Idaho Master Naturalists Help with Roadside Ecology Project

By: Hilary A. Turner, IDFG Road Ecology Wildlife Technician

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Jerry Nielsen
Background:

Road ecology is the emerging discipline in which scientists attempt to quantify the ecological effects of roads. Road ecology issues are well documented in Eastern Idaho, and previous studies have been conducted in the Island Park area. Elk, moose, mule deer, and pronghorn migrate semiannually into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the majority crossing US-20 as part of their migration. Additionally, resident moose and white-tailed deer live in the area year-round, crossing the highway as a part of their daily movements. Grizzly bears, wolves, and cougars are also present throughout Island Park. Large mammals present safety risks to motorists, but our roads and associated traffic also have the ability to influence wildlife movements and populations. As we increase our understanding of the ecological impacts of roads, we can begin to think about how to mitigate some of these impacts.

On 4 December 2017, IDFG commenced a two-year roadside carcass survey in the Upper Snake Region. The goal of the project is to calculate an accurate estimate of the true mortality that occurs on this 63-mile stretch of road. An IDFG Road Ecology Wildlife Technician drives US-20 and SH-87 in Island Park, Fremont County every other day, searching for roadkill. This survey is completed every other day. To ensure data collection on weekends and days when IDFG staff are unavailable, the project engaged a group of enthusiastic Idaho Master Naturalists (IMNs) from the Henry’s Fork Chapter (HFC)! Over 10 IMNs have volunteered on this project, and without their involvement, this project would not be the same. One volunteer completely took over the weekend surveys, allowing the IDFG technician to have weekends off! When he or the technician are unavailable, other volunteers from the HFC have stepped up, ensuring that a survey was never missed, except due to inclement weather. Thank you so much to anyone who has volunteered on this project! Your efforts are recognized and valued by the agency!

The HFC is familiar with road ecology studies in Island Park. From 2010-2012, members of the group volunteered on a roadside tracking project. In the spring and fall, groups of trackers walked 1-2 mile stretches of US-20, recording ungulate tracks when they were encountered in snow and mud. This kind of study collects data on where animals successfully cross the road, whereas a carcass survey collects data on where animals do not successfully cross the road.

The IMNs, as well as some non-IMN volunteers, have been and continue to be invaluable assets to IDFG. Big thanks to anyone who has collected data on a roadside carcass in Island Park! To complete this article, I interviewed Jerry Nielsen and Sam and Becky Lewis about their volunteer work on the roadside carcass survey project. I would like to give a special thanks to the many other volunteers who are not named in this article. Your contributions to this work are also vital.

Who:

Jerry is the weekend carcass survey volunteer. He is a 4th generation Idahoan, born and raised in Idaho Falls. He worked as a banker for 15 years and then as a fundraiser for the American Red Cross. While he is proud of his roots in Southeast Idaho, his work took him around the state, as well as to Washington DC. He retired in Ashton, ID, and spends his retirement traveling, fly fishing, and volunteering with the Henry’s Fork IMN chapter.

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Becky Lewis

Becky and Sam Lewis (pictured above) volunteer on the carcass survey project together. Sam spent the bulk of his career in the nuclear industry after a stint in the US Air Force. Becky worked 12 years in nuclear industry while earning a BS-CIS after which she received a job offer from IBM. She spent 16 years working for IBM in the Software Quality Assurance/Testing field. During a family visit in Idaho Falls, Becky and Sam realized that Idaho reminded them of the Colorado they had fallen in love with 30 years earlier. In June of 2003, they moved from Colorado to Idaho Falls, where Sam became employed at the INL site and Becky continued working remotely for IBM. In retirement, Becky and Sam spend their time enjoying their property east of Ashton, hiking, snowshoeing, honing their photography skills, volunteering for Fremont County Search and Rescue, and volunteering for the Henry’s Fork IMN Chapter.

Interview:

I sat down for a lunch interview with Becky, Sam, and Jerry to gain some perspective on why they do what they do! We ended up chatting for about 2.5 hours, and having lots of laughs along the way. My favorite part of my job as the Road Ecology Wildlife Technician has become interacting with this amazing group of folks that call themselves Idaho Master Naturalists!

Hilary Turner: Why did you become involved in the Idaho Master Naturalist Program?

