By Ashley Booth
The last eight years of my life I’ve spent most of my time in the swamps and marshes of Louisiana, covered in mud while studying blue crabs, sea birds, and wetland plants. From my Masters through my PhD these experiences offered an opportunity to experience the unique ecosystems and cultures of the Gulf Coast. But as my time in graduate school drew to a close, I found myself wondering what opportunities might exist to explore a different region and type of work than what I had done so far in my career as a scientist. In conversations with colleagues about potential directions for the future, I heard about the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Directorate Fellows Program (USFWS DFP).
USFWS Directorate Fellows Program
The USFWS Directorate Fellows Program is an opportunity for currently enrolled undergraduate and graduate students to spend a summer working with USFWS staff at National Wildlife Refuges and regional offices throughout the country and US Territories. Positions are available for people from a variety of majors and range from work-from-home positions to on-the-ground field studies in remote locations. In addition to gaining experience working for a federal government organization, Fellows who complete the program receive a Direct Hire Authority that lasts for two years after graduation (i.e., makes it much easier and quicker to land a permanent job within the Department of Interior). After exploring the available positions, applying, and interviewing, I was offered a position working at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.
Working at a National Wildlife Refuge
For the first time in six years, instead of prepping for another field season in the Louisiana marshes, I packed up my things and followed the Mississippi River all the way north to Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Minnesota. When I arrived in early May, the trees were still bare, a temporary ice-skating rink still standing in the neighborhood park. It was a far cry from my home in Louisiana, where temperatures had already reached the 90’s and summer quickly approached. As I settled into my second Spring of the year, I spent my first days meeting Refuge staff and learning more about the landscape its unique ecosystem challenges.
Situated in the aspen parklands where boreal forest transitions into tallgrass prairie, Agassiz is a 61,500-acre wetland complex that drains a vast expanse of agricultural lands. Home to moose, wolves, elk, bears, and hundreds of bird species, Refuge staff balance maintaining habitat for wildlife and providing flood storage for surrounding communities. After the snow melt this year, northwest Minnesota experienced significant flooding and much of the Agassiz’ lands were flooded when I first arrived. Though my position did not involve working with the public, I had a front row seat to the work Refuge staff do balancing the needs of the community and ecosystem through collaborations with the local community, journalists, and legislators. Along with the challenges of flooding, sedimentation (soil particles deposited on the ground surface) and expanding stands of invasive cattail are filling in much of Agassiz’ wetland pools. As wetlands fill in, the amount of water stored on the landscape, plant communities, and water bird habitat quality change. Ultimately, these changes make managing the Refuge more difficult.
My summer project focused on collecting wetland elevation data and sorting through past cattail management records. The goal was to help USFWS regional and Refuge staff understand how sedimentation and past cattail management practices influence elevation in Agassiz’ wetlands. After the flooding receded, I spent most of my time in a boat on the Refuge’s largest wetland pool surveying the elevation of the soil surface. Though technology and field sampling are not without their challenges, getting outside to collect data and experience nature is my favorite part of working as a wetland ecologist. Spending hour upon hour, day after day in the same place, we got to know the eared grebes nesting in floating mats, the Franklin’s gulls building their nests and laying eggs, the Wilson’s snipe circling above as we drove past the aspen islands interspersed in the marsh, molting trumpeter swans in a flotilla, white pelicans congregating on mudflats and rocks. And in the process, we collected high quality data that will be used to inform future management so the Refuge staff can continue to provide high quality waterfowl habitat and flood storage for surrounding communities.
Much of my experience as a scientist has been limited to the Gulf Coast, but the opportunity to explore this place and learning about it from Refuge and Regional Office scientists provided a new perspective on and kinship with the beautiful landscapes in northwest Minnesota. It was also a great opportunity to work as a professional in my field and complete an applied research project in a short time frame. Ultimately, the experiences I gained this summer at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge provided insight into the structure of working for the federal government, allowed me to experience new ecosystems and explore different aspects of my field, and served as a gateway for starting my career.
Want to Learn More?
If you are interested in learning more about the Directorate Fellows Program, check out this blog post from USFWS and look up 2023 opportunities on the MANO Project website. Applications are due mid-January 2023!
The view from Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters Office. Credit: Ashley Booth
A flooded agricultural field next to Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge after waters began to recede in early June. Credit: Ashley Booth
Trumpeter swans fly by Refuge Wildlife Biologist Whitney Kroschel, PhD during a fieldwork scouting mission. Credit: Ashley Booth