VetsWork: Sparrows, Wolves and the Butterfly Effect


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I am 28 years old now, yet one lesson in middle school about politics and ecology has remained vivid in my mind. I remember being taught about the Chinese communist revolution and their desire to kill the birds that were eating their grain. In order to increase crop production, Mao Zedong had ordered the killing of sparrows. The reasoning was that if the birds were killed, more grain would be available for the population. The decline in the sparrow population resulted in unrestrained growth for many types of insects; subsequently, the insects actually did more damage to crop yields than the birds themselves. This, and other factors, contributed to the death of millions of people due to starvation.

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjRZIW_hRlM[/youtube]

In the videos subtitles: “Cereals” = Grain. 🙂

Despite this memorable teaching, I had not given much thought about ecology growing up in California. I grew up in a medium size developed city near the coast; it all seemed pretty barren. The animals that I had seen growing up near my home were the occasional stray cat or dog. The plants that I remember were presumably mostly nonnative ornamental plants. In 2015, I moved to Oregon for the VetsWork program with the Mt. Adams Institute, AmeriCorps, and the Forest Service. Between the immersion into this new region and my responsibilities with the Forest Service, ecology has become a reoccurring thought.

One of the most interesting examples I have come across are the wolves of Yellowstone. In 1926 wolves were eradicated from Yellowstone National Park, and in 1995 wolves were reintroduced to the area. Elk are the preferred food source for these wolves, and when the elk populations began to decline something interesting occurred. Vegetation began to thrive once again, most notably many of the species of trees. With the increase in trees, beavers returned to their native habitats and the damns they built provided habitats for insects, birds, and other animals. The pools of water created by the damns also helped more plants to grow; which in turn helped more species to thrive (1). This is one of the positive accounts I have come across.

1. http://www.bioinfo.rpi.edu/~bystrc/pub/artWolves.pdf

From the air we breathe to the water we drink, we are inextricably linked to our environment. To be more specific, Oregon, Washington, and a few southern states are the primary producers of timber and lumber. When individuals mismanage these resources by destroying animal populations, introducing nonnative species, or introducing pollutants, we all lose in the long run. We rely on these resources, and without them our lives would change dramatically. Without proper management these resources are no longer sustainable. Change begins with the individual and trickles up to society.

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q[/youtube]

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VetsWork: “Canoeing Coldwater Lake in search of Eurasian Milfoil”

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On a 93 degree day, nobody wants to do trail work or any type of hard labor outside. It seems on the 29th and 30th of June I lucked out and landed an opportunity that provided a cool environment and a lot of sunshine. Eurasian Milfoil. Yes, an aquatic invasive plant species was the reason I spent two entire days canoeing and trenching through Coldwater Lake, getting badly sunburned and shivering until my lips turned blue. Not to mention, our crew for the project was so cool, I can say this is an experience that I will not forget.

Monday the 29th started with a 2 hour drive to the lake. I was pretty excited for this project, not just because it was 93 degrees and I was dying to get out on the lake; but it was a different type of opportunity that I haven’t experienced yet. It was a chance to learn about species inside of a lake that was formed from the result of a volcanic blast. Although we focused heavily on Eurasian Milfoil, I was with a fish biologist and a group with plenty of experience identifying aquatic plants.

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The first day was a recon day where I met with a couple of plant experts from Skamania County who provided me with a lesson in Milfoil and the various other plants growing at 20ft depths in the lake. We paddled along the West, South and North shore of Coldwater Lake plotting points of plant species by dragging a rake connected to a rope and looking through a tube with a clear lens on the end. Low tech devices, but highly effective. We were able to compare our results from a survey in 1998 and realize that the Milfoil levels have mysteriously gone down. Although I did not get my hands on these notes, we were briefed that it was a dramatic decrease in Milfoil in comparison to our findings. We were only able to find Eurasian Milfoil in and around the stream on the west end of the lake.

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The following day we set up two 30ft nets at a marked point in the stream to create one giant net. This is where we broke into our job duties that included 3 forest service master divers, 3 people with hand nets collecting fragments of milfoil in the water and another three assisting the divers by collecting the milfoil that the divers pulled and placing them into mesh bags. By now, I imagine you are wondering why I haven’t completely described the problem with Eurasian Milfoil yet. Eurasian Milfoil is an aquatic invasive species native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. It reproduces from small leaf fragments floating in the water and fragments very easily. It also destroys other plant life by pulling oxygen from the water and blocking sunlight. There are plenty of other details of this species, I just want you as my reader to understand that it’s invasive and a problem. It can also be spread by boats, boat trailers and water fowl.