Jerry Nielsen: “You know when I retired, I wanted to do things that I like to do. I had met several IMNs and read about the program in the paper. I wanted to meet people who were like-minded and loved being outdoors. I honestly don’t know what I like more, the education or the volunteering, both are very enjoyable to me.”

Sam Lewis: Sam’s eyes shift to Becky as he indicates, “She made me,” with a smile. The group laughs. “We were involved down in Idaho Falls, and then transferred up to the Henry’s Fork Chapter when we retired and moved.”

Becky Lewis: “I think I saw an ad in the paper? Some of the classes looked very interesting to me, so Sam and I decided we would try it together. Sam’s sister is a ‘master gardener’ in Florida, so we kind of knew how the program would work. We were excited to be able to learn from classes as well as peers and the variety of topics was important, as I wasn’t interested in everything they offered.”

HT: How did you find out about the carcass survey project?

JN: “Really, I think I got the information from an email send out by Mary (the HFC president).”

BL: “Oh I think we were still Upper Snake Chapter members and we got an email about an upcoming carcass survey volunteer position. We had moved to Ashton and Sam was still short on hours, so we thought this would be a great way to make up the hours.”

HT: Why did you volunteer for this (carcass survey) project?

JN: “It looked like…uh…,” laughs “…I can’t say fun – it was going to be a really good, ongoing project. I needed a long-term project to volunteer on and this one looked very interesting. Something like this is very important; I can get lots of hours and contribute to important data collection.”

BL: “It just sounded very interesting, plus Sam needed the hours. We had no idea it would be long term or ongoing at first. I thought it would be kinda neat, as terrible and heart-rending as it is to see dead animals; it would still be an opportunity to try to learn from them and…it may sound weird…but who gets the opportunity to be that close to a moose or an elk, antelope, you know…the birds…so I just thought that would be interesting to see. Not being a hunter, I just don’t get to experience them up close. It’s been interesting seeing them like that, although sometimes terrible.”

JN: “Yes, it’s been mixed emotions for sure.”

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IDFG

BL: “And even with the bear stuff (Becky is also a passionate grizzly bear educator), it used to be so sporadic, so it’s nice to have a project that is long-term, ongoing, and year-round. And again, this work can be so heart-rending, but it is also so important because it furthers science and informs agency decisions. Then, like you (Hilary) always say, their deaths weren’t in vain.”

SL: “Yes, I think that this is by far one of the most interesting projects out of all the projects we volunteer on and honestly, I feel like we are doing the most good (with this project).”

HT: What has been the most exciting moment for you, as a carcass survey volunteer?

JN: “Well, in retrospect, the most exciting moment was meeting you (Hilary)! But no honestly, it has been getting to know the people I have met through this project. And also the education.”

BL: “Same here, and I love the letters (emails) you send us!”

JN: “But if I had to really sit down and come up with a most exciting moment it would be finding the sora (a small bird in the rail family) but all that relates back to you being such a bird expert! I mean, I find this…this bird that I had no clue about and then, so I send this stuff to Hilary and immediately she comes back, this is what it is. So now I’ve found a bird that I never even heard of before, let alone, never seen before. Ya, yep, that was pretty exciting!”

SL: “Oh I think the most exciting for me – I can’t say it’s one moment – but is when were out there doing a carcass survey and over the side of the road I see a live moose or I’m sitting there and we’ve looked at a dead animal on the road or whatever and I’m looking over and I see a really nice golden or bald eagle sitting in a tree. The live critters are exciting.”

HT: What was the saddest moment for you as a carcass surveyor?

JN: “Finding my first pine marten on Ashton Hill, because I had only seen them in wilderness areas previously.”

BL: “Oh, that moose on Ashton Hill was so hard because it was a calf and he was so torn up. His whole hind quarter was, what, 20 feet up the road from us? It was horrible; this year’s calf. And we found an antelope up on Henry’s Flat and that was just so hard because it was the only one we found and…it was sometime in the spring and it was so sad because I thought – ‘she made it through the winter, the hardest time of the year, probably pregnant, you know she looked like she might have been, and got hit by a car.’ It was just…that was sad.”

