2014 PFIG Recipient Sam Roberts

Career Administrator

Sam Roberts
College of Arts & Sciences
Environmental Science
2015 Graduation Year

Internship: The Wildlife Conservation Society in Bozeman, MT.

Notes on the First Week

My first week working in Montana was an absolute blast and has me excited for what’s in store for the rest of the summer.  I am conducting fisheries fieldwork for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).  Founded in 1895, WCS is one of the oldest conservation NGO’s with the clear mission to save wildlife and wild places through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.  Being an environmental science major as well as an outdoorsman, I wanted to work for a conservation organization that allowed me to work outside, preferably in the western United States, to gain valuable field experience.  Being a fly fisherman, I have an interest in trout.  When WCS offered me a fisheries fieldwork position in Bozeman, Montana, dealing with the conservation of native cutthroat trout, it was a perfect match.

I am working for Brad Shepard, a senior aquatic scientist for WCS.  The fieldwork that we are doing is part of a five-year study, led by Dr. Shepard, concerning the conservation of native Montana cutthroat trout.  Currently we are working in the upper Shields River basin, located just northeast of Livingston, Montana.  Some of the work that I have done so far includes: electrofishing to capture, measure, and weigh fish, tagging fish with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, setting up and maintaining PIT tag receiver stations, and conducting mobile PIT tag receiver surveys.  These field techniques allow scientists to better understand fish movement, fish survival rates, the health of fish populations, and which other species are competing with cutthroat trout in order to make appropriate conservation efforts. 

The cutthroat trout of Montana are in trouble due to the invasion of nonnative fish.  Cutthroats are picky about where they spawn.   They are generally found in colder streams at higher elevations.  However, in the past few decades, stream flow is down and water temperature is up due to global climate change.  This favors the nonnative species, such as the Brooke and rainbow trout, and has allowed them to move upstream into the cutthroat habitat and outcompete them.  Another problem for the cutthroats is that rainbow trout have begun to mate with them, creating a hybrid species.  This hybrid species has a greatly reduced fitness (fitness being their ability to produce offspring and have those offspring survive).

The average person might say, who cares?  Does it really matter if cutthroat trout go extinct or if rainbow and Brooke trout take over their habitat?  The answer is yes for three different reasons.  For one, anglers from around the world come to Montana to catch native cutthroat trout.  Trout fishing in Montana alone brings in tens of millions of dollars each year.  If you take cutthroats out of the equation, this number will be greatly reduced.  Secondly, cutthroat trout have an ecological importance.  Grizzly bears in the western states, specifically in Yellowstone National Park, depend on cutthroat trout as a primary food source during the fish’s spawn in late spring.  If you take away this food source, you will hurt the grizzly population.  Decreasing the grizzly bear population will have many ecological effects (everything is interconnected in the natural environment).  Thirdly, cutthroats have an evolutionary importance.  Cutthroat trout have been present in the mountains of Montana and surrounding states for over 10,000 years.  We know that they can handle and survive the fluctuating temperatures on Earth as global climate change occurs.  We do not know that Brooke and Rainbow trout can handle these changes in these environments.

In the field I am working with one other undergraduate student, a graduate student, and Dr. Shepard.  We work Monday-Thursday and camp out in the mountains during those days.  We have learned about fish conservation, population ecology, and many different field techniques.  While in the field we have encountered moose, deer, elk, and bears.  This has been an amazing experience so far and I am eager to get back in the field next week.  I am also very excited to work at another site in two weeks, called Cherry Creek located on Ted Turner’s (CNN Founder) ranch. 

Midway

Two weeks ago my field team started working at Cherry Creek, a tributary to the Madison River located in southwest Montana, and it has truly been a treat.  Cherry Creek begins and runs through Ted Turner’s 200,000-acre ranch.  Ted Turner is the founder of CNN, the owner of the Atlanta Braves, and the man who donated one billion dollars to the United Nations.  His property is absolutely spectacular and contains a great variety of wildlife including over 5,000 bison, two wolf packs, and a lot of elk, moose, coyotes, and bears.  Ted Turner has a strong appreciation for the environment and allows conservation groups, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), to come to his property to conduct studies and research on the environment and wildlife present.   WCS has been conducting fisheries fieldwork on Mr. Turner’s ranch for over 10 years now.  I have been extremely lucky to work and stay on this incredible ranch for the past few weeks!

