After 3.5 weeks spent doing in-office research, which has consisted of a lot of statistics, softwares, ARDs, SOPs, and reading through lots of User Manuals I finally got the opportunity to do a couple hours of field work this past week! I got to deploy an SM3 Automated Recording Devices in a couple different spots near some sloughs in Everglades National Park. It was nice getting to go out! Just a bit of advice though; it you ever feel inclined to go exploring the Everglades in the middle of June beware of the most vicious residents of the Everglades. Mosquitoes!
Wilderness management, a term famed for its oxymoronic nature, is a constant conversation within Rocky Mountain National Park. One of the most controversial examples of human intervention into the wild landscape and ecological processes within the Park is the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan. A comprehensive study, representing the work of countless departments, stakeholder interactions and assessments and research money, the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan works to control the overabundant elk population within the Park and provide opportunities for habitat regeneration and riparian improvement, especially for species such as the beaver, aspen and willow. One of the most visible, and unpopular, pieces of the plan is the implementation of elk exclosures, large fenced in areas which exclude elk from certain grazing areas, giving opportunity to many other species who desperately need the regeneration of their habitats and growing areas to remain within the Park.
Rocky describes the plan as “[relying] on a variety of conservation tools including temporary fencing, vegetation restoration, redistribution and culling. The park may use additional management tools in the future using adaptive management principles.”
The plan, though arrived at through careful mediation with local groups, visitors and other important stakeholders, is nevertheless controversial to many park-goers, and is under constant need for interpretation. As part of seasonal staff training for the department of interpretation and education, this week I went out in the field to actually see one of these exclosures firsthand and process what this plan meant for the Park with my coworkers.
The results, even after only a few years since its implementation in 2014, are striking. Even at a distance the disparity between areas on either side of the exclosures is obvious, with lush, tall and thick vegetation within the exclosures and sparser, shorter growth to the exterior. Water tables within the exclosures have risen significantly, allowing the dry, flatter meadows created by home-steading within the Park for the last century to return to the marshy, wet and lush riparian lands they once were. Even as the results are tangible, and Park employee consensus is that it is wholly beneficial to the ecological integrity of the Park, it is still fraught with controversy.
What is the role of human intervention in wilderness management? Have we created a cycle of human intervention that we can never reverse? What truly constitutes wilderness? How mindful must we be of the urban-wild interface when we as a Park imagine solutions to our most pressing problems?
The fences will likely remain for the next ten years, to the dismay of many visitors, but how long will we see the mark of human impact in a Park that is 95% designated wilderness area?
Bees are pretty to look at and admire when you can see a big yellow and black bug on a flower. If you look closer at its characteristics, you may be fooled. When I caught my first bee this week, my supervisor Desi showed me that it was not an actual bee, but a type of fly. Remember the old saying “Looks can be deceiving.” That was the case in this situation. Desi showed me that this “bee” was actually a type of fly that mimics a bee’s characteristics. I misidentified this mimic fly because the body had the yellow and black patterns on its body, but the antennae were more like a fly species than a bee species. Some of the head characteristics did not look like that of a bee species either. It was still a pollinator species, but not what we were collecting. Wish I would have got a good photo of it to show all of you, but the fly flew off before I could get the camera out.
You may also know some common bee species such as bumblebees and honeybees. Did you know that there are actually over 4,000 different bee species in North America alone. A survey done here at the Indiana Dunes recorded over 200 species found at various sites across the park. I have started to look at the bee species that were collected from that study to identify and it is a microscopic task. What I mean is that I look at the insect under a microscope to identify small key characteristics in the head, wing, and legs, and others I have yet to see. For most to get identified, insect specimens have to be sent out to experts that specialize in identifying certain groups of insects. There is no one entomologist that can identify all the insects in the world. This goes to show the vast number that inhabit the world.
The feeling of slowly being swallowed by the many mouths of a salt marsh is quite a humbling experience. It is humbling because it’s something that no one has any control over. It is in these moments that you truly recognize, “Yeah, humans are definitely not the only ones calling the shots on this planet.” A marsh does not mind if you struggle through its goop and it will ignore you if you ask it to stop swallowing your boots whole. You just have to accept that the marsh can get hungry sometimes and then learn to be one with it.
I was able to reunite with a fellow University of Virginia alum, Janet Walker, while helping her in the field. And you guessed it. Her experiment was in a salt marsh in Bolinas, CA called Bolinas Lagoon. She is a PhD candidate at UC, Davis and is researching the impact of burrowing crabs on the native salt marsh plant communities at three different sites throughout California.
