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First Impressions: Working as a Conservation Technician

A first-person perspective of what it's like to work as a Conservation Technician for the Stanford Conservation Program.
Photos clockwise from left: Julia getting ready to weigh a California tiger salamander (K. Preston); a California tiger salamander waiting to be processed (E. Adelsheim), Narrow-leaved mules ears (E. Adelsheim)

My first day with the Conservation Program was actually as a volunteer.  We were weeding Dittrichia graveolens, a tough stemmed, yellow flower with a pungent, sticky sap that coated its leaves and short stalks.  As an invasive, Dittrichia, or stinkwort, is known as a noxious weed and outcompetes native plants.  For all its other crimes, I don’t remember it living up to its name: the smell wasn’t all that bad, somewhere between a pine tree and a cleaning product, and though the sun beat down, the day was pleasant, and the buckets filled steadily with a sticky green mesh that sprung up against the pressure of our gloved hands with each new handful.

Managing invasive plant populations and hosting volunteer work days is just a small part of what the Stanford Conservation Program does.  This winter, I started my first quarter as a technician and began learning first hand their colorful and instrumental role in the management of Stanford lands. Curiously, the Conservation Program is a university department that the student body remains largely unaware of.  Based from a field office tucked in the far corner of west campus, it protects and manages Stanford lands and ecosystems through state and federal law.  These lands include the Dish, Lagunita, and extensive property and conservation easements surrounding main campus.  As a field tech with the Program, I spent most of my time outdoors:  performing visual encounter surveys for amphibians and their egg masses in ponds and creeks, rescuing animals from utility boxes, planting mules ear, bee plant, and snow berry, checking motion-triggered cameras, and setting pitfall traps.

With the rainy, early mornings that descended in the first days of January, the pitfall traps (lines of holes made from buckets set in the ground along a plastic fence) were opened.  The rainy season is a time of courtship and procreation for the protected California Tiger Salamander: a slimy, shiny, black creature with yellow polka dots and sweet-looking, wide set eyes.  The traps allow for a few points of personal information to be taken down (weight, size, health, travel direction etc.) so that the population can be monitored with minor disturbance. Minor disturbance to them that is, for each morning a tiny army of conservationists are required to wade through rain and fresh, soppy grass to release the salamanders before the sun can reach their delicate skin.  The beginning of my quarter held large doses of those mornings, and though I was often cold and wet, when the sun glowed over the horizon or the first salamander squirmed across a bucket lid I couldn't think of a better way to start my days.    

Slowly, through the multitude of tasks that accompanied our mornings of salamander trapping, the beauty and importance of the work of the Stanford Conservation Program has become very clear to me.  Though they may tell students not to swim in Lagunita (don’t - you might get swimmer's itch!), or require you to stay on the trail at the dish, the true job of the Conservation Program is as a caretaker: a guardian for all the plants and birds and bugs and animals that call Stanford lands home.  It exists so that that home may continue to be a place where Stanford’s rich background of research and education can continue, and so that the health and diversity of its ecosystems may persist for everyone to enjoy.