The Crunchies

We've just completed our first week of training on the Sierra Nevada Carnivore Monitoring Project. Based in Shaver Lake, CA, our crew of thirteen is learning the ropes for surveys across the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests. I'm having a blast! First of all, the entire crew is great. We've had a lot of fun kicking the soccer ball around during breaks (I'm learning) and we even had an epic dance party last night, topped off with a snowball fight. Yes. You read that correctly. I said snow! We got two inches as part of a short cold front passing through. One crew member had never seen snow fall, so we did our best to lug as many snowballs as possible at him.

Since this project has been ongoing for ten years, and because other fisher projects exist within close proximity, the locals often refer to these field crews as "The Crunchies." The nickname apparently originated from a shared love of granola and conservation, so our reputation as respectable field crews also includes our love of Clif Bars, dehydrating our own fruit, playing guitar, owning several nalgenes, and avid climbing and hiking. I'm currently learning to play the guitar and mandolin, so combined with a love for carnivores, I am officially a crunchy! A few of us have already heard "oh, you're one of the crunchies," and it's only been a week!

This long-term project is looking at the abundance of fishers and martens, two predators in the mustelid (weasel) family and monitoring population decline and genetics. Fishers are of particular conservation concern, as the species requires old growth forests and cannot thrive in younger stands or areas that are logged. As a result, controversy surrounds the California populations of fishers, as they are warranted for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but doing so raises several issues for forest management, among others. So, our job is to look at where fishers live, how abundant they are, and to examine gene flow to monitor connectivity and population soundness. The status of martens is not as dire, but we will examine this cousin as well as note other carnivores in this region.

This week has been spent learning project protocol, learning how to build track plates, and identifying the tracks of several mammals, from fishers to bears to small rodents (squirrel species tracks are hard!). Track plates are awesome tools to noninvasively determine what species live in certain areas as well as collect hair samples for DNA analysis. A box covers a metal plate where one half of the plate is sooted and the other is lined with a slightly sticky contact paper, and when an animal enters the box on the open side (usually drawn in with a tasty piece of chicken), their footprints are left on the paper from the soot. We have barbed wire over the entrance of the track plate box, so if we are lucky we also get a hair sample. I'm really looking forward to seeing what critters visit our track plates, except for the bears because they usually "whomp" or dissemble the boxes in their curiosity or hunger. We also set one of our sampling unit stations as practice:

Mark placing flagging at one of our sites. Like the gear? Safety is cool at the Forest Service!

Next week involves driving training for the Forest Service,  and hopefully more exploring during our evenings. A group of us climbed this enormous rock overlooking the river feeding out of Shaver Lake, where we shared a few beers while watching the sunset and a pair of nesting ospreys. With the snow mostly melted, we might camp on that rock tomorrow night!