It was an absolutely beautiful day out in Bolinas Lagoon. With the help of a volunteer who recorded data, my task was to survey the vegetation in the 25 open-air cages that Jan has put in place throughout the site. This involved maneuvering around the marsh, which was a wonderful adventure. Jan mentioned that after some practice one develops “marsh legs”, which she and her intern have certainly acquired. Jan and her intern were able to gracefully glide through the marsh as though they were deer prancing through a field of their favorite greens. I, on the other hand, plopped over a couple of times and even stepped out of both of my boots allowing my socked feet to have an intimate encounter with the marsh’s goop. It was truly awesome, and I’ll be joining Jan in the field again later in July!
Above is the lovely marsh crew with me and Jan, my fellow Wahoo, in the middle. I highly recommend venturing out to a salt marsh with someone who has already acquired “marsh legs”! They are beautiful ecosystems that provide a plethora of vital ecosystem services and are home to incredible plants, critters, birds, and more. Hooray for salt marshes!
The third week had come to an end, and Summer Connections is more than halfway done! The students got to explore two ecosystems this week: the meadow and the forested woodlands. A meadow is a field habitat vegetated by grass and other non-woody plants. Forested woodlands are habitats covered with trees and shrubs. Both of these ecosystems are known for their high biodiversity, thus making them ideal areas for students to explore and discover.
During this week the students learned what entomologists are, and what their careers, as field scientists, consist off. An entomologist is a scientist that studies insects such as beetles, ants, butterflies, etc. The students explored the micro-wilderness of the two ecosystems with the same tools entomologists use: aspirators, field journals, butterfly nets, beating sheets, jars with magnifying caps and vials.
Craig demonstrating how to put together a beating sheet.
Once the students arrived to the site they circled up and located themselves on a map. Then they took a few minutes to write careful observations and sketch what they noticed, what they wondered, and what they were reminded of.
Exploration time! After writing down their observations the students ventured into the meadows and woods with their tools, catching all kinds of insects. To help further their understanding of the micro-wilderness, the students counted insects and used their field guides to help identify them. The students found a variety of insects including moths, worms, crickets, and bumble bees.
Students and ranger Matt trying to identify the captured insects.
The summer is really flying by, but what a great week this was! Students not only explored what it means to be a real entomologist, but some of them also conquered their bug phobias. Tune in next week to hear about the students’ adventures on the Salt Marsh!
The Santa Cruz River supports a huge diversity of life in Arizona. Most of the ecosystem has been lost due to irrigational pumping and tree clearing, making this riparian habitat endangered. Yet, many animals still depend on this very important ecosystem. Entering the river corridor you are first impressed by the 90’ tall Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and their close neighbors the Gooding willow (Salix goddingii). Both of these trees support large numbers of insect populations.
One common insect is the giant mesquite bug (Thasus gigus) which lives in velvet mesquite bosques. Mesquite bosques (bosque is a Spanish word that means forest or woodland) run parallel to the Cottonwood riparian habitat. Giant mesquite bugs come alive during the monsoon. They are social insects and will stay in clumps feeding on the legumes of the mesquites. As the bugs feed on the mesquites so do the birds that prey on them. Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) can be seen feeding on insects, A typical flycatcher, it will return to its perch once it gets its food. The most common migrant raptor in the river is the gray hawk (Buteo plagiatus). A species of concern, its squeaky cries can be heard for miles but especially so along the river corridor. It hunts in the air and nests in cottonwood trees during the spring.
The Santa Cruz River is also home to the largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar (Panthera onca). It was last seen at the river in 1993, but has been captured on wildlife cameras in the nearby Santa Rita Mountains. Recently the Santa Cruz River has seen the return of a lost species, the gila topminnow (Poeciliopsis occidentalis occidentalis), an indicator that life at the Santa Cruz is slowly returning. The biodiversity of the Santa Cruz River is a clear sign that this ecosystem deserves our full attention.
Stood in silence for a minute and enjoyed the light breeze grazing my skin in the hot humid morning. Took in the sound of cars driving past and a variety of bird songs all coming together. I glanced around at the tops of trees hoping to find one of the sources behind the choir of bird songs. Then from behind the branches of a tree, a vibrant orange dot was seen. When observed with the scope, you could see it moving it’s beak to make its contribution to the choir calling out, “Hear; hear; come right here; dear.”
Walking along, the trail winded out from the shaded understory and opened out into a sunlit meadow. As the sporadic breezes of wind blew the taller plants swayed along with it. During one of these breezes another bird was seen bobbing up and down perched on the plant. It opened it’s beak and sang, “Hip; hip; hurrah boys; spring is here!”
