yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Blacktail Plateau Drive

Blacktail Plateau 1

Welcome to Disneyland people! This site was another first for me and I certainly hope it’s not my last. Honestly, as soon as we parked our car and started hiking, we had elk bounding across our path and birds were perched on our shoulders singing Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah. I felt like I was in a cartoon. We followed a great horned owl flying from tree to tree along with its tubby two fledglings. This blew me away because I’ve never encountered an owl in the daytime before and a great horned at that!

Our first wetland was occupied by a bison herd so we had to work around them as best we could. They were less than thrilled so they begrudgingly decided to move on about halfway through my survey. This was a bummer for me because everything is better with bison, including field work. As the mass migration was taking place, a few folks on horseback came down into the valley to chat with us while we surveyed. We must really be a site for people to behold. Here they are in the backcountry taking in the beautiful rolling hills of Yellowstone, never expecting to see another human soul, and two little girls with nets and waders pop out from the middle of a bison herd grazing in a wetland. Surprise!!!

Not only was the hiking and the wildlife viewing spectacular, the surveying wasn’t too shabby either. A few of the wetlands were absolutely filled to the brim with salamanders. No complaints there. The last wetland was an extremely large wet meadow comprised of tall, sharp grass which sliced my skin with every net swipe. Not cool. That’s a lot of pain just to find nothing but that’s how the job goes sometimes. The one rather neat thing about that meadow was that the substrate was comprised of itty-bitty fresh water clams. I kid you not. I’ve never seen anything like it in Yellowstone. Until further inspection, they looked like small pebbles. I told my field partner to examine the substrate and she agreed that I wasn’t totally out of my mind. Later, I told my supervisor what I’d seen and in all of her decades working in the area she’s never heard of anything like it. Thus, I’m not sure if someone slipped me some crack or not but at least my field partner was right there with me.

As you will discover from my blog, we survey a lot of Blacktail sites: Blacktail Pond, Blacktail Plateau, Blacktail something-or-other. These areas are in the northern part of the Park which includes a harrowing, pants-pooping trip over Dunraven Pass to get to. Usually, I’m frazzled and in need of medication and new pair of undies by the time we arrive at our destination. It’s certainly worth the trip though.

In all seriousness, this is where the rubber meets the road for climate change. Here, wetland loss is measurable and can be witnessed from year to year. People can argue the causes all they want but unless they have their head completely in the sand, they can’t deny that climate change is happening. This year Andy, Kenda and crew installed some data loggers in a few Blacktail wetlands to measure how rapidly this is all taking place. Time will tell but for now the future remains uncertain for the amphibians in this area. If only it was as easy as gathering them all into a large knapsack and releasing them somewhere safe. One can dream…

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The adult great horned owl in the trees.
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A garter snake sunning and eating all my tadpoles…jerk!
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This fawn and its mama were hanging out on the road as we drove to the site. Look at it scamper. So darn cute! I just want to pinch it! Pinch…Pinch.
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.

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Beware, weather is everywhere!

Living an hour and a half north of New York City certainly was a nerve-wracking prospect when Sandy was on her way towards the east coast, especially with Hurricane Irene being such a fresh wound. When Irene ripped through the state last year many towns literally got washed away in the flood. People haven’t even begun to get back on their feet. So the idea of another devastating storm coming to negate all the blood, sweat, and tears of a years worth of excruciatingly hard work is just heartbreaking. For the last six months I’ve been working at a private home with four Alzheimer’s patients and at the home of an 82-year old woman with cancer who lives just next door. The homes–owned by a mother and daughter team from Ireland– are located alongside a creek that is normally just a trickle but when Irene came the residents literally watched as the homes on both sides of them were pulled into what had turned into a raging river. They never had time to evacuate. They packed what they could as they watched as their beloved tiki bar, loaded with antiques and family treasures brought over from Ireland, fall into the river. Luckily their homes and most of all, their lives, were spared. With the prospect of it happening again we created an evacuation plan for the patients, packed up their two houses and put everything into a storage unit.

