Internship with the Tri-State Steelheaders
The Tri-State Steelheaders are an organization about fish. So although they operate upon this singular emphasis, they also recognize that the maintenance of healthy fish populations is dependent upon a number of ecological and social factors. It’s this broad focus that led us to our initial internship goal: riparian planting. The thin strips of lush vegetation along streams called riparian zones are vital to the survival and spawning of many fish species, specifically though, steelhead, bulltrout, and salmon. These areas are important for wide ranging concerns like the prevention of flooding and the prevention of the stream drying out during summer drought months. In addition though, the vegetation provides vital shade that keeps the streams at a suitable temperature for the sensitive young smolts and later, the migrating adults. These zones are also responsible for removing excess sediment from the water, providing the young fish with habitat and protection from predators, and serving as the grounds for adult fish to build their spawning nests, or redds.
A Change of Focus
At the first meeting with John Geidl, our contact from the Steelheaders, our internship focus changed from riparian planting to the monitoring of spawning sites along Mill Creek. Our mission after the meeting was to recruit 16 people who would be willing to commit one full day of training and then roughly two hours per week of actual monitoring and recording. The monitoring would consist of teams of two people walking different one mile stretches of Mill Creek looking for the distinctive spawning beds called redds. The monitoring was to begin in March and continue until graduation with the same people walking the same stretches of creek each week. The data would then be given to the Steelheaders and eventually to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. After this meeting, e-mails went out, volunteers were recruited and we were very excited about beginning the monitoring. The training day was initially slotted for the week before spring break but was moved to after with the hope that the training would be more effective if it directly proceeded the monitoring. However, monitoring a creek for spawning beds is dependent upon the creek being at a certain level. Unfortunately, upon our return from spring break Mill Creek was running far too high to conduct the training day. So we waited, and then waited some more. Eventually the project had to be scrapped because there would not be enough time to get an accurate count before school let out. So once again our focus changed, this time back to riparian planting.
Working again with John Geidl, we coordinated a group of students to participate in a riparian planting on Earth Day at the confluence of Stone Creek and the Walla Walla River. Located on privately owned property, the small stretch of Stone Creek where we worked was recently discovered to be a new habitat for young bull trout and steelhead. We advertised for the event both in our Environmental Studies class and on the student listserve. We received about twenty responses and when the big day finally came, about fifteen people showed. We were thrilled. The day was a resounding success as we planted all of the native trees and grasses the Steelheaders provided and even saw the young fish swimming in the creek.
Value of the Internship
Flexibility was crucial throughout the semester. Unfortunately, we received zero cooperation from Mill Creek so the hands on internship that I had hoped for never really materialized. Our focus was changed numerous times and with that came the notification to our volunteers that their focus was also changed. But we did manage to get one quality day on the river planting trees that will hopefully take root and become a healthy riparian zone in the future. But was it worth it? Some highlights of the semester were learning how a community based conservation organization operates and also meeting some of the individual members. The Steelheaders are active in all sorts of community and youth education programs about the importance of clean waterways. They sponsor numerous annual events and excursions that range from riparian planting to fishing clinics. I learned how activities such as these are vital to the survival and success of a conservation group. The positive community relations that the Steelheaders have established in Walla Walla no doubt ease the fulfillment of their ultimate goal, the preservation of fish. But in retrospect, I feel the internship would have been more valuable if some auxiliary or backup tasks were included.
The success of monitoring spawning beds or riparian planting is entirely contingent
upon the level of the river. And as the Steelheaders were looking for a labor
source from our internship, our actual tasks were very limited. Thus, my recommendation
for future interns is to anticipate a season like we had. For several weeks
we simply waited and hoped that the creek would recede and allow us to begin
monitoring. A more prepared intern would be able to address this concern at
the initial meeting and hopefully the Steeleheaders would be able to respond
by providing other worthy tasks to work on.