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Aquatics with Andrea

By Sperry Desrosier
Sunday, August 21, 2011

You know when someone has a passion for something when for Halloween they always wanted to be a forensic culvertologist J. Andrea Stephens has a passion for fish, which is why she in interested in culvertology, or culverts.  Culverts are put in to redirect streams under roads to keep roads from washing away.  But what it does to a fish can be devastating. Culverts can separate fish spawning by acting as a barrier to the stream beyond the culvert.

Andrea Stevens with student Isaac Miller exploring a vernal pool. Photo by Nicky Phear.Andrea also has such a passion for frogs, fens and, believe it or not, predaceous diving beetles.  Today we fitted into waders as best we could and explored the wetlands of the Swan Valley. We met Andrea alongside a dirt road. At the first look, only a trained eye would notice the treeless spot within the forest filled with lush grasses. As we clamored out of the vehicles and clomped across the road it became evident that there was a pool of dark water there. But what could be special about this stinky, buggy, pool of dirty water?  Well, we soon learned there is quite a lot! Andrea tells us this little pool of water is a vernal pool, and really important if you care about climate change.

Vernal pools, unlike most wetlands, lack a stream or ground water input and output of water. The vernal pools here in the Swan formed from large pieces of glacial ice that sat on the earth’s surface creating a depression.  This formation is a key to why vernal pools are important to climate change. As the massive boulder of glacial ice melted, it filled the depression creating the pool.  After thousands of years this depression still holds water from precipitation.  It is able to do this from the glacial till (rock particles) that were deposited when the ice melted combined with ash from a thousand year old volcanic eruption of Mount Mazama (which created Crater Lake in Oregon). The ash and glacial till created a seal within the soil below the vernal pool, which prevents water from leaking into the ground creating a wetland. This is also referred to as a carbon sink as a wetland consumes carbon.

As we stood at the edge of the pool, the cool water seeping through our holey waders, we were a little apprehensive but Andrea’s enthusiasm and excitement overcame our “wet feet.”  Instantly the water in this vernal pool became filled with ten species-catching students.  As Andrea had prompted, “to appreciate wetlands you have to get in them!”We search for predaceous diving beetles.  Photo by NickyPhear.

Our second stop was at another unique wetland habitat called a fen. This particular fen is unique because it is the only one located on the west side of the divide in Montana. With the now comfortable weight of our water-logged waders, and our interests peaked from the vernal pool, it didn’t take long for us to follow Andrea into the fen to see what we could find. Most of the fen we learned was made up of peat and as we walked out towards the middle it felt like we were on a giant trampoline. The peat sunk and jiggled as we explored.  It turns out not only is peat an excellent habitat but it is also an excellent carbon sink. It harnesses carbon in the organic material and doesn’t decompose regularly. As we learned about the peat, Andrea challenged us to find how deep it was in the fen. It was surprisingly easy to sink your hand into the rich mossy earthy smelling peat and rip a handful out. As we did, cool water would fill the hole. After my arm reached its full reaching potential, as did Jack’s (which was about a foot longer than mine), we were still pulling up gobs of fresh peat.

After exploring and learning about wetlands it is apparent that with carbon emissions rising it will be even more important to restore and protect these areas. 

Sperry (right) and Jack (left) reach deep into the peat. Later in the day, after we dried off, we visit with long-time local resident, John Mercer at his Two Elk Ranch, and talked about another great carbon sink, the great forests surrounding the Swan Valley.  John shared with us how people in the valley possess a strong bond between them and the land.  Conservation efforts in the valley have emerged from the ground up, bridging what often had been polarizing gaps between the federal government and local people. But he worries that, as conservation becomes the dominant value in the valley, people who have long been stewards of the land may not see a place for themselves here into the future.  We talked about what it might look like if landowners, those who protect and restore their wetlands and forest as carbon sinks, could benefit from their work consuming society’s carbon emissions by being issued carbon credits.  Finding a way for landowners, like John and others, whose lands provide a sink to our ever-growing carbon emissions, might well reduce the polarizing government sentiments that still exist, especially in regard to climate mitigation hopefully uniting us along this common goal.

Compensating rural land owners and urban citizens on their everyday conservation practices may lead to a cleaner healthier environment filled with culvertologists.