Once again, the houses were spared with Sandy but we all know in our hearts that it’s only a matter of time. Today, I unpacked their cherished keepsakes knowing full well that there is no such thing anymore of a 100-year flood. In the six months I’ve worked there I’ve seen two occasions where the river rose dangerously high due to heavy rains and there was no warning whatsoever. It was upsetting to think that although we had time to prepare for Sandy, we more than likely won’t be so lucky next time. The raging river that successfully claims these homes may completely take us by surprise. With that in mind, they are looking to sell the property but no one would buy it knowing that its complete obliteration could come with the next rain storm. What makes it all worse is that authorities had more than a year to properly reinforce the creek sides but the “experts” choose the most costly and least permanent solution. They lined the edges with large rocks. They spent millions on this and we literally watched all of the rocks topple into the river during the first heavy storm. Millions down the drain, literally. That little maneuver raised the creek bottom so now it’s higher and more willing to flood. It’s an unfortunate situation.

So to review, what once was an expensive house with a beautiful view of the creek is now the future site of a disaster. At this point you may be asking yourself why they didn’t consider the potential for flooding before they bought the property but in actuality, like I mentioned before, this used to be a trickle of a creek. Over the past few years the engineers that be have diverted several other wetlands and streams into this one creek. If there is blame it should be placed on them.

It’s weird how weather–and how mother nature chooses to deal with it and how we foul up her choices–can completely change our perspective on things. While I unpacked today, I was forced to watch the news coverage on CNN. I’ve been avoiding this because it just brings back bad memories of Hurricane Katrina for me. Seeing Sandy’s mass destruction was truly painful but the stories of people helping other people (I love you kayak guy) and people being such troopers about having to walk four hours to and from work, that’s the stuff that makes you believe in the human race again. But then there are the people looting homes and taxi cab drivers charging $50 for a five minute cab ride that tarnish all of that brightness. For now I choose to cling to the brightness with what’s left of my raggedy fingernails.

Throughout the day my discomfort grew and I couldn’t figure out why–I still can’t, to be honest. I kept flashing back to my Katrina experiences (which I probably should seek help for). I would go to the Ninth Ward and help the hardest hit people in their FEMA trailers and then return to my uptown house. The contrast was night and day. I experienced the pain and anguish residents were going through and then I would drive a few minutes away to use the wifi in an uptown coffeehouse. People would often stop to ask me what I was working on which would lead to a conversation about how “those people” shouldn’t be allowed to rebuild in the Ninth Ward. “Those people” either meant black, poor or a combination of the two. They would use the excuse that the Ninth Ward was below sea level but in reality the ground they were standing on was below or at sea level as well. It was blatant classism and racism and it always bothered me. Seeing the Sandy coverage made me realize that weather is the great equalizer. It doesn’t give a crap about what race you are or how much money you have. Weather is all about location, location, location. Sandy destroyed mansions and boats along with low income homes. It makes me angry to think of what those people in uptown New Orleans would say about this current situation. Are they heartbroken looking at all of those smashed yachts but blaming the poor for choosing to live near the water? Would they say that only the rich should be allowed to rebuild? My main point is that it’s no dumber to rebuild in the Ninth Ward than it is to rebuild in a storm surge vulnerable Manhattan or Hoboken. I think people have it in their minds that this was a rare, freak occurrence but Hurricane Irene nearly doing the same thing a year ago should prove otherwise. The hard truth is that the weather game has changed and we aren’t privy to the new rules. Among other things, we are seeing stronger and more frequent hurricanes. The 100-year flood is now the 1-year flood. We all need to keep that in mind when we choose to reside where we do and if you choose to rebuild, it’s cool, but you do so at your own peril. Don’t rely on a government agency’s rickety infrastructure to protect you– and make sure to get fantastic insurance.

Two ironies:

1. Yes, I do plan to move to New Orleans within the next year or two. I’m one of those taking risks at my own peril. You only live once so why not do it with a Bloody Mary in your hand.

2. The last presidential debate focused on foreign policy and threats to the United States. Did either candidate mention the threat of increasingly catastrophic weather conditions due to changing climatic conditions? No. Sandy is a sad, yet good, example of a wide-spread threat to the United States that is far more damaging than a localized terrorist attack. Just sayin’. No politician wants to talk about a changing climate but there’s going to come a time when it’s inescapable. Sandy was a neon sign stating “You can’t ignore me any longer.” How many lives have to be ruined before this happens? Dangerous weather is not going away and we can argue about the causes of it as much as we want but wouldn’t it be nice to just get past the arguing and ignoring and start coming up with well-thought-out emergency management plans for every city and town?  That would be as good of a place as any to start working towards the climate change discussion.