A Summer of Service at Grays Lake

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(Originally posted to CaribouCountyNews.com on June 27, 2024)

The Grays Lake Refuge includes both riparian areas, which are muddy and wet, and these meadowlands, which are where the cattle are part of a management strategy.

This summer, the Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge 30 miles north of Soda Springs had a new group of visitors.  While the area is set aside as a refuge for wildlife with, in many cases, seasonal migratory habits, it also hosted a group of young people from around the country for several weeks.  In cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Grays Lake Wildlife Specialist Dana Duran, the Idaho Conservation Corps sent a group of seven individuals to help with projects related to the area’s mission to preserve the local ecology and wildlife.

Conservation is also something that Fish and Wildlife’s Dana Duran places a high value on.  As the primary overseer of the Grays Lake area, she’s committed to making sure that the area stays well managed for both human and wildlife needs.  

Dana Duran began her work at Grays Lake last October, and she’s still getting to know the Gray’s Lake Marsh and the ecosystem, though she seems to have learned a lot since last fall.  “The refuge was established in 1965 for the purpose of protecting the Grays Lake Marsh, which is great habitat for migratory water birds.  We most notably have the largest breeding population of sandhill cranes in the U.S.  We also have long-billed curlew, Franklin’s gulls, white-faced ibises, trumpeter swans, short-eared owls, and a lot of others,” Duran says.  “We also have elk and moose that live in the area.”  

The team from the Idaho Conservation Corps is also learning about the local ecology, including the nature of “riparian areas,” where most of their work has been taking place.  Riparian is a word for transitional areas between wet and dry land.  We first stopped in Eagle Creek, which is a place where a number of willows had interrupted the flow of the creek.  The natural flow has been restored, ironically with the help of artificial beaver dams.  New willows have been planted in a more spread out way as well.

The Corps becomes involved with the next part of the process, which is fencing the area off to prevent cattle from eroding the stream beds and trampling the vegetation, which provides nesting and shelter opportunities for birds.  None of that is to say that cattle are necessarily a negative for the ecosystem.  In fact, Duran explains that “grazing is one of our management action tools.  We partner with the neighboring ranchers and they are allowed to graze in some of our units.  In some of our meadowland habitats, for instance, grazing can create disturbance in the vegetation.  Maybe that sounds bad, but it’s actually very helpful.  Without disturbance, there can be a lot of growth of undesirable vegetation which we want to avoid, especially invasive grasses.”

Grazing is a great management tool for meadows, but not meant to be used in riparian areas, as Duran explains it.  The idea then, is not to eradicate or eliminate any part of the Grays Lake environment, but to purposefully manage its many components to create the best overall outcome for the biological and other organic elements involved.   

“The Idaho Conservation Corps helped us to establish fencing around this willow area and our restoration site.  We haven’t been up to date with our fencing work, and it’s an exciting project to be able to get this fencing up around the restoration area here.”

Dana met up with Crew Leaders Teagan Waterloo and Mei Dach down the road a bit at another site, where the team was busy inspecting fencing and making some needed repairs.   

The crew itself was composed of a group who had not met each other in most cases until they were assigned to their location.  Noelle P., Mason A., Patrick C., Vanessa O., Sahara T., Maya S., and Emily S. all came into the field without a lot of experience in fence repair or the other aspects of the job that have come into play over their weeks in Caribou County.  The kids come from a number of different places, with several of them from Boise, and others from Ohio, Portland, California, and elsewhere.  The kids are on five week work sessions, with two weeks at Grays Lake before they head out to their next project site, which at the time I spoke with them was still a surprise, although Teagan did reveal that the next project would not involve fencing!

“They learn all different types of skills, in a lot of different types of ecosystems and places,” Waterloo says.  “We’ll be camping for the duration of the session.”  The session is paid, and it also earns potential class credit.  As a component of that, educational lessons are given every day for the students in between their work efforts.

Patrick, who is from Ohio, explained the process of putting up the fence in the Eagle Creek area.  “When we got here there were no fence posts.  We had to stake them in.  We came through and staked all the posts, measured their distances, and laid out the barbed wire.  We had crews coming behind and tied in the wire to the posts.”   

