SANTA CRUZ, CA – I am a terrible field biologist.
It’s not that I don’t love being outdoors: I do. And I’ve been privileged to explore – and work in – some of the most spectacular and intriguing parts of the planet. I like to think none of those opportunities have gone to waste. Yet I can’t help but think that I’m not always the best person for the job.
For example, I study invasive trees in the mountains of New Zealand, but steep terrain scares me. Before I headed south for my first round of fieldwork with the tough-as-nails Kiwis, I spent hours at the climbing wall (mostly getting stuck in awkward positions) trying “to become more hard-core,” yet I still get nervous on anything much steeper than a 70% grade. I might have lied about owning hiking boots to get my first field job (Sorry, Matt!), and I took my first backpacking trip at the ripe old age of 25.
Sometimes, when I’m battling fear to collect samples in a not-particularly-precarious place, or shying nervously away from bear tracks while sampling a reach of stream within earshot of fly-fishermen, I wonder why I didn’t just become a bench scientist. I could lead a life with no more topographic change than sliding on and off a lab stool. I could sign for my test tube sample deliveries, rather than packing soil cores out of the field myself. I could study the cell cycle instead of the nutrient one.
It’s usually at this point that I need a reality check, some kind of big-picture reminder of why it is that I do what I do.
This weekend I was lucky enough to get two. First, I went for a long, solitary meander at Pinnacles, our newest National Park, where I did some nerdy botanizing (Falling Coulter Pine cones have got to be lethal.) and awed birding (How many California Condors will I see in my lifetime?). And then I caught the final night of Santa Cruz’s selection from the Banff Mountain Film Festival, which included thirteen minutes of genuine, fieldwork-studded conservation biology. The short film was called “Highway Wilding,” and it featured a stretch of road I’d driven myself on a cross-continental road trip several summers ago.
The Trans-Canada Highway cuts a 5,000-mile-long path across our Northerly neighbor, allowing tens of thousands of cars passage from coast to coast each year. But while it helps whisk humans from place to place, it can also pose a substantial barrier to the movement of animals who, with no evolutionary training to deal with human construction, frequently fall victim to speeding vehicles.
“Highway Wilding” documents conservation biologists’ attempts at fixing this problem by building over- and under-passes along the highway’s Rocky Mountain region. With motion-sensing cameras and a few twists of wire, they record images and snag hair samples from the animals using these movement corridors. Over the last few years, these animal-friendly punctures in an otherwise-impermeable barrier of internal combustion engines have been used by tens of thousands of animals, from elk to grizzly bear, from rabbit to wolverine.
At the same time that we work to help animals duck through our meshwork road system, we sometimes also inadvertently build new corridors for them to follow. Work in other parts of Canada shows that animals, particularly highly mobile predators like wolves, use seismic survey lines (narrow strips of forest cleared for energy exploration) to move through the landscape. A pack can travel more quickly and scout over longer distances without trees obscuring the way.
We know these things about animal movement – about soaring condors and roaming bears – because of fieldwork. Modern technology, like satellite and airplane imagery or GPS tracking collars, makes the work of a field biologist easier and more accurate. Yet without first putting our (sometimes brand new) boots on the ground, we wouldn’t know what questions needed to be answered about the natural world.
And that is why I’m a field biologist. Because the things that I need to know, the questions that I have to answer, relate to the natural world around me, from the picturesque landscapes of our national parks to the future of New Zealand’s native forests to the Great Horned Owl that occasionally swoops into my San Francisco backyard. They range from the fundamentals of science (Why does this tree grow here?) to applied conservation (How fast will climate change melt these glaciers?). And if I have to climb the occasional steep slope to answer them, so be it.
Holly welcomes questions, comments, and hiking partners. Reach her via email at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.