Predawn shadows settle around my truck as I screech to a halt at the end of the gravel road. My headlights illuminate dense woodland ahead, and I hear soft rustlings in the brush when I step out to stretch, but my sole focus is on the green glow of the dashboard clock: 5:47 a.m. I’d been driving nearly two hours and still have an off-trail scramble down the mountainside to complete before sunrise. Taking an extra five minutes to double-check hiking gear, GPS batteries, data sheets, and ballpoint pens, I step off Forest Road 19 into foggy Tillamook State Forest wilderness with one goal in mind: reach the designated GPS point at sunrise to listen to birds.
Although this is my first season on the job, the Oregon Coastal Mountain Herbicide Project has been in progress for five years. Back in 2013, six sites were clearcut—every single Douglas Fir toppled—then sprayed with different concentrations of herbicide. Every summer since, seasonal biologists visit the same GPS points in these six sites as close to sunrise as possible to record songbirds we see or hear.
So here I am, spending my summer sweating, dodging log trucks on narrow forest service roads, and trudging into unmanaged forest before 6:00 a.m. Hopefully some project manager I’ve never even met will do something useful with all these recorded songbird calls one day. Still, I can’t say I don’t enjoy it. I’ve traveled the western states chasing seasonal wildlife jobs for four years now, and there’s something to be said about seeing the world in such a unique way. Most days I feel like a wide-eyed explorer in a world unknown to most.
I reach my GPS point. I'm breathing heavily and gauging the time by the color of sky and emerging sounds. Wispy fog lingers, quickly burning off with the warmth of sunlight. Pinks and purples flood the sky, and a vibrant red glow rises from the east. Warblers, chickadees, and bushtits begin to wake, while American robins and varied thrushes have been up for fifteen minutes.
I take a deep breath, listen for another moment, and start my timer. Songbird calls come slowly at first: a chickadee in front, an American goldfinch to my left a full minute later. At minute eight, though, things get busy. Sunlight illuminates my data sheet as I scribble furiously: two bushtit calls, a junco sighting, a downy woodpecker in the distance, scrub jays, northern flickers, another three goldfinches! As the timer sounds I breathe deeply, allowing myself a minute to simply exist in this forest. I can't linger for long, though; the next GPS point is two miles southeast, and I need to hustle to reach all my assigned points before noon.
So goes a typical morning for a seasonal wildlife biologist, with a few minor discrepancies depending on where the field work is located. In Colorado, for example, I dodged bull elk herds rather than truckers. In Nebraska it was massive potholes created by bison, hidden by windswept grasses in the prairie. Every field biologist has a similar story: we start much too early, face all sorts of unique challenges throughout the day, and head home much too late. We get accustomed to the grind, the routine, the bizarre monotony of hiking to these otherwise unknown places. It’s only when we step back to reflect that we see how tightly we grasp every one of these memories.
I can tell you which birds sing first on a specific plot of land in Willamina, Oregon, and which bison is the first to shake the nighttime dew off his back in central Nebraska. I can tell you the shape of the mountain’s shadow that slowly moves across Orofino, Idaho, and exactly what time of day we’ll begin to feel the warmth of sunshine on our faces while conducting salmon surveys. I’ll carry these dawns with me as long as I’m able to remember. These mornings—the quiet waking of the world, each species pulling itself out of darkness and into the light—will forever be a part of my soul. I am not exceptional; every wildlife biologist out there uses these memories to keep going, especially through the difficult parts of the job.
Flies buzz around my face as I climb, sweat-drenched, back up the mountain. My good mood has burned off with the fog. The sun beats down on me relentlessly, rays of blinding light forcing themselves through the holes in my straw hat. Working in clearcuts means absolutely zero shade. For the dozenth time since I began my ascent back to the truck, I stop to gulp some water and enjoy the wet trickle as it spills out the corners of my mouth. More flies catch up to me as I’m drinking, though, so I reluctantly put the bottle away, check my watch, and slowly put one boot in front of the other while trying my hardest to ignore the constant itching on my arm—I’d walked smack-dab into poison oak a week before.
Fifteen minutes later, I spy the first glimmer of our red pickup, shining like a welcome beacon just a few dozen feet above. I let out a laugh, relief spreading through my core. Air conditioning!
As luck would have it, though, I’m stopped again. This time, a gigantic fallen log blocks my path. It’s at least six feet in diameter and stretches as far as I can see in either direction. It looks as if it’s been down for a while; all the outer bark has fallen off, and I can see bugs crawling in and out of its soft cracks. Dried moss coats the outside. I can’t go around; huge walls of Himalayan Blackberry block either side.
The only way is over.
Gritting my teeth, I plunge my hands into the rotting wood and pull myself up, kicking my boots into the weak remnants of this deceased Douglas Fir to create footholds. Soon I’m standing atop the thing, taking a breather and congratulating myself on my feline-like agility. Then the wood beneath my feet gives way, and all at once, I’m stuck chest-deep in a rotten log.
