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.