Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Raised Watershed Wise

I am a Montana native who did much of my growing up in Missoula. I spent summers swimming in the cold waters of the Blackfoot River, learning to fish at the mouth of the Whitefish River, and sometimes even wading through the narrow channels of in-town diversion ditches. I’ve always been drawn to cool, flowing bodies of water. Now that I’m grown, I look back on the relationship I built with Montana’s natural bodies of water and realize how lucky I was to grow up with access to these areas.The fond memories I carry of summers spent playing in and around ephemeral diversion ditches in Missoula speak for the pristine quality of this landscape and the natural resources it offers to its residents. In the sixth grade I was given an assignment to write about my favorite place. I wrote my piece about a diversion ditch near my mother’s apartment. During the spring and much of the summer this ditch filled with clear flowing water. A layer of tiny rainbow pebbles littered the bottom and swaths of water strider insects darted across the water’s surface. Three billowing willow trees grew alongside the ditch and curtained the area off from the rest of the world. When the weather was hot, the dappled shade of the willows and the cool water of the ditch transformed the space into my private refuge.

Stacia in Idaho in 2011
I appreciate that I received an elementary education that valued and supported my curiosity and drive to explore. I attended Hellgate Elementary and Middle School from pre-K until 8th grade, and during those years I participated in several field trips made possible by the Watershed Education Network. Memories of these field trips have stayed with me throughout my life, and I believe they played a significant role in the maturation of my relationship with Montana’s rivers and streams.

Participating in WEN field trips as a child allowed me to grow-up with a well-developed understanding and appreciation of my local watershed ecosystems. I learned about the water’s chemistry, the physical structure and behavior of a river, and the diversity of organisms living beneath the surface. When I entered high school and began traveling beyond the Northwest, I was surprised to find that rivers in other parts of the country hardly resembled those I had grown up knowing. My homesickness for the Clark Fork was especially strong when I visited cities where channelized rivers, corralled by concrete banks, flowed slow and thick with sediment and algae.

Much of my interest and love for streams and rivers can be attributed to a desire to uncover and interact with the many varieties of organisms in and around these areas. At home in Missoula I had memories of fishing stones from the bottom of rivers and turning them over in my hands in search of caddisfly nymphs tucked away in their cases of cemented sand and wood. I had spent every spring for as long as I could remember kneeling at the edges of rivers and creeks in search of nearly invisible fish fry. I hung a poster of native frogs and toads in my bedroom, and bought field guides to help me identify species of garter snakes I found sunning themselves on river banks.

In the spring when I was around nine or ten years old I attended a WEN field trip where we caught and examined macroinvertebrates from the riverbed. Several weeks later I was visiting my grandparents in Whitefish and playing at the edge of the Whitefish River, several yards from the back door of my grandparents’ house. Remembering what I had learned during my WEN field trip, I decided to take my river exploration one step further. I armed myself with a plastic bucket and a pink butterfly net from the dollar store and made my way into the slow moving water of the river. I positioned the netting in front of my toes and shuffled my feet into the stone and silt of the riverbed until yellow-brown sediment clouded the water around me. I lifted my net, hoping to find it teaming with the wriggling bodies of mayfly and stonefly nymphs. A few small stones swung in the netting and I reached in to fish them out. When I grabbed for the stones something hard, sharp, and very much alive, spasmed at my fingertips. Startled, I jerked my hand back and dropped the net into the water. After regaining some composure, reclaimed the net from the water and took another look at the big crawdad flopping inside the pink butterfly net.


Moments such as this one carry a lot of importance for me. As a child I felt I was simply spending my summer vacations at play. Today, I look back on this type of explorative play, and realize how much it has impacted who I am as a person and the things I most value in life. I want to make a conscious effort to continue to engage with local watersheds through recreation, conservation, education, and art. I am excited to have recently reconnected with WEN, an organization which has been a presence in my community for much of my life. WEN facilitates opportunities for volunteers like me to engage with my community and my water resources, and plays a major role in engaging and educating young Missoulians about their watersheds.

Fishing in the Blackfoot

            I believe my love for Missoula and the surrounding landscape harkens back to my earliest roots, for that I thank my teachers, community, and family. After graduating from Hellgate Middle School I went on to attend Big Sky High School and became heavily involved in the school’s science and creative writing programs. I decided to stay loyal to my hometown of Missoula and attended the University of Montana in pursuit of my Bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology. It seems I can’t bring myself to leave Missoula, as I’ve opted to join UM’s creative writing program and will be earning my MFA in creative non-fiction over the next two years. No matter where life takes me next, I know I will always be drawn back to Montana’s Rocky Mountains, the plants and bugs and fish that have been precious to me all my life, and the waters of the Blackfoot, Clark Fork, and Bitterroot Rivers.

Stacia Hill
WEN Volunteer

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Mussel Detection Technology - Aquatic Invasive Species

     "I imagine you are all really into aquatic invasive species news," Heidi joked. If we were, we would know about the new techniques for detecting mussels. As the only remaining US watershed without them, we are concerned with making sure we stay that way. To do so, we must be vigilant and quick to detect them if they arrive.

     Mussel larvae, also know as veligers, were first detected in the Tiber Reservoir and Canyon Ferry in the fall of 2016. This marked the first time mussels had been found in Montana. Thankfully, these locations are not connected to the Columbia Watershed, so all the lakes and rivers on the Western side of the continental divide are safe, for now.

