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The Magic of Montana

As I walked through the wild roses and Indian Paintbrushes one early morning in the backwoods, I got caught up in the magic of Montana. At the beginning of this experience, I felt as if I was peaking in my wildlife field experience, but as I continued to work, my eyes were opened to the endless opportunities of life. I realized that this wonderful experience was just raising the bar for my future. I have always been so structured; thinking that I had to finish school before I started life. What I did not realize until now is that life started a long time ago, and there are no rules for the direction I go except for the ones I establish. I think about my trip to Montana as a John Muir quote. Muir once said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found was really going in.” The opportunity presented to go to Montana for the summer was a field job trapping Snowshoe Hares and collecting data under Dr. L. Scott Mills. Dr. Mills has been studying the effects of forest management/type on Snowshoe Hare abundance in Western Montana for eighteen years this year. As a Wildlife Science major who had already had a slight taste of the West, this opportunity was absolute perfection. After interviewing, it was not long before I was asked by Dr. Mills himself if I was “ready to go to Montana.” It was a surreal moment. The door was open, and I was going out west for an entire summer to work on an eighteen year, very prestigious study.

So, let me start at the beginning. On June 5, 2016, Worth, my field partner, and I left Raleigh, North Carolina in a red Dodge 1500 west-bound for Montana. I was filled with so many emotions. I felt as if I was ending one chapter of my life and starting a new, very different one. I was a little scared, nervous, excited, etc., but more than anything, I was so thankful for this opportunity. It took us four full days to drive to Missoula, Montana where we gathered traps and other supplies before we drove to Condon where we would be for approximately the first month on the job.

There are four regions we trapped this summer: Inez, Spring Creek, Tally, and Marcum Mountain, each of which have a varying number of grids that range from a 5×10 to an 8×10 layout. Inez has four grids, Spring Creek has three, Tally has nine, and Marcum Mountain has two. We began “Snowshoe Hare School” on June 11, 2016 by setting two of the Inez grids. According to Dr. Mills and his current graduate student, Brandon Davis, Inez is good to learn on before moving further northwest to Tally. Now that I have completed all the grids, I agree. Some of the first things we learned was the gear we needed and how to carry it all through the backwoods of Montana. Apples, alfalfa, bear spray, multi-tool, knife, sharpie, radio, traps, flagging, and a few other things loaded us down. Brandon taught us how to find and follow flagging on grid lines as well as on transect lines used to cut across the grid. The grids are marked across using the alphabet and down using numbers. Therefore, one trap site could be A1 or B7 and so on. We set 50 traps on the Closed Old grid and 50 on Closed Young before calling it a successful first day. The names of the grids in the Inez region refer to the canopy closure and the age of the forest stand. The next day of Snowshoe Hare School consisted of processing captured hares; the moment had finally come. We started checking Inez Closed Old first. Brandon and Adam, a volunteer, went down A line, I went down B line, and Dr. Mills and Worth went down C line. When we came upon a hare in a trap, we would all commune and discuss the process of collecting data from each individual. After watching both Brandon and Dr. Mills process a hare, I was ready. I walked back along D line with Dr. Mills, and we came across a trap with a hare in it. I practiced the techniques that I had been taught. I maneuvered the hare into a pillow case where it could not get hurt and I could gather all the information I needed. I weighed the hare in the bag, then I positioned the individual between my knees where I could crack the pillow case open slightly and put an ear tag in it’s right ear. Next, I took two DNA punches from the left ear before I carefully flipped the hare onto it’s back in order to sex it and measure its right hind foot (RHF). Once everything was filled out on the data card, I released the hare and watched it spring away using its large back feet to propel itself as far as it could forward with each hop. Wow, it was such an amazing feeling. My nerves were settled and I was ready for a summer of working with these uniquely wonderful animals. We checked the next grid using the same techniques of communing and discussing the different scenarios we could potentially encounter throughout the summer. Then, we set two more grids bringing our total trap number to 182 due to one odd numbered grid. Each grid is set one day and then checked for four consecutive days pulling the traps on the fourth day; therefore, we continued a routine of checking grids together for the remainder of the trapping period for these grids. One day, we experienced some new conditions that occur in Montana field work consisting of rain, sleet, and an extremely cold day of trapping. Finally, we pulled these four grids in two days signifying mine and Worth’s graduation from Snowshoe Hare School. We flipped our tassels and began preparing for the next fourteen grids. It was time to take all we learned in one week and implement it on grids that would progressively get more difficult.

