My Crew Has My Back

Written by Pam Garrettson
Friday, May 13, 2016

Pam Garrettson.We started the eastern Dakotas survey earlier than normal, on May 3rd. Helina Alvarez, a veteran of last year’s crew, and I planned to do the southernmost, and typically driest, air-ground segment in the crew area, then drive to Sioux Falls to pick up the rest of our very experienced crew late that afternoon. Stephen Lejeune has returned for his third year on the survey, and newcomer Clay Edmondson is no stranger to waterfowl surveys, having done them at his previous job at Medicine Lake NWR.

You know what’s coming. Things don’t always go according to plan. As Helina and I waited for the word that pilot-biologist Terry Liddick and observer Dave Fronczak had completed the segment, we got a text telling us to change our plans—recent rains had rendered the Lake Andes segment impassable. We headed an hour back north to do the Parkston air-ground. Last year this segment had fewer than 40 wetlands; after 8 inches of rain, this year it had more than 100, and took the two of us several more hours than expected. Thankfully, Dave was willing to go get the rest of the crew, even after several hours in the plane, transcribing data, and fighting with computer issues.

The next morning, the crew began an 8-day uninterrupted stretch, completing 9 more air-grounds. Their accomplishment is all the more impressive, because on day 3, I severely sprained my back, well my butt actually, the gluteus medius, the muscle that stabilizes your pelvis. You use it for pretty much everything, so I’ve been sub-par at best, though I’m healing quickly. The crew completed 3 air-grounds without me, and without missing a beat, a testament to their hard work, experience, and professionalism. I’m very grateful to them.

Here’s the funny thing about the human body—it’s very resilient, and can compensate for a lot. I fell in the morning, but didn’t really feel much of anything, just got up and continued on through the rest of our day. But the following morning, one simple movement, and I doubled over in pain, barely able to walk.

Sometimes I wonder if the prairie pothole ecosystem is like that. Loss of grasslands and wetland drainage are evident on many of our air-grounds, and throughout the eastern Dakotas. Native prairie has been converted to crop, thousands of acres have been taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program, and wetlands have been drained and tiled. This has been happening for 8 or 9 years now, yet duck populations have compensated and remained high (I have some ideas about why, which I'll discuss in a later blog). But like my back, I think eventually something's got to give.

The 2016 ground crew for Eastern Dakotas. From left to right: Clay Edmondson, Stephen Lejeune, Pam Garrettson, and Helina Alvarez. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.

The 2016 ground crew for Eastern Dakotas. From left to right: Clay Edmondson, Stephen Lejeune, Pam Garrettson, and Helina Alvarez. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.