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My first duty was to follow one of our divers with a mesh net. He snorkeled through waist high water in the stream, pulling the milfoil by the roots where I followed up by placing the chunks of milfoil into a mesh bag. This went on for about an hour until the water reached up to my neck, where our diver traded out his snorkel for a couple of diving tanks. There wasn’t a whole lot of me moving around in this neck deep water and this lasted for about another hour. My movements were about 6 inch steps every 45 seconds. I eventually started shivering and I was told my lips turned blue. As you can imagine I was also told to get out of the water. I was a little bummed over that, but was relieved to go post up in the sunshine for a while. From there, my duty was to help out by netting fragments of milfoil in the water and also empty out mesh bags for our people that were assisting the divers.

Photo Jun 30-2

Being out in the sun definitely had its perks; it helped me have a speedy recovery from getting cold in the water and it also felt so good considering I haven’t sat out in the sun like that since last summer. Then, I was told to get out of the water again. Apparently (which now I can really feel), my back was annihilated by the sun. I had already put on a huge amount of SPF 40 sunblock before coming out, but clearly my skin is not accustomed to that much sunlight. I was then told to hold out my arms and got sprayed with massive amounts of SPF 70. It actually smelled pretty good, but I’m not sure how long it lasted considering I went directly back into the water.

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We finished up at about 4:30pm. By the looks of things, our manual pulling efforts have cleared Coldwater Lake of its Eurasian Milfoil problem. We then gathered up all supplies, took some soil samples to examine the volume of the soil that the milfoil was growing in and debriefed. We talked about methods that we found useful for pulling the weeds and also discussed how effective we thought our efforts were. Unfortunately in most cases a manual pull is not very effective for eradicating milfoil, but our observations of the milfoil not acting as invasively as it normally does is keeping our hopes up. It sounds like we may go back in August and see if the problem continues. I guess we can only keep our fingers crossed.

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Photo Jun 29-6

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VetsWork: “Thanks for Doing What You Do.”

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A mentor from a non-profit once told me “People sometimes have bad attitudes towards volunteers due to lack of training and experience, but the truth is, these people are working 40 hour work weeks and volunteering weekends to make a difference. How many people actually do that?” The biggest question that I would have for that statement, which is a question for those of us who understand what they do, is how do we show them that we care? What can I do?

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Volunteers at Get Outdoors Day in Vancouver, WA.

Working with volunteers is the majority of my job while interning for the Forest Service. These volunteers are mostly working full-time and selling their time off for a noble cause and a smile. One thing that a majority of my volunteers will get is education to complete their volunteer goals and a snack after the project is done. You might be asking who would ever return for that, and the answer might lie in a similar thank you that some of us vets received after volunteering to sign a contract to Uncle Sam: ‘Thanks for doing what you do’.

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Work project during VetsWork Quarterly Training at Broadfork Farms.

So many people have said that to me while I was serving in the Air Force and it always felt so good. It left me with an overpowering proud feeling that I couldn’t describe to anyone else, unless they’ve been thanked in the same manner. But how many times have we said stuff like this to volunteers? Volunteers are often undervalued for their work. Like an underrated player in the NFL, they may not be recognized as much as the well known players, but the job could not be done without them. Volunteers are working full-time and giving away their time off without asking for anything in return. And how can we recognize them? We can recognize them by letting them know that they are making a huge difference and they are doing something that they should be proud of.

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White Salmon Delta 5-2015

White Salmon Delta Riparian Willow Planting (Before and Current as of 5/2015)

I’ve had my first chance to thank volunteers for what they do. One in particular, I followed out to his car and thanked him one last time for giving a helping hand on painting the seasonal bunk houses followed by a firm hand shake. As he climbed into his car, he asked what we had going next and if our organization could contact him for the next volunteer opportunity. That ‘thank you’ may not be why he volunteered, but it might be why he’s planning to keep volunteering. That right there leads me to believe that saying ‘Thanks for doing what you do’ is how we can show our volunteers that we care. I don’t make enough money to throw a party for them to celebrate what we accomplished (like they deserve), but I can provide them with a genuine ‘thank you’ and let them know that their work is of huge value to us and the surrounding communities.

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White Salmon Restoration Project

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