As we continued our journey independently of the experts, we began to learn more about ourselves and our study animals. We spent another week in Condon, MT before moving northwest to our next study region, the Tally Lake Ranger District of Flathead National Forest. With this next region came numerous transitions. We began backwoods camping, which we would continue for the next month and a half. The terrain changed; the Tally region is notorious for having grids with an increased level of difficultly compared to the Seeley region where we began. The grids were now all eighty trap grids instead of fifty; therefore, we were checking anywhere from 160 to 240 traps each day. The type of forest we were in varied from grid to grid; we experienced old-growth forests, pre-thin, and thinned forest. Lastly, the number of hares we caught doubled and even tripled on some days. Throughout the Tally hitches, we could feel ourselves growing stronger and getting faster everyday. We had guest appearances from Dr. Mills, Paulo C. Alves, and Klaus Hackländer, all of whom are experts on the taxonomic order lagomorpha. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to not only talk to the experts, but to actually interact and experience working in the field along side them. Later in the summer, we had two more guest appearances. Marketa Zimova, Ph.D. candidate, under Dr. Mills flew to Montana from North Carolina for ten days to help us trap, as well as, Dr. Eugenia Bragina, a post-doc in the Mills Lab, joined us for six days. Having new people helping occasionally expanded to the learning experience. When guests came, we had to take our leadership up a level, for it was our job to provide direction, and keep the technique of processing hares the same across the board. So, we got to teach a few visitors about the process of collecting data on Snowshoe Hares, while they taught us about the birds, plants, and trees around us. This internship was not just about Snowshoe Hare research. I learned so much about wildlife in general, as well as working in the woods. Not to mention, we had a total of 497 captured hares this summer, so I definitely learned a lot about handling hares and their behavior in general.

In addition to the work experience, there were also several enrichment experiences I had the opportunity to partake in while out West. First, on the drive from Raleigh, North Carolina to Missoula, Montana, I experienced the Badlands National Park where I saw prairie dogs, coyotes, and bighorn sheep, not to mention the miles of wonderfully rugged landscape. Next, we visited both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments, which were both extravagant. Throughout the summer, we were given days off, and we chose to use these days by further exploring Montana. We went on several hikes, including a ten mile round trip hike in Glacier National Park. We drove Going to the Sun Road from the West side of Glacier to the East side where we parked and backpacked five miles in to Otokomi Lake. We camped at the Otokomi Campground, which was amazing. There was a waterfall running into the lake and a river full of Cutthroat Trout flowing out. The serenity and solitude was indescribable; as I was writing in my journal down by the lake around dusk, several mountain goats appeared on the horizon several feet above us. I felt as if I was in a scene of a movie. Glacier also offered us the chance to see Jackson Glacier, a glacier that is still visible today. Glacier National Park is like no other place I have ever seen, and I really enjoyed the exploring we got to do there. On the way home, Worth and I drove through Yellowstone National Park and The Great Teton National Park. We took the time to marvel over Old Faithful, examine the Mud Volcano, observe some bison and Trumpeter Swans in Hayden Valley, and study the astonishing Great Geyser Basin. Yellowstone is impossible to see in one day, but we got a good feel for what an odd, yet amazing place it is. As we exited Yellowstone on the South side, we entered The Grand Teton National Park. Full of awe at the ruggedness of the mountains, we just kept repeating “wow,” as our mouths hung open. The Tetons come up out of nowhere, and they demand attention with their sharp peaks and striking elevations. We watched the sun creep behind the wall of mountains as the moon took its place at the point of one of the peaks; it was an amazing view.

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”   — Eleanor Roosevelt  

 This summer, I experienced more than I could have ever imagined. From the traveling to and from Montana to the months I was so blessed to spend in the Treasure State, every moment was full of excitement and education. The magic of Montana changed my view on life, learning, and my career. While out west, I met people who taught me how to fall in love with life; how to relax and live in a way that benefits me and everyone around me. I feel as if I have taken Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice. I took a leap of faith and I had some of the richest experiences. Now, I am on a mission. Montana is an inspiration for me as I move forward in my wildlife career. Thank you Montana for being so beautiful and welcoming, and for giving me the opportunity to grow as a student and future professional. Also, I want to say thank you to the College of Natural Resources and the Goodnight Scholarship Organization for helping fund this life-changing experience; without funding it would have never been possible. Most of all though, thank you Dr. Mills for having faith in me and giving me a chance to plant my feet on solid ground as I begin to move forward in my wildlife career.

Weighing a Snowshoe Hare.
Weighing a Snowshoe Hare.