yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Week 1

View from my bedroom window
Yup, that is a mound of snow…in June.

Well, having completed my first week of the 2014 field season, I can say that it’s started out in a very unexpected way. First, I swiftly came down with a pretty severe head cold about a week ago, which has seemingly reinvigorated itself today. I think it was a combination of the dust in the air and the musty-ness of the dorm messing with my allergies and then the extreme temperature change throwing my body into a complete tailspin. I went from very warm temps in New York and all the way out here to snow. Yup, snow. That’s not at all unheard of in June but my body did not get the memo. Second, our field refresher sessions have been in the absolute worst weather. I’m talking 20 to 30º with a mix of rain, sleet, hail and snow. We had to completely bail out of Gibbon Meadows one day but not before getting completely drenched and near hypothermic. Luckily, before I ventured out into the field I bought a really awesome coat from the gift shop for super cheap. It completely saved my arse because although I brought enough warm clothes to get by, I failed to bring anything resembling a coat. Yikes!

We were actually supposed to begin surveying Crystal Bench with the other field crew on Wednesday but the weather report looked so miserable (snow, sleet, hail…) that we didn’t do it. We figured that the visibility and the conditions in the wetlands would make it hard to find anything. However, the other field crew managed to hike out there during the storm to install data loggers (they measure wetland temperature and water depth) in a few of the Crystal Bench wetlands with a bunch of helpers from USGS. While they were out there they realized that the sites were teaming with boreal toad tadpoles. They were finding them by the thousands! Compare this to last year when we saw about four toad tadpoles in that wetland complex. Now, before you freak, boreal toad tadpoles prefer thermal waters so they were fine despite the snow. Needless to say, they completed our surveys of Crystal Bench for us and me and my partner were able to scratch that site off our list without ever having to go there. It’s kind of a bummer though because it’s one of my favorite places to survey.

Our field gear.
Our field gear.
The rest of the crew stomping around the wetland trying to calibrate their equipment.
The rest of the crew stomping around the wetland trying to calibrate their equipment.
This black slick is actually zillions of what seem to be fleas. Ick!
This black slick is actually zillions of what seem to be fleas. Ick!

Speaking of boreal toads. I’m convinced they’re hitting it big this year which is fantastic news. They’ve always been found in a few thermal pockets throughout the Park, however, on a larger scale they’re being hit hard by disease. Throughout their normal range, most populations are in decline. And although an estimated 80% of Yellowstone’s frogs have the same disease responsible for mass extinctions elsewhere, the elevation and climate conditions seem to have made it so the toads can either shed or suppress it (researchers are still trying to figure out how they’re doing it). Yup, it all comes down to location, location, location. From our visit to Indian Pond on Monday, and then our brief and unpleasant trip to Gibbon Meadows on Tuesday and then the news from Crystal Bench on Wednesday, we’re seeing them in massive numbers this year. Just in Indian Pond, I’d estimate that we saw a few hundred tadpoles last year whereas we’re talking in the thousands now. The only difference I can think of is that this is a wet year compared to last years drought year but I’m not sure this is the driving force. No matter what the reason, it’s good to see them thriving somewhere.

yellowstone national park

What in the heck am I doing here?

backcountry camping
A classic throwback from 2006.

I realize that many of you may not know what exactly I’m doing in Yellowstone besides just generically “working” here. That could mean anything. I should be more specific. Back in 2006 (probably before that), the National Park Service’s Greater Yellowstone Network Inventory and Monitoring (GRYN) Program selected amphibian occurrence to be a vital sign that requires annual long-term monitoring. Amphibians are an indicator species in any ecosystem. They indicate the health of the overall environment. If amphibian populations collapse, the rest of the ecosystem soon follows. Each year, me and a few other field biology techs go out to survey previously identified amphibian breeding areas. We collect information on what species we see, their life stage (we mainly focus on tadpoles), any signs of anomalies or disease, and species abundance. Yellowstone has only four species of amphibian (3 frogs and 1 salamander) so identification is the least taxing part of the process. We collect habitat data such as wetland size, water temperature, beaver activity, etc… This gives us an idea of how the environment is changing over time. On a broader scale, the data we collect can be used to monitor the spread of disease, the impacts of climate change and give researchers an idea of how Yellowstone is continually changing (keep in mind, this is a dormant super volcano).

I came onboard in 2006, the project’s first year. There were six field techs and only a few of the sites had ever been seen. USGS basically used satellite imagery and aerial photos to determine prime amphibian breeding habitats and we were to travel to all ends of the park (covering three states in all and including the Grand Tetons) to ground-truth their information. Some places were so remote that they could only be reached by boat and some had probably never been touched by human feet before. After that first absolutely grueling year, many sites were determined to be unsuitable habitat for amphibian breeding and were thrown out, thus making the project a little more manageable. This is my third year and the process has been streamlined a lot since 2006 but it’s still grueling and dangerous (more on that in my next post).

Why do I keep coming back besides the fact that I love it here, I love amphibians and I’m a masochist? Well, this project is important to me. Most field biology tech jobs involve collecting data for someone’s PhD research. All of your hard work gets tabulated, toiled over, with luck eventually published, put on a shelf and read by only a scant few.  That’s awful of me to say but for the most part it’s true. This project is tangible and actionable. The data I collect is applied and factored into how they manage this entire ecosystem. It’s too important to shelve and that makes it extremely meaningful to me. Additionally, this information can benefit researchers who are studying other aspects of this ecosystem so I’m paying it forward.