This month has pretty much been all about larval collections. At 2:45 in the morning on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we arrive at the bridge up in Chiloquin that spans the Williamson River. We take our nets, tie them to the bridge, and let them fish the river for 20 minutes. Then we pull the nets, dump the fish into a small insulated bucket, and reset the net for another 20 minute fishing period. We do this for 4 sets and we are usually leaving the bridge right as the sun is starting to come up. After getting back to Gone Fishing we have to count out every single one. This part can get interesting on days when the catch is super high. The fish never seem to want to leave the bucket one at a time, so the whole process takes both focus and patience which can be a challenge at 7am when you have been up since 1:30. I have developed a habit of drinking a lot of coffee.
It’s been pretty suspenseful. The spawning is a little different each year so you never know the size or shape of the larval peak. The first week we didn’t catch anything. That was actually what we were hoping for because it meant we didn’t miss part of the window. On the other hand it was a little frustrating getting up at 1:30 in the morning with nothing but a 0 to show for it. On the 7th we caught our first larval sucker, on the 9th we caught 37 more, then the catch started exploding.
We have room at the gone fishing facility to stock 6000 juvenile suckers in the outdoor ponds. Accounting for larval mortality the goal is to collect 10000 larvae. The drift could be small or really short lived so during the beginning of the collections there is definitely an urge to collect as many as possible. Despite catching 922 on our third haul since catching anything we decided to add a third net just to be safe. This proved to be a little redundant once the catch per net went from 128 to 264. At this point we had already caught over 6000 fish and the catch was still going strong. We want to collect across the entire spawning period to avoid artificially selecting for early spawners, so we dialed it back to 2 nets and once we hit our target we actually released some of the larvae we collected on the high effort days. Right now we are still pulling in about 500 per day with 2 buckets. That’s far from the peak of 1700 so it seems we are winding down but you never know. There have been a couple false springs this year so we might have two peaks.
Shortnose and Lost River suckers are two species endemic to the upper Klamath basin. They are relatively slow growing and long lived, with maturation times of 5 and 8 years and average lifespans of 12 to 20 years. Historically there were hundreds of thousands of each species living in upper Klamath lake. Their abundance and large size (max length of about 2 feet) made them a reliable and culturally important food source for the native American tribes. Now, with a host of different factors negatively affecting their survival, both species are federally listed as endangered.
In 2016, in an effort to prevent both species from going extinct, the US Fish and Wildlife service partnered with Gone Fishing, a local business that specialized in rearing tropical aquarium fish, to start a propagation and rearing program for Lost River and shortnose suckers. This partnership was ideal for several reasons. First, there was an already existing facility with ponds and a geothermal water source that proved to be useful with controlling water temperatures over winter. Second, the owner had decades of experience and expertise with rearing and propagating fish which has contributed a great deal to the success of the program. Third, the partnership with a local small business helps the program gain support from the general public, where the economy is largely based on agriculture. Efforts to protect endangered fish are not always welcomed if it means restricting water use for irrigation.
This effort is unique in that unlike the hatchery programs of the past, which supplemented the wild populations with fish hatched from a captive broodstock, this program captures wild larvae as it is drifting downstream. This does not significantly impact the wild population because the adult suckers are spawning successfully. The population bottleneck happens during the early juvenile stage in the first 1 or 2 years of life. The larval fish are started off in glass aquaria for the first few weeks and fed a diet of brine shrimp. The glass tanks are useful for monitoring the larval fish for disease. After the fish outgrow the tanks they are transferred to .1 acre earthen ponds, built to try and mimic their natural environment. They are raised in these ponds for 2 years, after which they are collected, weighed, measured, tagged, and released.
This spring, the first 2 weeks of April, the first cohort of larval fish captured were released back into the wild. It will be several years before we know if these fish actually make it to reproduce, but the release was celebrated as a proof of concept, there was 99% survival to the release stage. The program is now gaining a lot of attention and support, from congressional leaders to local farmers and other water users who view this as an opportunity to allow the downlisting of the species, leading to fewer water restrictions. That could mean more funding and an expansion of the program, as well as higher stakes for delivering concrete results. Let’s hope we can meet these high expectations.
We ended up getting 27 SOS collections completed, not to mention a handful of smaller collections that were for other purposes. Since our original goal was 30 collections I would have to call these past 5 months a success. We still didn’t manage to get those Artemisia collections; it seems like no one ever stays long enough for that, but at least those are all close enough to where the whole collection could be done in an hour or so on a slow day by Jessi, Matt, or Christene.
I had a great 5 months in Vernal. There were so many places to go and so many things to see. The whole area, even Vernal itself, was beautiful. However, I couldn’t deny feeling an overwhelming sense of relief when the trees started closing in around southern Illinois as I was driving back. There is just something about being completely surrounded by green that has a powerful relaxing effect.
I can’t get too relaxed though. I haven’t yet gotten a new job and that will have to be my number 1 priority for as long as that takes.
Summer ended with a bang here in Vernal, and across the rest of Utah as well. The official first day of fall coincided with a massive cold front that brought torrential downpours, high winds, and even a few tornadoes across the entire state. It started snowing again in the Uintas. That trend will probably continue until the peaks are buried deep under 4 feet of snow. That was something I learned firsthand in May about 2 weeks after I got here, when I tried to climb Marsh Peak and ended up fighting through waist deep snow for hours with nothing to show for it.
