Today is a combined field effort with the GRYN crew consisting of three young twenty year-old male whipper-snappers (a nursing student, a GIS student and a geology student) and Andy, who is the head-honcho of the entire amphibian monitoring project this year. It was a training day for them and a field data collection day for Andrew and I. We headed out to the Solfatara Plateau. This area in the Park–along with many others–is mostly burnt forest from the great fire of 1988 with minimal pine regrowth. Things decay and grow very slowly in this ecosystem so the damaged trees from the 88 fire still litter the ground with almost no decomposition. Many burnt forests still stand today but are at risk of falling like dominoes at any gust of wind due to their extremely shallow root systems–this is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of doing field work in the Park. Standing dead and fallen trees are not removed from the forest because their eventual decay will add nutrients to this nutrient-poor ecosystem and increase the speed of forest regrowth. Many studies, including the one being done by my dorm-mates, show that these dead trees are not the potent fuel source for another wildfire as some may believe. The research indicates that live trees are actually the biggest wildfire fuel source in the Park.
Why I mention all of this is because when there’s a forest fire in a nutrient-poor ecosystem, such as Yellowstone, it’s a shame. Even though they’re a natural part of and generally beneficial to the ecosystem, they rob us and future generations. Those forests won’t regrow in our lifetime, perhaps not even in our children’s lifetime. That’s a hard thing to imagine but that’s the reality. The 88 fire started due to an unfortunate mix of drought and human carelessness. Fires with similar causes (including lightning strikes) happened in the 1700s and in 1850. And although these fires burned a relatively small portion of the Park’s forests, when you think in terms of acres, that’s 800,000 acres of charred forest within the Park’s boundaries. So let’s use this as a cautionary tale–enjoy, respect and treasure what you have today because tomorrow it may be gone.
The hike was super easy and the trail was well maintained. Off-trail was a different story entirely; I tripped over a few dead trees, of course, but I’m gaining expertise at remaining loose when I fall so I don’t bust anything. About halfway to Cascade Lake, we found our catchment of wetlands and got to work. Andrew and I blew through our sites with impressive efficiency, especially since this was our first time out without Deb and considering Andrew being new and me being rusty. Andrew’s many quirks are starting to reveal themselves, much to my delight. For example, he won’t use anything other than a spray on his body. He adamantly refuses to apply any balm, salve, lotion or even chapstick. He was absolutely baking in the sun and being devoured by mosquitoes despite my offer to lend him both remedies. Nope, he’s a spray man or nothing at all. Apparently, he finds the consistency of such products to be repellant.
During our surveys, mostly chorus frog tadpoles were found. They’re so darn cute with their iridescent, see-through bellies; pinched waists; and large, laterally set eyes. It looks like they’re wearing corsets that have been cinched so tight that their eyes have gone all googley. They always look surprised, yet delighted to see you looking down at them from the dip net.
We were supposed to meet up with the other survey crew at noon but there was no word from them on our walkie talkies for about an hour. Apparently, they had been stuck in a two-hour bison jam just a few miles from the trail head. Traffic was backed up for miles and Park visitors were pissed. Visitors must remember, these things are to be expected in a park with free roaming large animals. That’s part of the appeal of Yellowstone. Yet, time and again, people have difficulty relinquishing control over their environment and letting animals have the right of way instead of their own busy schedules. The novelty wears off quick for most, but not for me–it’s nice to be able to blame my tardiness on a baby badger jam. Eventually, the rangers came to encourage the bison off the road with sirens and flashing lights. It worked and the crew finally made it. We met everyone and hiked to our next wetland and they went to survey one nearby. The goal was to get the entire wetland complex (or catchement) finished in a day but we got a call from Deb saying the crew needed more help identifying amphibian species than anticipated so they were abandoning ship for the day to work on the basics. Andrew and I finished up, completing 6 to 7 wetland surveys, and headed back to the dorm. I socialized with my dorm-mates and read for the rest of the evening. Overall, it was a good start to what I feel will be a great field season.