JN: “Oh wow, maybe I should change that to…I found a…um…a fawn…and I looked at it, documented it, and then I, when I came back I stopped and looked at it again, cuz I thought, ‘wow, something didn’t quite register right’ – the eyes weren’t open yet, hadn’t been opened yet, so it was a…fetus that was just about born. The doe was another 10-15 feet up the road.”

HT: Tell us about the most interesting animal you found and why it was interesting.

JN: It has to be the sora because it was something I’d never heard of or seen before and I learned an awful lot from it! I think I even did some research and looked at some birds that are in that same family. That area was very close to where I also found a muskrat, and that had me really confused to find that muskrat and then I looked and there is an irrigation ditch going through right there. It made perfect sense for the muskrat to be in that spot, I just hadn’t noticed the bridge before.”

SL: “I think the most interesting for me would have been the hawk (a juvenile red-tailed hawk) because that was one of our first and like Becky said, to be able to pick a bird like that up and look at it so close…”

BL: “Mhmm and the talons”

SL: “And we spent a lot of time with that one and took a lot of pictures.”

BL: “For me, one was the day we found 10 birds. That was…pretty cool. And that little teeny one, remember? I thought it was a sparrow or something – I don’t know how we found it, it was just in a little pullout or something and I said, ‘stop Sam that’s a…’ and he says, ‘that’s nothing,’ and I said, ‘it is, we gotta go back and take a look,’ and sure enough it was a little bird!

Also the decapitated deer – we thought it had been salvaged. But the body was on the east side of the road and we thought someone must’ve just taken the head, and then we drove up, just not that far, and I said, ‘Sam we gotta stop, there’s more blood,’ and the head was on the other side of the road, it had been removed in the collision.”

HT: Why do you think carcass surveying is important?

JN: “To make sure we have accurate data regarding our wildlife.”

SL: “I think it’s awareness.

BL: “Yeah, I don’t know that we were aware of how many carcasses…you hear stories but you don’t really…seeing them makes it real. It’s interesting how almost everyone we tell what we’re doing, at first they’re like…I don’t know if they’re revolted…but it’s kinda like ewww, you know? And then they start asking all these questions and they seem to find it really interesting. I don’t think we’ve found anyone who hasn’t asked more questions.”

JN: “Yes. It is really a fabulous way to learn.”

HT: Would you recommend volunteering on this project to other IMNs? Why?

JN: “Uh, yes, (emphasizes) this is hands on learning. I’ve, yeah, I grew up in this country, I’ve lived in different parts of the state, I am familiar with wildlife, and I am still learning A TON of stuff (his emphasis). I’ve also met some amazing people.”

SL: “Well, uh…the official answer would be yes I would definitely recommend it because it’s interesting. The, uh, personal answer is no I wouldn’t recommend it because I don’t want to share it.” (group laughs)

BL: “I was thinking the same thing – I love the project but I don’t want to share. But I also love the project and want others to be involved because it is very interesting and a great educational opportunity. I have learned a lot, especially about birds! (group laughs)

HT: If you had one piece of advice for a novice carcass searcher, what would that be?

JN: “Go double check! However, (laughing) the day some guy’s litter bag fell out of the back of his truck going up Ashton Hill that had about 8 banana peels; oh my gosh, it took me an hour to get up the hill, stopping at every banana peel!”

BL: “In the winter, it’s ice chunks, in the summer it’s tire shreds” (referring to items that look deceptively like carcasses)

SL: “I would think…be safe.”

HT: Have you ever had an incident where you felt like your safety was compromised?

SL: “Yes, absolutely, it’s uh, you know, there’s some big trucks flying by you, and it’s, uh, sometimes, you know I’ll pull over and I may sit in the car for up to a few minutes before I get out.

BL: “Yes those semi’s go by you with a big whoosh”

JN: “I think it was a skunk on Ashton Hill – and between the guard rails and the side of the hill and everything else I just thought, ‘that’s a dead skunk and it’s not gonna have a GPS mark,’ because the traffic was so bad that I just didn’t dare stop.”

HT: It is legal to salvage some roadkill in Idaho, have you salvaged anything?*

JN: Uh, yeah, some grouse feathers for tying flies. Oh and the sora!