We are still in limbo over most of our collections. We have our eyes on two different eriogonum species that will probably be collected soon, but we are worried that most of our remaining collections won’t be ready until after we leave. The Sarcobatus vermiculatus seems to be coming along well and will probably be caught, but Most of the artemisia species are still barely flowering. The only way we could get those is if me or Hannah extends into November. That’s a possibility but not likely. I’m waiting to hear back for a job that starts in November and Hannah has her own plans. I guess we will have to count on next years interns to get those collections.
With the SOS collections taking a pause for the moment we have found ourselves going out to help with other projects. We went on two weed treatment trips on the Green River this month and we have another one scheduled in a couple weeks. We still are making sure to keep an eye on our targets, its just a lot easier to do that now we are focusing mainly on Artemisia species and Sarcobatus we have a pretty good idea of how our target populations are doing just by driving around.
Even though I still have almost two months left it seems like the internship is almost over. We are going to start thinking up the target list for next year’s interns next week and I am starting to interview for jobs. I was overflowing with excitement when I first got here in May because it looked so strange to me, then it started to seem a bit old in July once the temperatures reached into the triple digits and the bugs started eating us alive. The summer is coming to an end now and the end of my internship is now on the horizon. When I was out near Desolation Canyon yesterday doing Penstemon grahamii surveys I had a few chances to look out into the vast expanse of desert and realize that I will miss this place someday.
It feels like we are finally starting to reset after the frantic pace after last month. All the early season plants we had our eyes on in July have either been collected or lost and now we are moving on to the preliminary site assessments for the later flowering species. So far we have sites for Lupinus Argentis, Asclepias labriformus, Eriogonum umbellatum, and Eriogonum ephedroides. We are about to collect Asclepias labriformus and Lupinus argentis.
A week ago we went on a 3 day rafting trip down the White River to help with a monitoring study of treatments of Russian Olive and Tamarisk. The trip was great. The view of the canyon was spectacular and sitting in an inflatable raft between sites certainly beats sitting in a car between sites. I would have to say the only downside was the mosquitos and deer flies, which might have bitten me a couple hundred times.
Getting the raft loaded
We brought duckies because there wasn’t room in the raft.
Birds made these nests.
June was a pretty busy month for us interns at the Vernal field office. The month started off with a break from SOS work. We spent the first full week of June helping SWCA environmental consultants with their 5 year Sclerocactus monitoring study. Sclerocactus wetlandicus is a small, long lived cactus that is endemic to the Uinta basin. It is currently endangered and its existence is being threatened by oil drilling and grazing activity. This study involved us heading to sites of known sclerocactus sightings and laying down a 1 by 1 meter quadrat to see what condition the cactus was in or if it was even there. We also took cover measurements for other species and nonliving elements. The results were pretty disappointing. Most of the cacti were gone. Many disappeared without a trace but most appeared to have been eaten by rabbits. The reality may not be as bad as the study would make it seem. There could be cacti popping up in other places, but due to the size of these things it would be just about impossible to find new seedlings. Even when scanning a 1 by 1 meter area it is possible I may have missed a couple. I would have uploaded a photo of a plot and one of the cacti but for some reason I am having trouble downloading the pictures so this blog will be all text.
Almost as soon as we finished with the cactus monitoring it was time to go to Chicago for the CLM training. We received refreshers on the SOS protocols and plant identification techniques, and we also learned about what was going to be done with our collections after they were shipped off. The talks were sometimes interesting, the botanic garden was fun to explore, and Chicago was exciting, but I certainly was not sad to be back in Vernal by the end.
The weather in Vernal was rather mild when I first arrived in mid May. There were several light showers and the temperature was in the 70s most of the time. That started to change around the time we started the cactus monitoring. The area started to feel a lot more like a desert, with the temperatures reaching into the upper 90s before we left for Chicago. This means plants are taking their cue to finish seeding and prepare for the scorching summer. We lost two of our collections already, Cymopterus terebinthinus and Cleome lutea. Both had promising populations, but when we returned from Chicago they had already dropped most of their seed. We caught four more collections just in time (Astragalus duchesnensis, Astragalus saurinus, Atriplex corrugata, and Erisimum capitatum). Next week we are going out to check on several more. Hopefully we can catch up before losing another collection.
I just moved out here to Vernal Utah a week ago after living in North Carolina for 13 years and I have to say the change in scenery is a bit of a shock. Out east there are so many trees you feel closed in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really pretty out there but with the exception of farmland and city you never really get to have a view. When I first saw it open up on the drive over it felt like I had landed on an alien planet. I had been surrounded by trees for so long I had almost forgotten what it felt like to see the horizon.
The lack of trees wasn’t the only change in scenery. Vernal happens to be a big oil and gas site, so in certain areas you have well pads dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see. If you look closely at the picture above you can see more than the horizon. That was a picture I took of a tank on an oil pad that looked like it was about to explode. I figured out how to zoom in the camera about ten seconds later so here is a better picture.
It seems like there is never a dull day out in the field. With the combination of finding exploding chemical tanks, getting our truck unstuck from a muddy ditch, to being introduced to dozens of new species of which I have never seen or heard of before it seems like I am going to be learning something new every single day. Although it can seem overwhelming at times, it sure beats having to stick to a routine.
We got the truck out.
We made quite a mess.
I know it’s misspelled.
A lot could happen in five months. By the end I could either love it here or hate it, but so far I have to say that my first week has left a good impression.