Chasing Pollinators and Dodging Cows in North Dakota

Cattle on Kroll Waterfowl Production Area in North Dakota by Krista Lundgren, USFWS.

It’s no secret that pollinators are in trouble. Many bee and butterfly species across the country are struggling to survive. And in some cases, there’s not even enough data to figure out next steps to help them. That’s where SCA pollinator interns come in!

Gathering Critical Pollinator Data

Over the summer, Simon Doneski and Robin Glefke worked with the USFWS Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET) as biological science technicians to survey pollinators in North Dakota.

“The last comprehensive surveying was done in the 80s and the populations of butterflies and bees are relatively unknown,” says Doneski. “Experts are worried that a couple of these species are becoming endangered very quickly.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been petitioned to list the regal fritillary butterfly, western bumble bee, and yellow-banded bumble bee under the Endangered Species Act.

“These species are going to be up for listing on the endangered species list in a year or so and our data will help aid that decision,” Glefke explains. That’s why SCA interns paid special attention to those specific species during their surveys. Any information could help the USFWS make critical decisions in the future.

Day in the Life

When working on a field work project, you don’t want to waste daylight. Pollinator interns were up bright and early preparing for the day ahead. “We were usually ready to head out by 7:30 AM, after double checking that we had our nets, jars, and maps.”

Travel to the site was often long — and sometimes bumpy. “Sometimes we’d catch air in our seats,” Glefke recalls. “It was kind of like a rollercoaster and I loved it.” For an hour or two they could watch out the windows and take in the landscapes of North Dakota.

Not knowing much about the state before his internship, Doneski was surprised by the beauty. “There are lakes and ponds everywhere,” he says. “There are also vast forests to complement the seemingly endless prairies. It was definitely a profound experience for me.”

After walking to the site and setting up a transect, it was time to survey! The teams counted and identified bees and butterflies using their nets. Glefke admits that at first it took extra time to identify each species but it didn’t take long to refine her identification skills. “Soon, I could just look from a couple feet away and think, oh that’s an Aphrodite Fritillary! I was really proud!”

Part of the survey involved a half hour of personal time to catch what they could. It was a time they could find new things, and reflect on the work they were doing. This was Glefke’s favorite part of the day and it’s not hard to see why. “Sometimes I would just pause at the top of a hill and look out at the landscape, raise my arms in the wind, and laugh at how amazing what I was doing was,” she says. “When else would I be catching butterflies in North Dakota?!”

Where the Cows Roam

North Dakota has more cows than humans. So, it’s no wonder that our interns had interesting encounters with them. While most cattle kept their distance, others were extremely curious.

During one vegetation survey, Glefke and team witnessed a herd of cows in on their project site. “They walked right up to the transect,” she says, “and knocked over most of the poles and even started eating the 100-meter tape measure we used. We couldn’t do anything more so we accepted our fate.”

Cows chewed up a tape measure and wrecked transects at Doneski’s work site, as well. “They drank all of the soapy water we had in the bee traps and scattered stakes as far as they could,” he says.

Both had such positive responses to these encounters—a good lesson for anyone interested in working outdoors. As Glefke puts it: “Misfortunes never really ruined anything. They just made for great stories.” Flexibility and a good sense of humor go a long way in the field.

Words of Wisdom

Doneski urges people to give places like North Dakota a chance. “My favorite memory during my term was definitely traveling with my fellow SCA interns on weekends,” he says. “We saw a Mount Rushmore, the badlands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and we even crawled through Jewel and Wind Caves.”

As you look for internships, broaden your search to places that you might not consider initially. It’ll increase your options and might turn out to be an incredible place.

These experiences pass by quickly, so be prepared to take it all in. “For any other potential SCA’ers, I advise you to keep a journal,” Glefke says. “You’ll never remember all the amazing stuff you do otherwise. Also, cherish every moment you can. Time flies when you’re living well.”

As for the internship overall, Doneski has already told his friends and family about it. “I would highly recommend an SCA program for anyone,” he says. I have truly grown as a person. I’ve developed better time management and job skills, teamwork, and independence. It’s also helpful for paying loans. The stipend for my position was enough to live comfortably at the bunkhouse and go on trips almost every weekend. On top of all this, I met really cool people and made some good friends.”


Interested in a career doing field work or helping pollinators? Browse SCA internship opportunities like this one, here.