My brain starts to race a mile a minute. What can I do? How can I get out? But after a few seconds, I come to my senses. I’m horrendously uncomfortable, but none of my body parts seem to be in pain. I swing my arms back and forth; they’re both completely free of the log. Slowly, I begin to work my pack off one arm, then the other. I spread my palms face-down on top of the rotting wood and scream as I push my torso upward—scraping my stomach and backside—out of the decades-old tree trunk. I keep pushing until I’m sitting on top of the log, then allow my body to tumble down—right on top of prickly Canadian thistles. After lying on the ground long enough to catch my breath, I dust myself off, shoulder my pack, and scramble the rest of the way up the hill. Ugh, I think. I’ll have to pull at least a dozen splinters out of my butt cheeks tonight.
Seasonal wildlife biologists work in some of the most rugged conditions in the country, oftentimes without a way to contact help should an emergency arise. There’s no cell service in these areas, yet walkie-talkies got cut from the budget when everyone started carrying a smartphone. I’ve had exactly one seasonal job out of nearly a dozen that provided a consistent way to contact help.
In addition to shoddy emergency response, most seasonal biologists work without health insurance. Nonprofits, contract organizations, university research, and even some state and national government agencies aren’t required to provide health care to temporary employees (hired less than twelve months out of the year). Rather than hiring full-time employees and dishing out the funds for proper health care, most outfits opt to save a few dollars and staff their teams with seasonal researchers. As a result, the work that comes from these organizations suffers. High turnover rates mean fewer employees who know how to properly perform the job, resulting in large data discrepancies from season to season. Thankfully, the state of Oregon has taken steps to amend this issue, providing health insurance for all state employees during the duration of the season and inviting most to return year after year. I worked a seasonal job with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department from June through September 2021, fitting in an entire year’s worth of checkups, eye care, and dental work while covered. Once that seasonal job ended, though, I was left to find other work that also offered health insurance—or risk not having any for nine months out of the year.
On top of managing health insurance, seasonals now face a relatively new issue: housing. Gone are the days when Craigslist offered well-kept month-to-month rentals; backyard in-law suites now get listed on Airbnb for hundreds of dollars a night. Some organizations do offer housing to seasonal employees, but that usually means a significant pay cut, with conditions that vary from house to house (house being a relative term). I’ve lived in rooms filled wall to wall with bunk beds; I’ve shared a kitchen with twelve other people; I’ve slept in a non-insulated RV on a wooden bed frame padded with lawn furniture. And if the job doesn’t include housing, good luck. Since nearly all seasonals work on an entry-level salary no matter how many years of experience they have, many risk paying more than their wage in rent if they’re not careful.
In recent years, the housing crisis has proved detrimental for recruitment in multiple departments. This year alone, I turned down four jobs with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that could have led to fruitful careers simply because I could not find affordable short-term housing. One was based out of Astoria, which offered absolutely zero affordable options for a lowly salmon researcher. Another was in Southeastern Oregon, nearly two hours from any town whatsoever. In consequence, many research projects have been put on the back burner or cut altogether. Years of data collection by former seasonal workers sits abandoned in filing cabinets scattered across the United States. I shudder to think of how much research we’ll lose in another decade simply because potential new recruits can’t find a place to sleep at night.
Despite the many drawbacks, wildlife biologists continue to show up to projects. I can’t tell you why; there’s extremely little rationality to it. The best I can do—after years of telling myself I’d never take another seasonal job yet still applying—is to fathom a guess: We enjoy the stories this lifestyle provides. Yes, the research may do its part to change the world, but the day-to-day experiences really hit home. I’ll one day tell my nephew how Aunt Hannah bottle-fed a baby bison every single morning for two months, or how my team and I wrangled an injured wild burro so she and her foal could live out their lives in health, or how a forty-pound salmon laid eggs in my hands while we were taking her measurements. Over drinks, I’ll laugh while describing just why I was caught running stark naked through the Umpqua National Forest (six wasps found their way under my shirt and started stinging everything) or how my wonderful coworker plucked a barbed grass seed out of my eye using two pencils like chopsticks. I’ll remember the call of the bobolink bird from the Nebraska prairie. I treasure these stories, and I don’t want to ever stop collecting them.
So where will I be in ten years? Probably pining after the next cool job, or at least thinking about it. Or perhaps I’ll have washed my hands of the whole thing, valuing stability and health insurance over the experience of wading into rivers and climbing cliffsides. But no matter what I end up doing, I’ll always be a wildlife biologist. A primal part of me will never stop wanting to experience just one more sunrise out there. And as long as that ache lingers, seasonal wildlife biologists will come. We can’t help it—like moths to a lamp, we’re forever attracted to the next great adventure, to a job that shows us just how astonishing the world really is.
TagsEnvironment, Work, Nature
1 comments have been posted.
Thank you for a very thoughtful, down to earth description of what being a wildlife biologist really is like. I learned a lot from your article. It isn't as glamorous as I imagined and the hardships are very real, but your passion and love for the wild places and their inhabitants shines through. Thank you
Carmen R Sonnes | August 2023 |