This morning, they are taking out old posts and putting in new wire where needed.

Though all of them now talk like old hands at fencing, when they first started out, they had no idea how to go about the fencing process.  Another Forest Service employee who Duran refers to as a “fencing pro” spent the student’s first week in the area teaching them the ins and outs of the process.  By the end of their time, according to their crew leaders, they were passing judgement on every fence they passed while out and about, pointing out deficits in the construction or elements that needed to be repaired.

“At this point, they all know more about fencing than I do,” Duran laughs.  “This is our first time working with the Idaho Conservation Corps and it’s been a great experience.  We definitely hope to work with them again.” 

Although they couldn’t say where they were going next, Teagan explains that “the goal of the program is to get them as much conservation experience as possible, so it’ll be related to that.  They’re doing fencing this week, but for the rest of the session they’re probably be doing trail work, campground maintenance, stuff like that.”

“Some crews will get to do crosscut,” Mei says.  “Northwest Conservation Corps has, I believe, five crosscut saws.  They’re over a hundred years old and they don’t really make them anymore, so that will be great.  They’re very old, and it’s a great skill to learn.  It teaches teamwork, and how to communicate with each other.”  This will largely be used to clear trees out of the path. 

Even in their non-working parts of the day, Mei explains that the program still teaches students useful lessons.  “They’re cooking the food, and so they’re learning about meal planning and resource management.”  They’re also learning about personal care and wilderness survival. 

“We’ve gotten a little spoiled with this site, because there are bathrooms and laundry facilities.  For the rest of their time though, we’ll be camping camping,” Teagan says. “They’ve all had some kind of camping experience before, but definitely nothing like this.”

The crew leaders themselves run a twelve week session, include two weeks of training.  Mei is at the University of Portland.  Teagan is still looking for what she wants to do next, but is very happy she found this program.  She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Public Policy, and is thinking about pursuing the policy side of environmental issues, though she has loved the field work.

Mei works in film and psychology at school, but wanted to get some experience with field work and education.  She has ended up learning to manage a crew, and work with kids around the age she hopes to work with later on in her career in neuroscience. Speaking of the kids…

“It’s really beautiful.  It’s cool to see how green it is, and all the wildlife and flowers.  Especially in this area it’s really nice,” Vanessa says.  

“Before we got over here, the barbed wire was rotting our and rusting.  We had to wear waders every day because it’s so muddy.  It got difficult and our socks were wet and cold, but it was fun and we were learning the whole time.  Later on when you keep going, it gets pretty fun because the ground is like a trampoline.  With all of that, I think we did a good job.  It looks really nice down there.  It was a good learning experience,” Vanessa says.

“Not all of us had the pleasure of wearing waders,” Patrick mentions to laughter.  

“We had two pairs of waders to share,” Shara says.  “So it was nice, because your feet got to stay dry for half of the day.” 

The group has also encountered some attention from the cows they are working alongside.

“We had to shoo some out of the way this morning to make way, but we’re getting along!” Teagan said.  “But they’ve been on their best behavior.  It’s nice to have neighbors.”

“They definitely outnumber us,” Mei laughed.  “So I hope so.”

They have made it into town on a few short trips, and to Lava Hot Springs for a day off, but for the most part have been ensconced in their tents out behind the main refuge office near the foot of Caribou Mountain.  

They have become excellent at identifying the local wildlife, and Patrick has developed an uncanny set of bird calls.  As we drove to a second work site, the students all pointed out the various birds that they saw.  They asked Mei to stop the van at one point to watch two red tailed hawks in the middle of a courtship flight.  Sadly, it ended with a refusal after a brief aerial flurry, and we headed back up the road.

As the crew gets ready to move on to their next adventure, they leave with a lot of memories of their summer stopover in Caribou County, and Dana Duran will watch them go with hope that another group might be on its way next summer.  “It’s been great!”  she says. “I’d love for all of them to come back.”

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