The work that we have been doing at Cherry Creek has been the same as what we have been doing in the Shields River Basin (electroshocking, analyzing and tagging cutthroat trout, and conducting mobile PIT tag surveys).  Last Thursday night, there was a conservation biology conference on the ranch.  My team and I were lucky enough to meet and listen to some of the speakers including Mike Phillips (Montana State Congressman and the guy who was in charge of the reintroduction of the Gray Wolf to Yellowstone National Park) and Michael Soule (creator of the idea of conservation biology).  Talking with and listening to some of these big names in the field of environmental science made me realize how important conservation was and made me feel good about the work that I have been doing.  These past few weeks have blown my expectations out of the window.  The places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, and the people I’ve met seem unreal.  These are things that I will never forget.  In the second half of my internship, I hope to continue to be blown away and gain as much knowledge as possible from the people I work with and meet along the way.  

Final Reflections

For the second half of my internship, I continued to work in the Shields River basin as well as Cherry Creek.  We followed the same field procedures as we did in the first half of the summer including electroshocking, measuring and tagging cutthroat trout, and conducting mobile PIT tag surveys.  In the basin, we shifted to mostly working on the Shields River itself, as opposed to focusing on the numerous tributaries that flowed into it, which we did during the first half of the summer.  The biggest differences were that the river held larger fish and, on average, was wider and deeper than its tributaries, which made the work a little more difficult.  When we were working in Cherry Creek, it was the exact opposite.  We worked in higher elevations where it was much more remote and harder to get to.  There were several days when we would drive the four-wheelers 10-15 miles from our base camp to the end of a ridge, and then had to hike in another 6 miles on foot with all of our work gear, food, and water in order to get to the work sites.  We would then work 5-7 hours, hike the 6 miles back out, and then four-wheel home.  These days were usually longer and more strenuous than the days in the beginning of the internship, but I was still having a great time!

I grew tremendously both personally and professionally throughout this internship.  One of the biggest ways in which I experienced personal growth was that I became much more comfortable with being uncomfortable.  What I mean by this is that I traveled alone to an unfamiliar place where I didn’t know anyone and lived there for two months.  I was forced to ask questions to strangers, find my way around, meet new people, and become much more outgoing as a whole.  I am a shy person, so I think that this was an invaluable personal improvement.  I also became much more independent.  When you are in a new environment, far away from your friends and family, the only person that you can rely on to get something done is yourself.  It was incredibly beneficial for me to take full responsibility of every aspect of my daily life, and it gave me a taste of what life will be like after college when I am working full-time. 

Some of the vast set of skills that I acquired throughout this internship included having foresight and being able to organize and plan accordingly because of this preparedness.  For this internship we would go into the field for four days at a time.  I had to make sure that I had everything that I needed for the whole week the day before I left.  Going home because I forgot something was not an option.  Also, because we usually worked so far back in the woods away from our base camp, I learned to make sure that I had all the necessary equipment for that day, and that each piece was properly working.  If we were to ride 15 miles in on four wheelers, and then hike in 6 miles on foot and realize that we forgot something, the entire day of work would be ruined.  I had to make sure that this would not happen.  Additionally, through my experience in recording data, I learned to play close attention to detail.   We used small tablets with Microsoft Excel to record our data.  If someone were to record something in the wrong column, forget to write down a piece of data, or record something incorrectly, the entire spreadsheet could be thrown off.  The second to last week of my internship, my boss did not come into the field with us because he had other work obligations.  That week I was forced to work without close supervision, as well as make decisions and overcome obstacles in a team setting.  I think that all of these skills and personal improvements are vitally important and will be beneficial and applicable to my future life and career.  I would definitely encourage any of my fellow undergraduates to step out of their comfort zones and find an internship in something that they are passionate about, near or far.  There is a lot to be learned from an experience like this, and many friends and memories to be made along the way.