After a nearly 70 year absence, 41 wolves from Canada and northwest Montana were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park between 1995 and 1997. Predation is a fundamental ecological process, therefore research is most often conducted using large carnivores. Wolf predation has been amongst the best-studied predator-prey relationships of all. Doug Smith, a senior wildlife biologist manages wolf programs along with several other programs. Him and his crew catch and collar wolves of various wolf packs located in the park to effectively track their movement. I am pleased to say that I was able to meet Doug Smith along with some other wolf project crew members, and assist them in studying wolf clusters in Northern Yellowstone.
Wolf clusters are areas where wolves are observed (via GPS collars) to spend a significant amount of time. pack locations are updated roughly every 30 minutes, therefore if the wolves have, for example made a kill, or are bedding down, there will be a cluster of GPS points. Once the clusters are found, crew members hike out to these clusters and look for hair, scat, signs of bedding, and bone shards to name a few. I was able to tag along with the crew and look for these signs at several wolf clusters. While surveying these clusters, we found various bone shards and other remnants of wolf kills. We also found hair, scat and bed sites, but the kills were must more interesting to see! If bones were found, samples were taken from the carcass to determine overall health and age of the prey. The data collected from GPS clusters along with things found at cluster sites are used to determine, on average, territory, how frequent a pack is making a kill, and how much they are consuming. I was very fortunate to get to see an adult wolf, two cubs playing outside of a den site, and even the alpha female of one of the packs! While observing wolves, we saw grizzly bears, black bears, bison, elk, and big horn sheep.
I am very lucky to have been able to meet, and work with such dedicated people. “Spread the good word about wolves to all your friends and family”‘ says Doug Smith. Wolves play a very important role in the ecosystem, and are very rewarding to see in the wild. Wolf populations should be protected to be maintain an ecological balance, as well as to be observed by future generations.
Leatherback sea turtles are the largest of all living turtles, weighing up to 2000 pounds. They’re also the most pelagic (open ocean dwelling), while other sea turtle species spend most of their lives in neritic (nearshore) environments. Unlike other sea turtle species, leatherbacks lack a bony carapace (shell). Instead of scutes (scales), their carapace is composed of a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin that is strengthened by thousands of tiny bone plates. This allows them to expand their lungs while they dive to depths deeper than 1,000m to feed, primarily on jellyfish. Like the green turtles I’m working with, leatherbacks are also listed as an endangered species.
Dr. Kelly Stewart, Southwest Fisheries Science Center (NOAA), leads a field program at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge in St. Croix. The program focuses on genetically fingerprinting leatherback hatchlings as they leave the beach after emerging from their nests. The purpose of her study is to determine the age to maturity. This is an important measure that allows scientists to evaluate population status and design management strategies to protect this long-living, slowly maturing species. While obtaining this measure seems simple, it is particularly difficult to do so for sea turtle populations, especially for pelagic species like leatherbacks.
I had the opportunity to volunteer with her interns in patrolling the beach at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge for nesting leatherbacks. First patrol began at 7:30pm and last patrol was at 3am. The beach was divided into sections that had to be cleared, checked for turtles, every 45 minutes. This was not an easy task by any means. We had to walk up and down the beach, exposed to the elements (rain, insects, etc.) until just before sunrise. I couldn’t imagine having to do it on a regular basis for several months … and then I held my first hatchling. At that very moment, something clicked and it all made sense. Roughly one in one thousand hatchlings survive to adulthood. Very little is known about the life history of leatherbacks, largely because they spend most of their lives in pelagic environments. I would happily trudge through sand all night to help find out more about these fascinating creatures.
Hello once again. My time here at Craters of the Moon continues to expose me to new and valuable experiences in the field of conservation. This past week I went on a 5 day hiking trip, aiding the park’s wildlife biologist in invasive species removal. The target is a plant know as Dyer’s Woad that, if left unchecked, has the potential to outcompete and reduce native plant population numbers. So armed with that knowledge and a 30 pound spray pack we ventured across the lava fields at the southern end of Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Days consisted of hikes ranging from 6 to 12 miles, following previous GPS data points that indicated potential plant hotspots. Some areas were devoid of Woad, others brimming with the vibrant green and yellow plants.
In the end, we sprayed and removed the seed pods from thousands of plants with the goal of reducing and minimizing the spread of the invasive Dyer’s Woad. The resilience in fending off all attempts to stop the spread of it is both amazing and terrifying. Hopefully, with increased awareness to the plight of our native landscape and continued removal efforts this invasive can be managed over time The experience is one I (and my shoes) will never forget.