From dodging bears to dissecting deer doodoo: Life on the front lines of America's conservation movement

The work of a traveling wildlife biologist isn’t pretty, but it sure is thrilling

Published January 10, 2017 8:58AM (EST)

 (Jessica Rick/Narratively)
(Jessica Rick/Narratively)

This article originally appeared on Narratively.

Narratively It’s just below zero as our caravan of snowmobiles jets over a trail through Minnesota’s North Woods, snow-laden firs and pines flying by. We turn a corner and see plastic orange ribbons waving in the breeze just ahead, marking the well-trodden path we’ve once again come to scurry over. Each of us slams on our brakes in rapid procession. I shuck my helmet, grab a hatchet from the back of my snowmobile, and dash into the woods. Twenty yards into our sprint, my partner falls victim to an icy patch, tumbling face first. I leap over her and continue running. I pass through a wall of brush and look ahead to the end of the path where a panicked deer is hurling itself against the webbed, cotton walls of a small cage.

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“Deer in the trap!” I yell back to my partner, who has recovered from her fall and isn’t far behind. Hatchets still in hand, we sprint even faster, two among thousands of wildlife biologists fighting an endless battle against ecological ruin.

A road in the Chippewa National Forest. (Photo by Jesse Alston)
A road in the Chippewa National Forest. (Photo by Jesse Alston)

I’m part of a team at the Natural Resources Research Institute, trapping white-tailed deer in order to protect moose. Northeastern Minnesota’s moose population has plummeted from an estimated 8,840 in 2006 to around four thousand today. This drop was partly driven by parasites carried by deer, so we want to assess where parasite transmission from deer to moose might be taking place. We do this by fitting GPS collars on both deer and moose to track their movements across the landscape.

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Reaching the trap, we cut through twine bindings that hold the cage upright between two trees. Without the twine holding it in place, the trap can fold forward, so we collapse it onto the deer, making sure to minimize any risk of injuring it by keeping its legs clear of the metal frame.

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While we lie on the trap, my partner pulls a syringe out of a fanny pack on her waist and injects its contents into the deer’s haunch. We try to catch our breath as the sedative takes effect, waving in the rest of our crew when we’re confident that the deer is sufficiently anesthetized so they can bring us the rest of our gear and help us work.

We haul the deer out of the trap onto a blanket, then slip a hood over its eyes to reduce its stress. Gloves off, we work together, taking its initial temperature, length and weight measurements, and blood, hair, fecal and tooth samples. We work fast. We want to get the deer back on its feet as quickly as possible — ideally in under thirty minutes — to reduce any risk of complications.

One of us sets up a GPS collar, making sure it fits exactly right. Too tight, and it might cause the deer discomfort; too loose, and the deer will slip it off the first chance it gets. Someone else fastens numbered plastic tags onto the deer’s ears so it can be identified from a distance.

Tracking a white tailed deer. (Photo by Jesse Alston)
Tracking a white tailed deer. (Photo by Jesse Alston)

We take the deer’s temperature every five to ten minutes. The sedatives tend to raise its body temperature, possibly to levels that could produce seizures or death. If its temperature goes too high, we move the deer onto the snow to cool it down. If it still continues to rise, we abort our work and inject a reversal drug to get the temperature back down to normal as quickly as possible. Usually all goes well, however, and we get the collar on the deer and all the measurements we need.

We inject a few nutritional supplements and an antibiotic to aid recovery, and then reverse the tranquilizer. The reversal drug takes a few minutes to kick in, during which time one of us restrains the deer until it has recovered enough to get away under its own power. We watch the deer drunkenly stumble away for as long as we can to ensure it’s OK, then rub our numbed fingers together to regain feeling as we head back to the snowmobiles.

On to the next trap.

* * *

Over the past two and a half years I’ve worked as an itinerant wildlife biologist, wandering around the country between a variety of short-term, seasonal wildlife conservation and research projects. Low-level grunts like me do the vast majority of biology fieldwork, gathering data for our senior supervisors — the academics, government agency officials and non-profit biologists who enjoy more plentiful public glory when conservation efforts gain much-needed coverage. Aside from capturing deer, I’ve also trapped chipmunks and flying squirrels, radio-tracked bats to find their roosts in tree cavities and turtles to monitor habitat use. I’ve helped locate wolverines via remote camera and hiked deep into the Minnesota backcountry to find dead wolves and determine if they had been poached.

