Depending on your point of view, the summer is either beginning, half over or nearly done.
Recent graduates of high school and college probably wish the summer would never end and people would stop asking them what’s next. Neither will happen, of course. A graduate’s next step is getting a career, a job or a clue.
The following is a tutorial for anyone who has thought working in the fish, wildlife and parks field would be swell.
Coulees don’t look steep until you are at the bottom and must climb out to leave a days-old elk calf after ear tagging it because its mama is barking and pacing impatiently a couple hundred yards away. Of course, you hope the cow elk doesn’t reject its newborn after you leave, or worse, try to stomp on you before your exit.
Mountain rivers don’t look swift and deep until you have to cross with a backpack full of nets and gear to capture, tag, then release harlequin ducks in order to keep tabs on these heart-stoppingly beautiful sea ducks that breed and nest in remote Rocky Mountain streams. Don’t even think about falling, but if you do, try to remember who are your life insurance beneficiaries.
And no matter how breathtaking the canyon that squeezes the Smith River State Park looks to floaters, someone must register each floater, pull weeds, make sure the campsite signs have not washed away, pick up trash, check the levels in the latrines and dig new ones when the old ones are full. Yes, sir, hand me that shovel.
Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists, park rangers, technicians, game wardens and even volunteers know about these hazards and unpleasant tasks because it’s what they do to keep tabs on Montana’s resources.
Of course, sometimes it’s neither dangerous nor taxing, but rewarding.
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Like getting up at 3 a.m. to start a predawn count of prairie songbirds. The counts are based primarily on recognizing bird songs. Beginning at 5 a.m., drive 25 miles on a deserted gravel road, stop every half mile for three minutes, count every bird singing, then drive a half mile and repeat. Can you name that song in three notes?
Like putting worms on hooks for hundreds and hundreds of children at a local kids fishing day, just so a 5-year-old can catch her first fish, hold it up for a photo, smile and make a grown-up cry tears of joy.
Fish and wildlife and parks are about people. That may sound contrary but it’s true. While wild animals and beautiful places can exist without human presence, we appreciate and admire beauty we see, touch and hear and with that admiration comes understanding.
The purpose of the elk calf capture is to find out where the local elk herd spends the winter. Capturing an adult elk is expensive for the cost of a radio collar and the helicopter crew that must swoop down and shoot a net over the animal.
Catching an adult elk in any season but winter (important if you are trying to find out where they spend the winter) is dangerous for the animal as it can overheat. Grabbing a newborn calf and fitting it with a radio encapsulated earring is a low tech, low price solution.
It’s generally known that the magnificent harlequin duck breeds and nests in the Rockies from western Wyoming north to the Arctic, then winters on the Pacific Coast. But the timing of when Montana’s population nests and where they spend the winter is not known. Hence an effort to capture them and fit them with ankle bands or geolocators.
Then there is the Smith River, like many state parks, that people enjoy and love. Maybe too much.
A job with Fish, Wildlife and Parks is strenuous, fun, dirty, glamorous, and above all necessary.