The DNR has great biologists and enormous amounts of fisheries data and lots of questions that are really high priority for figuring out what’s happening to fisheries in the state. But there’s a limited capacity for what they can do by themselves. Tapping into collaborations with university partners like the CFL just exponentially improves our ability to answer those questions.”