As exciting as those missions are, my line of work also involves quite a few unpleasant tasks. For every action-packed day handling animals, there’s a day spent dissecting animal poop, entering data into a never-ending spreadsheet, or counting insects in a box of jars.

Six months after I trap my last deer, I start work on a carnivore-monitoring project in northeastern Minnesota in which we use a network of remote motion-triggered cameras scattered throughout the region to document where various species of carnivores live and estimate how many are there. It’s a fascinating, rewarding project, but there’s a catch: A camera randomly placed in the woods takes few pictures, so we use bait to lure animals into the camera’s path. Fortunately, northern Minnesota’s roadsides are littered with free, effective bait in the form of roadkill. But that has to be collected, and that job falls to me.

This is how I find myself spending a summer afternoon beside a busy stoplight in front of a strip mall. Just as I’m packing up to leave work, I get a call from one of the research group’s graduate students, who has spotted a deer carcass on his way home. I rush out in a university truck to pick it up before a city sanitation worker can get there.

I pull up on the road’s shoulder and get out to survey the scene. The pavement shimmers in the heat, and cars leaving work for home zoom by, bumper to bumper. I stare at the bloated carcass sprawled across the median. Judging by the smell, it’s spent at least one day baking in the sun.

“This’ll be fun,” I mutter as I pull on a pair of blue nitrile gloves.

Jesse Alston takes notes on blue sheep grazing near Thorung Phedi, Nepal. (Photo by Jessica Rick)
Jesse Alston takes notes on blue sheep grazing near Thorung Phedi, Nepal. (Photo by Jessica Rick)

I stoop down, grab the deer’s back legs and drag it to the rear of the truck. The connective tissue binding skin to muscle has broken down a bit already, and I can feel it give as I pull. The legs sweat some sort of sour fluid produced in the decomposition process.

Grasping both rear legs in my left hand and both forelegs in my right, I try to swing the deer into the truck bed. The deer flops back off the lip of the tailgate as the line of cars in the turn lane beside me grows. Regretting that I didn’t think to ask one of the undergraduate work-study employees to help out, I try to avoid eye contact with the drivers watching my futile efforts, faces awash with curiosity and disgust. I’m thankful for the university decals on the doors of my truck, which help prevent concerned spectators from calling 911. My warning flashers blink metronomically as I try and fail again to swing the deer into the truck.

On my fourth attempt I finally get enough of the carcass onto the tailgate that I can use my forearms to keep it teetering on the edge as I reposition myself for the last push. I shove it into the truck bed, and as I pull away I notice the back of my forearms are now covered in that decomposition sweat. I wipe it off as best as I can, get back in my truck, and head to my office to butcher the carcass into manageable cuts of bait.

* * *

Field sites can be in the middle of a brushy swamp, deep within a remote desert canyon or atop sheer alpine crags. Ticks and mosquitoes, bees and wasps, rain and lightning, sunburn and frostbite — I’ve had to navigate all of these hazards, sometimes simultaneously. Even on routine jobs, I’ve stumbled upon an illegal squatter’s cabin hidden in a national forest, run into moose and bears while working hundreds of yards from my vehicle, and had alarmed homeowners stop and ask what I’m up to as I sat on the hood of my car in front of their house, listening for hooting owls at two o’clock in the morning.

I spend summers searching for northern spotted owls in the central Cascades range of Washington on behalf of the United States Forest Service. Spotted owls have been on the endangered species list for a quarter century, and there are fewer now than ever. Night after night, we go out with electronic owl callers, scaling steep mountains, battering through brush and batting away mosquitoes to find them. We’ve only found a handful, but it’s extremely satisfying when we do, because we’re able to set aside that land to preserve one of the last few of a vanishing species.

A typical day begins with us getting into the district office not long after everyone else clocks out for the day. We check e-mails, file paperwork for our survey the night before, and head out to our field site. An hour before sunset, we park our SUV on a Highway 97 pullout, grab our packs and hiking poles from the cargo hold, and head into the woods to find owls. We plan to make a long circuit along two connecting ridgelines so any owls in the three narrow valleys on either side of our circuit can hear our hoots.

A great gray owl, only found in remote areas near the Canadian border. (Photo by Jesse Alston)
A great gray owl, only found in remote areas near the Canadian border. (Photo by Jesse Alston)

Our first obstacle is a roadside stream we can only cross via a deadfall log suspended over the creek. The bark is beginning to crack and slough off the trunk, and it lies across the stream at an uncomfortably steep angle. Crossing the log means climbing this incline on dubious footing, gingerly navigating some inconveniently located branches, and clambering over a crumbling root mass at the end. My partner scampers across it like a squirrel, but I totter along the trunk nervously, pausing occasionally to eye the ten-foot drop below.