*Note from the author: Visit https://idfg.idaho.gov/species/roadkill/salvage/list for a list of salvageable species. The IMNs featured in this article are covered by state and federal permits to be in possession of protected nongame birds for a limited period of time before transferring them to state officials. Sometimes, when in good shape, bird carcasses are able to be salvaged for addition to scientific and educational collections at universities and other organizations.

SL: laughing “Well, in terms of salvaging, I don’t know that the temptation was there but…

BL: interjects – “the birds! I think we had two of those. A tanager and a sparrow!”

HT: How do you detect carcasses?

JN: “Um…probably 90% of them are visual. I mean actually seeing the physical carcass. But then it’s a blood spatter, and uh…oh, seeing scavengers working the carrion.”

HT: Have any of you ever hit an animal while surveying?

B/SL: “No.”

JN: “I did take a bird one day. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw the bird and turned around and documented it.”

HT: Is it hard to drive and look for carcasses at the same time?

JN: Looks at Becky, “I think you and I had a conversation about this, but I now drive very differently. Um…but, yes it is hard to drive and look at the same time. I cannot do both sides of the road. It just…I can’t do it! I’ll be coming back down the route and I will find a carcass that I totally missed on the way up because it was on the wrong side of the road.

BL: nods “Yes, very much so. Sam drives. So Sam looks at the road and left side and I scan the right side of the road and down the center, cuz that’s where you see the blood spots. Sometimes I will spot the blood spots in the road because Sam is focused on driving. I would guess that it is probably harder by yourself.”

HT: How do you maintain safety at all times while volunteering on a dangerous job?

JN: “You (Hilary) told me safety first.”

BL: “Yep, safety first.”

JN: “And I’ve always been what I’ve called a good defensive driver for most of my life. I know all the cars in front of me, as well as all the cars behind me, at almost all times, and I NEVER get in or out of my vehicle without double checking the mirrors really closely. If I can’t get outside of the white line when I pull over, I don’t stop – at that point I find a different place to pull over.

BL: “Yeah. We’ve walked back quite a ways sometimes, because it’s just not worth it, you know, if you can’t get outside that white line.”

JN: “Oh right – I found a bat that way one time!”

BL: “I’m always getting out on the right side of the vehicle, so I always have the shoulder but Sam has to be extra careful because his car door is next to the traffic. We work together to ensure each other’s safety on the road.”

SL: “I think it’s definitely advantageous that we work as a team.”

BL: “Oh ya, for sure. I think it makes it a lot easier than what you have to deal with (looking at Jerry)! And of course our vests, we are always wearing our orange.”

HT: What have you learned through your observation of deceased animals?

JN: I learned what a sora was and was surprised by the number of pine martens in this area.”

BL: “I guess I would have to say the number of songbirds up by Henry’s Lake. I guess I should’ve known that with all the trees there. And all the bird houses and feeders.”

JN: “I haven’t found a (great) horned owl in a while, but when I first started, that was one of the main species I was finding. Oh! That’s also one thing I’ve learned – the difference between hawk and owl feathers.”

BL: Looking at Sam, “What else have we learned from this? You know, I think one thing that’s been really interesting is to study them, especially aging and sexing them. I can’t remember which moose calf it was but his mouth was kind of opened so I could look at the teeth and see that they are baby teeth because they were smaller and whiter than adult and yearling moose that we had seen. When I take photos of an unidentified carcass I think, ‘what else can I see to help me make the identification?’ I guess that’s one of the things about observing the deceased animal, is you can study it more in detail, rather than just driving by and saying, ‘oh poor dead deer on the side of the road.’ While trying to determine how long it’s been there, etc., you notice different things. We are piecing things together kind of like detectives.”

JN: “It’s also interesting how it enthralls people – you first think, ‘oh how terrible,’ but then people just seem intrigued…”

BL: “Yeah, it’s amazing how it changes your perspective.”

A few more minutes of enjoyable conversation were had between us before it was time to part ways. In parting, Becky said of the project, “Well we appreciate this opportunity. This has turned out…I mean I know all these projects that we have done (with IMNs) have been fun but it’s…this is definitely a favorite. You know? I enjoy it.”

Be sure to watch for a carcass survey training coming your way this year! Hilary Turner will be traveling around the state to all IMN chapters and she can’t wait to train you in carcass searching so you can contribute to IDFG’s important statewide dataset.