Visiting Scientist Owen McKenna Reflects on MW CASC Role

Owen McKenna in foreground, several people digging in background
Owen McKenna in the field.

Owen McKenna, a research ecologist at Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota, joined the Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center as a visiting scientist in 2022. 

Over the last two years, Owen has been engaged in collaborative research focused on modeling species responses to climate-driven wetland surface water changes throughout the Midwest. He has also assisted in developing a more cohesive overview of the different research on aquatic ecosystems and nature-based solutions in the Upper Mississippi River Basin that the MW CASC supports. 

MW CASC Regional Administrator Olivia LeDee reflected on his contributions, "In this role, Owen has shared his deep expertise and invaluable experience with researchers, partners, and early career researchers at the MW CASC. We especially appreciated his work to understand and inform climate and watershed considerations in the management of the Upper Mississippi River and his fostering of new research partnerships within USGS." 

In this Q&A, Owen looks back on his time with the MW CASC. 


What have you been working on during your time as a visiting scientist? 

I am leading an interdisciplinary project exploring Climate-Driven Connectivity Between Prairie-Pothole and Riparian Wetlands in the Upper Mississippi River Watershed: Implications for Wildlife Habitat and Water Quality. We have engaged with Tribal, Federal, State, and NGO stakeholders in the Minnesota River Basin to develop management-relevant decision support tools for understanding how wetland restoration and management actions can impact different ecosystem services under different climate futures.

I am also working with MW CASC Climate Impacts Ecologist Marta Lyons on Mapping Effects of Wetland Change on Amphibians in the Upper Midwest to provide state and federal conservation agencies a spatial interface of probable wetland change and corresponding amphibian distributions with current and future richness hotspots identified.

What led you to working in the field of climate adaptation?

Studying a climate-sensitive ecosystem like wetlands has made me keenly interested in understanding best practices of using downscaled global circulation model data and helping conservation practitioners make sense of extreme uncertainty that can be paralyzing for decision-making at face value. Being able to co-produce actionable science is extremely rewarding as a scientist. 

My home base is North Dakota, which is technically outside the boundaries of the MW CASC, but the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) that I study extends into Minnesota and Iowa. Working with a focus on the two eastern-most states in the PPR has allowed me to study landscapes that have high wetland restoration potential and valuable farmland. The stakes are extremely high when it comes to making restoration decisions in Iowa or Minnesota and that is where I feel the science I am working on can make a direct impact.

Arial view of prairie potholes as the sun sets
Arial view of the prairie pothole region. 

What’s something you’re most proud of accomplishing during your time with the MW CASC? 

I have really enjoyed working with a diversity of stakeholders and rightsholders. Attending the Tribal Water Workshop in 2022 was very eye opening for me. I got to see the complex challenges faced by Tribal water resource managers in the Midwest. Although our work with the Dakota Tribes in Minnesota is not done, I am really proud to have made a place at the table at our workshops and meeting related to this project.

What is your favorite thing about being part of the MW CASC community? 

I really enjoyed the energy of being part of a community that was just getting established. Seeing the growth between the first annual gathering in Madison, WI to the last one in Indianapolis was awesome. It really seems like the management agency partners as well as federal and academic scientists have melded together to define and grow the MW CASC identity. I look forward to seeing how the MW CASC continues to flourish in years to come.

Do you have a favorite outdoor spot in the Midwest? If so, where & why? 

As someone who grew up in Illinois and went to school in Chicago, I love the Lake Shore Drive bike path in the summer. More recently, I have been drawn to the area near the Headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park in Minnesota.

Anything else you’d like to share? 

Thanks to MW CASC leadership for inviting me onto this detail and for allowing me the opportunity to be part of the team for the last two years!