The back half of the season at Conboy Lake has been wrapping up well. While everyone is feeling a strong sense of completion and a job well done, I can tell everyone has grown really fond of each other, and there is a bittersweet feeling of all of us going our separate ways. I feel the MARS hunting techs are more ready to leave because almost all of their recent hunts have just been walks in the swamp. The past few weeks have brought rain and cold weather, a deep evolutionary signal flare for amphibians to bunk up for hibernation. An interesting fact I learned was that most frogs (including bullfrogs) can have up to 60% of the water in their body frozen throughout the winter during their hibernation cycle. They survive by increasing glucose levels around internal organs, which keeps ice crystals isolated to only its muscle and internal body cavities. It’s exciting and beautiful to be in a place like Conboy Lake, where you observe firsthand the need for these sorts of extreme adaptations.
In addition to temporal fluctuation, water levels around the refugee drop dramatically in the summer months. It’s odd because some refugee roads would be flooded and borderline unnavigable in the springtime, but by August, we would lose most of, if not all, the water in some units, leading them to be uninhabitable for OSFs. In some extreme cases, we performed relocations for them, but the protocol for endangered species relocation is very strict and time-consuming, so we only conducted them when it was absolutely necessary for frogs stranded in isolated quick-drying pools of water.
The presence of fire also brings an initially alarming but ultimately beneficial change in a place like Conboy Lake. Fire in landscapes like these was once only naturally occurring but has now fallen into the conservationist toolbelt. In my college evolutionary biology class, I was always told that some organisms depend on fire to live and reproduce. While I took that idea literally and put it in the “fact” category of my brain/memory, I understand it more deeply due to the articulation and hands-on experience with MARS forester Dave Ryan. He explained to me that the Lodgepole Pine Serotinous cones have pine cones with such a high concentration of sap that seeds are glued shut inside the pinecone, and only under the extreme heat of fire do these cones release their seeds to be germinated on freshly burned, flora free, real estate. Dave also told me about the fire-resistant mechanisms of the Ponderosa pine Pinus ponderosa. This tree developed a fireproof blanket for bark that is thick and secured to the tree by large deposits of sap. As the bark burns, the sap that secures it melts away, allowing the bark to peel from the tree, effectively keeping the fire away from its core and upper canopy in a way almost no other plant can.
CFI surveys with Dave came at nearly the perfect time because two weeks later, the USFW fire crew came and stayed at our bunkhouse, and when they needed people to volunteer for traffic control, I leaped at the opportunity. Me and Sienna got the chance to observe a prescribed burn early in the season conducted by MARS on MARS-owned land but this time USFWS and MARS were conducting a prescribed burn 3 times the size on refuge which made me feel all the more responsible to help out and I’m so glad I did. It was amazing to see the coordination and skill required to burn in a safe way and make critical decisions under rapidly changing circumstances. They had gear malfunctions that had to be compensated for, changing weather conditions that affected burn rate and smoke drift, and lethally unpredictable snags had to be felled during the burn. Their communication was great, I mean seriously, as long as you had a vague idea of that area of refuge and access to the radio frequency you didn’t have to be there to know what was happening. Instances like these have opened my eyes to forest fire management and make me very seriously consider applying for guard school programs.
Something the MAI group spoke about early in the season was a “sense of place,” and Conboy Lake has given me just that. I have changed a lot since the beginning of this season, just like this place, and I notice it the most when not in a work environment. I mean of course there has been growth in my technical skill set but looking back, I feel I have grown the most in my connection to and acceptance of my emotions which allows me to be more myself around others and strengthen my relationships with people regardless how well i know them. I felt so comfortable around my MARS coworkers on our week-long beach trip and, in general, hung out with them way more at the end of the season, and when we did hang out, it felt more genuine. I never asked them directly, but I think they felt the same way. My two favorite memories were of our team lead (Riley) taking me and another MARS crew member (Jack) to a shooting range on the weekend, where he taught me about different firearms and how to enjoy them safely, something I would never have even considered before this experience. The other grand memory was of our data lead (Adam) taking me and a couple of other people out helping at a very fruitful salamander location, and because of this experience I’m now pretty fond of the little guys. We saw a bunch of giant coastal salamanders, which are pretty common, but also California Slenders and Northwesterns.
All in all, I am so thankful to have had this opportunity to grow as a person, advance my career, and make many new friends in such a beautiful area. Everyone I met in MAI, USFWS, and MARS was so gracious and patient with my development on my first field job, and I know it’s redundant, but I just can’t thank them enough. Even though I’m not completely sure what my next steps are, I’m now more confident than I have ever been about my presence in wildlife conservation, and I would implore anyone that even toys with the idea of trying to enter this field to come get this remarkable experience.
Jake Kauzlarich 🙂