Having made it across the log, we head straight up the ridge. By the time we reach our first station, we’re breathing hard, sweating profusely, and smarting from scrapes suffered while traversing fallen logs and thick brush. We turn on our electronic owl caller right as the sun reaches the westward mountains. Hoo! Hoo-hoo! Hooooooooooo! — the sound reverberates off the mountainsides.

No response. After ten minutes of calls, all we hear back is the occasional sound of car tires on the highway rumble strips in the valley below.

We reach our second station 45 minutes after leaving the first. We sit down only to realize we’ve left our field notebook at the first. Back down the mountain we go to retrieve the notebook, and back up it we return. Our legs already ache despite another several miles left to travel before our survey ends.

The second and third stations are also uneventful, but partway through the fourth, we hear a distant hoot. We listen intently for a follow-up, and a few minutes later we hear it again. Alas, it’s only a great-horned owl, a common species that might be encountered anywhere from Mexican desert canyons to the Alaskan taiga.

Halfway to the fifth station, we see eye-shine in our headlamps. We freeze, staring at the twin lights ahead. They bob and move slowly closer. “I hope you’re not a cat!” my partner yells at the critter ahead. Aside from the terrain and tick-borne diseases, mountain lions are the biggest danger we face on our surveys.

Her hopes are realized. We make out the long ears and nose of a deer, so we continue forward and the deer bounds off into the night.

The fifth, sixth, and final stations are all dead quiet, so much so that I pace around the caller at the last station to stay awake. The temperature has also dropped quite a bit, and we feel the chill leak into our sweat-dampened shirts as we begin the long final descent to our car.

* * *

When wildlife biologists aren’t battling the elements, we’re often battling bureaucracy, public anger, tedium, or workplace squabbles made worse by these things. (If you think your office politics are bad, try spending a summer living out of a truck and surveying songbirds at the crack of dawn with a field partner you don’t like. Then try doing the same after your partner quits and leaves you to work the rest of the summer alone.) But most days are worth it, and some are special.

In the fall of 2016, I spend a weekend at a raptor migration count site, part of a national network that lets us keep track of raptor populations. I volunteered for a while at this one between jobs my first year in the field. It sits on top of a mountain, over an hour away from the nearest town via rough roads carved into the mountainsides. There’s no running water, electricity, or permanent shelter. The migration observers erect a yurt that serves as a common space for breakfast and dinner, and spend nights in tents in the brush around it. Two Porta-Johns and a Coleman propane stove are the only amenities on the mountain as they spend the fall counting hawks fly overhead.

When I roll into camp on a Friday night, it feels like homecoming. Only one of the observers remain from the crew I’d worked with, but we nevertheless spend Friday night swapping stories, gear recommendations, and news of rare bird sightings. The camp dog wanders around the yurt as we share a meal and beers.

I spend Saturday on a rock outcrop getting to know the new observers as we watch the skies for migrating birds. An unusually diverse assortment of raptors took advantage of the brisk morning and head southward, highlighted by a rare Swainson’s hawk wheeling in the breeze as it snags migrating dragonflies from the air around it. We cap the best bird-watching day of the year with another evening of lantern-lit fellowship in the yurt.

On Sunday afternoon, I sit alone on the edge of the rock, scanning the distant horizon. The wind howls around us and an occasional bird braves the gusts. Dark clouds to the west promise snow to come, and the deep, cold waters of Lake Chelan glimmer off to the south. I survey the valleys below our vantage point, noting brilliant splashes of yellow aspen and red maple just below us and dull black burn scars from recent fires further away. The day ends with few raptors, but hours of reflection on the immensity of the landscape and how much of it I’ve seen up close over the past few years.

That night, I say my goodbyes and head back down the winding mountain roads to get home. I have two days to pack all my things and move to a new job in Wyoming. The road stretches southward in front of me, and I follow the birds as I move on to my next adventure with America’s wildlife.

Rain or shine, snow or sleet, fieldwork requires biologists to deliver the goods. Alston hikes through a forest in northeastern Minnesota. (Photo by Jessica Rick)
Rain or shine, snow or sleet, fieldwork requires biologists to deliver the goods. Alston hikes through a forest in northeastern Minnesota. (Photo by Jessica Rick)

By Jesse Alston

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