My eyes open at 5:00 a.m. I see my breath billow towards the top of my tent as I sigh at the blaring intrusion of a battery-operated alarm clock. I must hustle if I want any shot at boiling the pot of water necessary for a hot breakfast. Fumbling around for my least stench-ridden set of clothes, the reality slowly creeps into my head: I am a field biologist.
This is a far cry from how I imagined spending the summer after completing my fourth semester at the University of Georgia. I envisioned a relaxing internship on the Georgia coast, gaining the necessary "experience" for application into post-graduate work in biology. However, events don't always work out as you planned. So after many long, tedious hours of writing, applying and emailing countless universities and programs, I ended up working for the University of Montana studying snowshoe hare populations. As a biology/ecology major with little field experience, I was surprised to get the position, and eager to meet the people and the work awaiting me.
After a few days of preparation, our crew of mostly undergraduate students from all over the nation was off to the field sites. Primarily a hiker of the Appalachian Trail, nothing I had read, studied or researched could have prepared me for the inspiration that shot through my veins at my first glimpse of the Montana landscape. As a native of Georgia, jagged mountain peaks, rolling plains, and steep changes in elevation were not things I was accustomed to. Neither was the weather. A typical Southern climate, especially in June, includes warm mornings, blazing hot days, and nights sometimes dropping into the seventies. At our study site in the Salish Mountains of the Flathead Valley, midday highs reach the upper seventies and eighties and it often freezes overnight. The extremes only increase with elevation.
A typical day on the research team requires the crew to be at a trapping site no later than 6:00 a.m., since snowshoe hares are basically nocturnal animals. Because they are herbivorous, hares mainly prefer the habitat of the forests and thickets of the Western mountains. Thick brush, protruding alders, and huge slippery deadfalls turn what otherwise would be a pleasant stroll through the woods from trap to trap into a constant challenge.
The snowshoe hare is an important food source for most North American predators. Fishers, martens, foxes, wolverines, coyotes, and many predacious birds all rely on the hare for survival. The lynx, a federally threatened species, also relies on the hare as a primary food source. There is a direct relationship between numbers of hares and the density of their predator populations. Our study correlates with lynx research conducted in similar areas and plays an important role in both the understanding and conservation of lynx. If we can outline areas that contain a sufficient number of hares to support lynx, a greater effort can be made to protect these habitats, helping lynx flourish.
With less than 24 hours until my flight leaves Missoula for Atlanta, I don't regret a single decision I've made concerning this trip, aside from not taking more pictures. I've enjoyed each day's work. This internship has opened my eyes to the dangers that face wildlife in North America. I'm intrigued by the many efforts to reduce these risks and look forward to ways that I can make a difference - even at five in the morning.
"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.