Related image
Zebra mussel veliger
Source: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Resource Laboratory

     Detection efforts typically involve examining water samples using microscopy, Heidi said. Dogs are also used to inspect boats, shorelines, and docks, as they're trained to sniff them out. Imagine those police dogs that are used to find bomb residue and drugs, but instead of stationing them at an airport or police station, these dogs get to explore the shores of Montana lakes, seeking out tiny little shelled creatures. The students must've had a similar mental picture, because a few of them laughed. Dogs were deployed in November 2016 and confirmed the presence of mussels in the Tiber Reservoir and Canyon Ferry. US Fish & Wildlife Services has also utilized scuba divers to search for signs of mussels. Using divers brings up silly images of people wandering around underwater looking for something dark in the dark, but it's a lot easier to send people down in scuba gear with flashlights to check underwater features and pipes for mussel colonies than it is to send dogs!

Image result for mussel detection dogs
Mussel inspection dog
Source: Working Dogs for Conservation

     A more recent development in detection technology analyzes environmental DNA, or eDNA. No, this doesn't mean the environment has its own DNA. eDNA is the remnants of DNA left behind by organisms as they shed cells, excrete waste, and rub against other things, like water or rocks. Some form of eDNA detection has been used for several years, but researchers at the Flathead Lake Biological Station have been working on ways to make it work with smaller samples and smaller budgets. This method can help researchers detect mussel presence at all stages of the mussel life cycle. Heidi summarized that in 2016, dogs, divers, and microscopy all found evidence of mussels, but later in 2017, only eDNA did. The question with eDNA, Heidi said, is whether eDNA indicates current presence of mussels if dogs or divers don't find any veligers.

     Since the technology is so new, there aren't standard procedures for how to collect and test eDNA, or how to interpret a positive test result. Perhaps eDNA lingers around after all living veligers and adult mussels are eradicated, or perhaps the DNA breaks down quickly and finding it means mussels are indeed lurking in our waters. As further research is conducted, this method may become more accurate at detecting low populations of mussels, perfect for taking early and quick action.

     Discussing the lengths to which we go to detect mussels helps drive home how important it is to keep them out. It also gives students an idea of how researchers and agencies are approaching the problem, and the creativity of new technology. When I was a young student, "research" sounded like sifting through stacks of papers or doing experiments in stuffy laboratories, but the development of eDNA analysis demonstrates that research attacks real world problems and ultimately tests solutions in the field, too. I think it's important to expose students to the developments in technology and problem solving so they can envision themselves doing the same thing in the future.

-Cassie Sevigny
AmeriCorps Team Member
Media Coordinator

Earth Day fun at Highlander Brewery

     Earth Day with WEN was a busy day. We had staff at MUD's huge annual celebration as well as a smaller event at Highlander Brewery. I elected to lead bug exploration and rock painting at Highlander.

     Highlander has a perfect set-up for WEN to host activities, as Grant Creek runs along the edge of the property, accessible from the outdoor patio space. I got to collect the bugs while Deb and some other volunteers set up the tables. The creek was shallow, but signs posted along the creek warn people to stay out. Currents can be deceiving.


     The kids that were running around the grass became interested in me as soon as they saw me in the water with a net. I shuffled my feet around on a flat patch to reduce the number of times I kicked rocks. Deb also reminded me that stoneflies like to live in the more oxygenated parts, so I collected some from the tiny rapids as well. When our second tub for bugs arrived, I convinced a one-time volunteer who was visiting to collect some bugs too. I passed off the waders and net and instructed him to stand facing downstream, so the water automatically pushes all the stirred up macroinvertebrates and dirt into the net. For a newbie, he had quite a robust sample of bugs in the tub for the kids!

    Kids swarmed the bug tub as soon as I carried it up from the creek and set it on a bench. We even had some parents and older siblings interested! To them I pointed out the differences in gill locations between stoneflies and mayflies, and that these locations influence how each insect swims. We even had a serendipitous moment where a mayfly started to emerge! Deb told the kids what was happening and let them decide what to do to help it along.

Cassie's stonefly
Rocks drying under the table
   I love rock painting, and chose this art activity for Earth Day since WEN hasn't had a rock painting day in a while. I painted a stonefly and a colorful caddisfly case to go with the dragonfly I painted with WEN several years ago. The kids loved this activity too, with several painting more than one rock. We just about ran out of our supply of rocks! I helped the kids write their names on the bottoms of their rocks before they started painting. We had a couple little ones, and two of them held up three fingers when I asked their names.

     "Your name is three?" I checked, and they nodded. "Are you sure?" The kids were very sure, so the parents had to step in to tell me their kid's name. They must have been more used to people asking how old they were!

      Later on while many of the kids returned to their running around the yard, a girl led me to a bug on rock. She asked if the bugs we showed them live in the water. This was a great opportunity to explain that they live in the water while they are young, and when they are older they have wings and live in the air, like the injured bug she found.

      Since I had to take my shoes off to wear the waders in the creek, and I was wearing flip-flops, I took the chance to walk around barefoot as long as the sun was out. Being barefoot helps me feel connected to the Earth, as there is no physical barrier separating me from the ground. The weather was gorgeous, and I felt like I was one of the kids. Even when the weather got shady and I had to put extra layers on, a new set of kids came by to ask if we would still have out bugs and paint out when they were done eating dinner. Having elements of earth (rocks), water (Grant Creek), and life (aquatic macroinvertebrates) available for the kids to explore embodies what Earth Day is all about - respecting the Earth, its ecosystems, and the life that lives on it as well as appreciating it in our own creative human way. This was a fun activity for the volunteers and the patrons of Highlander alike. I look forward to planning an event like this again!

-Cassie Sevigny
AmeriCorps Team Member
Media Coordinator