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Butterflies, Hummingbirds and Bees, Oh My!

As I walked out to the Louisville International Airport curb I was greeted by my supervisor Joe Robb. He would be my mentor and supervisor for the next 11 weeks of my summer fellowship at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge. Prior to coming to Big Oaks, I had worked at Glacial Ridge and Rydell national wildlife refuges under Ben Walker, a former Big Oaks wildlife biologist. Coming to Big Oaks, I had a one-track goal, to get up and running a long term research project on roadside pollinator habitat restorations. My previous experience with botany was limited to invasive species surveys conducted at Glacial Ridge, where I’d go out with an iPad and plot locations of plant species invading the refuge. Coming to Big Oaks as a Directorate Fellow however, would prove to be far more intense than any previous job I had ever held.

Imagine a world where 85% of plants died out because they couldn’t spread their pollen, or 35% less of a global food crop yield. That is the world that could happen if we let pollinators die out. Worldwide, pollinators such as bumblebees have been on a downward trajectory due to habitat loss and pesticide use. These important bugs do more than just float from plant to plant, they make sure plants are able to spread and that food crops are as productive as can be. My job at Big Oaks would be to set up an experiment to examine how the effects of fire, mowing and disking would impact roadside pollinator habitats by hopefully increasing their abundance and vigor.

I quickly learned that I knew very little compared to the staff in regards to pollinator habitat and land restorations. A portion of my project was to curb this lack of knowledge by reading up on what I did not know. Over the course of a few weeks, I had a rapid education of pollinator habitat restorations by reading a multitude of research journal articles dedicated to the subject.

Interestingly, wildflowers and forbs actually need something called disturbance to be productive. Historically, disturbances were often caused by things like wildfires, tornadoes, grazing and soil turnover from large herds of bison. These disruptions were necessary when plant communities had become overrun and dominated by only a few species. With this reduced diversity, there wasn’t much of a chance for pollinator plants to sprout, or much of a reason for pollinators to live in those places. But when changes occurred in those habitats, pollinators were able to find a reason to stay. Those disturbances have been recreated using mechanical methods such as prescribed fire, mowing or disking. These techniques all recreate naturally occurring events and have the greatest success in restoring and maintaining habitats. Using this knowledge and much more, I was able to begin setting up my project.

The interesting thing about my project wasn’t just the restoration part, it was also the location. With an estimated 10 million+ acres of roadside in the U.S alone, Joe Robb had seen a potential opportunity to pave the way in roadside restorations. The subject had been growing interest over the years, and I saw firsthand how excited people were about roadside pollinator restorations at Big Oaks. A great moment for me was when I got the chance to talk about the project at a pollinator workshop at Strawtown Koteewi Park. After my presentation, members of different organizations like the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District and Chicago Botanical Gardens came up to me eager to know more. That moment really solidified for me that the work being done was important and needed. Not to say I didn’t think it wasn’t important, but seeing that others were interested as well motivated me to make doubly sure I was doing the best job I could.

Over the course of 2 weeks, me and Amanda Trent, another Big Oaks intern, set up 35 experimental plots across the refuge’s perimeter roads. After the plots had been established, the real work began. Going out every day over the course of a week, I sampled vegetation communities on the perimeter roads to create a baseline data set that future years could be compared to. Sampling involved me going out to a plot, laying out quadrats, and counting the different types of species I saw and how many there were. Remember that part I said earlier about not much botany experience? Well this is where I really had to push myself to learn how to identify plants on the fly. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if it wasn’t for the help of Joe, whose 20+ year knowledge of Big Oaks really came into play. After sampling vegetation, one of the more challenging parts of the project began, the baseline report. Although I had a little bit of experience with academic writing, I knew I was looking at multiple drafts of editing ahead of me. With only a couple of days left at Big Oaks, I am excited to be working towards producing a final product representative of the work I have been lucky to be a part of.

Over the course of the summer, I learned a great deal about myself and what I wanted out of life. This experience reaffirmed that there is nothing I’d rather do than be a wildlife biologist. To wake up in the morning and hike around doing Henslow’s sparrow surveys or try and identify a tricky plant were things that gave me some of the fullest satisfaction from life, and are experiences I wouldn’t trade anything for.

One thing that really made me better was being pushed. Pushed by my supervisor Joe Robb to go outside of my comfort zone and try to accomplish things I had never done before. Pushed by the project’s rigor to accomplish things I had never done before. Pushed by my fellowship to take it to the next level and become a better biologist.

This fall when I head back to school at the University of Texas at Austin, I’ll hold on to many memories, experiences and laughs with my coworkers. But a huge part of me is excited for what comes next. I hope to pursue a career in wildlife biology with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and feel I know a little bit better how I want to go about it. The time I have spent at Big Oaks will always stick and I eagerly look forward to seeing the project move along. Conservation isn’t a one-person effort, and while I completed work on the project this summer, my guess is there will be about another 30 people who’ll help finish it off over the course of many years. To say that I was able to start the project and be a part of this unique conservation effort will always be something I’ll be proud of.

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