Biology students, graduates make good money counting plants for Forest Service contractor
03/17/2004

Keeping in contact with graduates of Fort Hays State University's biology programs paid off last year for students and former students of Dr. Joe Thomasson, professor of biological sciences.

One of Thomasson's former students, Dr. Daryl Mergen, who graduated FHSU in 1991 with a master of science in biological sciences, now runs a business, Mergen Ecological Delineations, contracting to perform ecological surveys. Thomasson and Mergen have maintained contact over the years.

And last year, Mergen needed some plant surveyors.

"He said there was lots of work out there, but he didn't have any contacts to find the people," said Thomasson. "So I asked him, I said, 'If I can find, say, five people, could you hire them?'"

So three seniors and a couple of former students went off to the wilds of Minnesota for a large part of summer 2003, earning a substantial amount of money per day in search of rare plants in national forests. Pay includes the daily rate plus travel expenses up, travel back, and room and board. They all worked as subcontractors. Days in the field were long, said Thomasson, and at night there was an hour or two of paperwork and drying boots to be ready for the next day.

Kurtis Cooper, Grainfield, was a senior then. He graduated at the end of the fall 2003 semester and is now a graduate student in the FHSU biological sciences program.

For Cooper, the main value was "just being able to get out and use practical knowledge -- being able to do what you're taught to do."

"It really made you dedicated," he said. "If you weren't dedicated, it was hard to put up with water up to your hips, and swamp, and it rains basically almost every day up there. It instills a good work ethic."

Also, he said, "It gave me excellent experience in the field and knowledge of what you can learn in the classroom."

Thomasson, who, with his son, Scott, now a graduate student at FHSU, also joined the crew in Minnesota, said the experience was rewarding both for the money and for the work.

"Last summer and this summer are probably two of the best biology experiences of my life," he said.

And, he said, the plants they were looking for were not the only wildlife they saw. They saw plenty of sign of black bear and wolf and some saw the animals, too.

"I had a bear walk up close one day," said Bill Cook, a 2000 graduate of the FHSU biological sciences program. That one came within 30 yards. "It just came walking up to me in the woods." On another day, a bear ran across the road in front of them.

Cook, a substitute teacher in Hays and Victoria, spent a total of 80 days altogether working for Mergen last summer, 60 days in South Dakota in addition to the time he spent in Minnesota. He was in the Black Hills of South Dakota until the end of September.

"It was great. I loved it," he said. "I can't wait to go back."

In Minnesota, he said, they were hiking 10 to 20 miles per day. In the Black Hills the distance was less, maybe six or eight miles, but it was much steeper -- "straight up," he said.

"The Black Hills -- that was beautiful there. I loved it." One reason was "no bogs."

Mergen, for his part, was pleased.

"It went very well," he said. "Everyone that Joe Thomasson had selected worked out very well."

"I'd hire them all back next summer."

All of them, he said, not only had the necessary course work, but they were all accustomed to outdoor conditions. Which, they all agreed, were hard in Minnesota -- wet all day every day, slogging through bogs, fighting off bugs.

"We've come to the conclusion," said Mergen, "that if you can handle Minnesota, you can do survey work anywhere." Mergen told of a friend who has worked in the forests of Central America and Minnesota. That friend, said Mergen, says the conditions are very similar -- wet and full of insect life.

Travel was by ATV and canoes as well as by four-wheel-drive vehicles, but most of each day was spent on foot, searching for and tabulating the plant life. While looking for specific rare plant species -- the focus of the survey -- the surveyors also got a general idea of the overall composition of plant life in an area. The night-time paper work was not only a tabulation -- with actual plant counts -- of the rare species, but the areas they searched were also summarized on the required reports, with the dominant species noted and the general spread of other populations.

Each surveyor carried a compass and GPS unit. It was not only to keep from getting lost -- which was "very easy" to do if you didn't pay attention, said Cook. It was also so that each surveyor could leave a marker at pre-determined GPS points. This enables the contracting agency, in this case, Region 9 of the U.S. Forest Service, to ensure that the areas were actually searched.

There is more involved in this than finding biology students who want to work, said Thomasson. They have to be dependable and they have to be competent, by which he means they have to be able to identify plants, so Thomasson selected people who had taken certain necessary courses and who he knew, from his own experience with them at FHSU, to be dependable and diligent.

The course work Thomasson wants them to have includes botany, dendrology, plant taxonomy and agrostology (grasses) -- "as many plant identification courses as possible," he said. Depending on the project, he might also want them to have taken aquatic biology, entomology, ornithology and herpetology. Other possible courses are range plants and summer short courses in various topics, and courses in ecology, mammalogy and other biology courses.

"He's willing to pay really well for people who can do the job," said Thomasson. "I'm not going to take anyone that I don't think, from my personal experience with them in the classroom, can do the job."

Mergen, for his part, has to prove to the people offering the contracts that he has workers who are qualified for the work.

Most of his work is in the summer -- many times, he doesn't know the size of the project until the last minute. That was the case in Minnesota this last summer. So, he and the FHSU crew didn't actually begin surveying until the sixth day of the survey. Which brings up a strong point of hiring students -- their summer schedules are flexible. If they are working a waiter or labor job, they can become available for one of Mergen's surveys.

And, with a large crew of students, Mergen can catch up with a late start, so the connection to FHSU is beneficial.

"Some of these projects you have to quantify how much you can do." But with knowledgeable help such as he gets with Thomasson and his students, "I can almost take on as much work as they have."

"Until last year, I only worked by myself. It's too hard to find people on short notice to do this specific kind of work."

Thomasson said this work is beneficial to the students' education beyond the money they earn to pay for that education.

"This kind of work is academic, as well," said Thomasson. "We're going to be writing papers on this."

For 2004, Thomasson said there will be surveys in both Minnesota and South Dakota this year, though the exact acreage to be covered is yet to be determined. However, it appears, he said, that the amount will be at least the same as last year.

Thomasson said that he and Mergen are in the process of submitting information on students to the Forest Service, which uses the information to make sure that a bidding contractor has qualified workers available.

Thomasson hopes to take nine or 10 students this year.


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