The Hunt for Habitat: Student Conservation Interns Breaking River Trails in the Grande Ronde Basin

David Walsh

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Megan Venetianer, and Nick Patricca, landed internships on a habitat survey crew with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.On a hot summer’s day in northeast Oregon’s Catherine Creek, a survey crew is working the creek bed.

“I'm in a beautiful place, somewhere I've never been,” says Megan Venetianer, a Philadelphia native and survey crew leader for the Columbia Habitat Monitoring Program ( CHaMP).

Megan aims a digital transit while two rod men trudge through underbrush, crawl up side channels, and trip over river rocks to align their laser sights. Over the last two months, they’ve spent eight to ten hours a day mapping hundreds of river reaches in Oregon’s Grande Ronde River Basin.

Megan Venetianer, and Nick Patricca, landed internships on a habitat survey crew with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.She, and fellow student Nick Patricca, landed internships this past summer with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). These positions were co-funded by the Bureau of Reclamation, ODFW, the Student Conservation Association and other partners. They are part of a federal program called the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC). Grant programs like these are coordinated by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“It’s a great way to get your foot in the door when dealing with conservation, ecology, and wildlife biology jobs. It's a good way to get your first taste of what some real field work is like,” says Patricca who is a micro-biology major at University of Michigan.

21SCS’s goal is to provide meaningful employment opportunities to young Americans to protect, restore, and enhance our nation’s great outdoors. Project work funded through this program is restricted to habitat and species restoration projects like Catherine Creek, which directly benefit Reclamation and other natural resource agencies’ facilities, lands, programs, or mission.

Ted Sedell, a CHaMP project leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says habitat data collected by these interns will go a long way toward assuring the continued return of fish to the basin.

“They'll take the data back to the office, and in the GIS environment, create a three‑dimensional image of the site that they've been working on. That's actually really one of the neat, "gee-whiz" moments in our surveying,” he said.

In the Grande Ronde basin, there are several long term tributary habitat improvement projects in the works. The aim is to bring more anadromous fish back each year.

Nick Patricca, a University of Michigan graduate says the internship is a good step in the right direction, with Fishery Science - definitely a good place to start.“Reclamation benefits from the “CHaMP” program, the interns and the data collected. It allows us to analyze all that data, work with those folks and provide the right kind of data in the right place in the river to benefit the fish to the greatest degree, ” says Jeff McLaughlin, Habitat Manager with Reclamation’s Tributary Habitat Program.

ODFW’s Sedell says it takes time to learn these skills. He’s impressed by their productivity and is proud of their work.

“We were looking for someone who is good at data collection, has attention to detail and can work outside all day,” says Sedell. “The performance by our SCA interns and our ODFW crew has, actually, set a really high standard in the data that they're collecting.”

Sedell knows the skills they use are more complex than just recording survey points for 3-D maps. The data the crews collect include solar exposure, stream depth and flow. It gives natural resource planners, biologists and engineers a keen insight on the resource.

“They’re trying to capture every nuance in the stream, then they can roll it up into a really nice model — they're definitely rock stars.“

Last Updated: 8/1/16