Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peat’s Sake: Lessons Learned Mucking About

For Peats Sake!By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

When I was 22 years old, I learned first-hand about the impacts of intense grazing in riparian-wetland areas. I was a wildlife biology intern with the U.S. Forest Service in Creede, Colorado in the Rio Grande National Forest for the summer of 1992 – fresh out of college. Four of us were selected and paired into teams to work with the resident USFS Wildlife Biologist. Each of us had a few species within a particular class which we were directed to conduct inventories of in order to assess the impact of logging and grazing activities on sensitive species in the area. I opted to study owls. My friend Kirsten opted to study amphibians. So at night we would go hooting for owls, guided through the mountains by moonlight and maps. By day, we would hike along riverine valleys searching for frogs, snakes, salamanders – anything somewhat slimy that would enjoy the moist riverine/wetland habitat.

On one such day we came over a peak to find a riverine valley we were in search of. We expected to see a substantial healthy stream to cross – it was on the map after all. But the ground appeared to be actually solid, albeit mucky. We witnessed trodden and destroyed flora along the bank of what had once been a healthy stream, and cattle hoof prints all along the edge of the valley as well as several abandoned beaver dams. Clearly this was an area that was used intensively for cattle grazing. Not understanding hydrological systems however, we decided to make our way across the swalish alluvial fan to continue our hike on the other side in hopes of finding better conditions. About half way across, I took a step and found myself up to my knee in mud. As I tried to pull my leg out, I realized I was losing my boot. Within seconds of struggling, my other leg was soon consumed by the muck as well. The more I struggled, the further I sank and soon I was up to my armpits in a combination of mud and who knows what else (with all the cattle grazing activity in the area I tried really hard not to think about it).

I hollered for Kirsten who had nimbly made her way across ahead of me. She giggled at first, of course, and then realizing the seriousness of the situation, she quickly started gathering big branches and logs of wood and she layered them in crosses in order to create a more stable surface area for her to step on. Piece by piece she made a pathway over to where I was stuck. During her process, the clouds began to gather up the valley – a typical Colorado afternoon thunderstorm was brewing – although at our elevation, it was a bit more serious than a passing rain. Soon, lighting started making its way down the valley. With a branch and a prayer, Kirsten managed to pull me out of the mud and helped me to the other side just in time to miss a truly electrifying experience. Exhausted by fear and adrenalin and unable to get any radio communication, we hunkered down in the forest to wait out the storm.

When the downpour passed over, we made our way out of the valley on firmer ground along the upland edge and continued our search for amphibians. Sadly, we did not find any …only a deceased, bloated and slightly scavenged cow lying in what had developed into a tiny stream further downhill. All I could think of was how fortunate I was not to be the owner of the downstream well. We arrived back at the Forest Service office by early evening – my stench announced our arrival. Of course the site of my bedraggled state was the cause of much chuckling and beefy jokes(pun intended) – thankfully because I really needed to find the humor in it all.

However, I learned some very important lessons that day which I’d like to pass along:

√ Always test the ground before you take a big step.

√ Old maps cannot be trusted in riverine/wetland areas that are subject to change.

√ Riverine/wetland habitats are extremely complex and fragile.

√ And for peat’s sake, keep track of your cows!

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One Response to For Peat’s Sake: Lessons Learned Mucking About

  1. Heather says:

    “For Peat’s Sake: Lessons Learned Mucking About | The
    Compleat Wetlander” was seriously entertaining and useful!
    Within the present day world that is quite
    hard to accomplish. Thanks a lot, Velda

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