Wildlife Intern

Expected Dates
May 13, 2019 to August 4, 2019
San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Position ID
This SCA Intern will assist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the collection of biological data at the San Luis Valley NWR Complex (Monte Vista NWR, Alamosa NWR, and Baca NWR). There are five primary projects in which the SCA Biological Science intern may participate in on one or more of the Refuges.  These include:
Waterbird Nesting Abundance
Riparian Willow Browse Monitoring
Invasive Weed Monitoring
Stream/Riparian Health Monitoring
Waterfowl Banding

Project Descriptions:
Waterbird Nesting Abundance:  This project will occur on both Monte Vista NWR and Baca NWR. 
This project will occur in Management Unit 9 on the Monte Vista NWR.  Unit 9 has traditionally been one of the most productive waterfowl nesting areas (i.e., nests/mile2) in North America.  Additionally, large numbers of shorebird species (e.g., Wilson’s phalarope and Wilson’s snipe), secretive marsh birds (e.g., Virginia rail and sora rail), and other wetland dependent songbird species nest in this area as well.  As with many wetland habitats in the San Luis Valley, periodic disturbance is necessary to ensure the long-term health, function, and sustainability of these habitats.  Refuge staff conducted a prescribed burn in this management unit in spring 2015 with the objective of reducing the build-up of decadent vegetation (litter) to enhance the growth, spread, vigor, and overall health of various native grasses and rushes.  Because vegetative structure is extremely important to ground nesting waterbirds, shorebirds, and songbirds, it is extremely important that Refuge managers develop a better understanding of the effects of this management tool (i.e., prescribed burning) on avian nest densities.  Specifically, information on the effects of removing the litter layer and other standing dead vegetation on nest density of various species of wetland dependent birds is extremely important and will aid Refuge managers on future habitat management decisions.  Data was collected during the summer of 2014 (pre-burn) and the summer of 2015 (post-burn) and included waterfowl, shorebird, marsh bird, and songbird nesting densities, species composition, vegetation structure at the nest site, and other habitat variables.  During the summer of 2016, we propose to collect the same information after there has been one growing season following the prescribed burn.
Baca NWR was established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 2003, and included in the San Luis Valley NWR Complex.  Prior to its establishment as a refuge, much of the property was managed as a private cattle ranch for over a century.  On the refuge there are over 8,300 acres of important wet meadow habitat.  These wet meadows were typically irrigated, hayed, and grazed annually as part of the previous ranching operations.  Under current refuge management, these practices have continued by prescription with the focus on habitat maintenance, primarily for migratory breeding birds.  Managers need additional baseline information on habitat use by wetland nesting birds to guide management practices for maintaining and enhancing these avian populations.
The goal of this project is to quantify habitat conditions and determine how this habitat type, in various conditions, is being utilized by a variety of breeding birds.  In 2013 and 2015, data was collected across a large area of wet meadow habitat with various vegetative structural conditions (e.g., hayed, grazed, idle).  However, in order to best inform Refuge managers of the effects of vegetative management activities, a third year of data collection is vital to establish baseline trends on the avian species breeding in the wet meadows on Baca NWR. This baseline data will be used to guide vegetative and water management on Baca NWR to benefit these species. Our specific questions are:
  1. How do land management practices (irrigation, prescribed fire, rest, grazing, and haying) affect breeding birds in the wet meadows, and which species benefit from each treatment?
  2. How does treatment frequency, intensity, and/or duration affect habitat use of breeding birds in the wet meadows?
  3. Where is water application most beneficial for breeding birds?
  4. How are avian species richness and abundance affected by various management treatments in the wet meadows?

Stream/Riparian Health Assessment:  This project will occur within Crestone Creek on Baca NWR.  This creek contains one of two remaining historical populations of Rio Grande sucker, Catastomus plebeius, (a Colorado State endangered species), and three other native fish, including Rio Grande chub, Gila pandora, (a Colorado State species of special concern), fathead minnow, Pimephales promelas, and long-nosed dace, Rhinichtys cataractae.  Without question, healthy stream habitat is critically important to maintain robust population levels.  Additionally, the associated riparian vegetation (such as willows and cottonwoods) is extremely important habitat for migrating and nesting Neo-tropical migratory songbirds.  To date, a thorough survey of overall stream/riparian health has not been conducted on Crestone Creek.  This project involves surveying numerous reaches of the creek using accepted methods, such as Proper Functioning Condition.  This information will aid Refuge managers in identifying the most degraded areas, reasons why they are degraded, and what restoration/management activities are most appropriate and effective to improve stream/riparian health. Student Conservation Association interns will help Refuge staff collect this extremely important information.

Willow Browse Monitoring:  This project will occur on portions of Crestone Creek on Baca NWR and the Rio Grande on Alamosa NWR.  The elk population on these refuges and surrounding landscape is extremely large, especially at the Baca NWR where up to 3,000+ elk periodically reside.  These elk exert intense browsing pressure on the riparian plant communities across the refuges, especially targeting woody plants such as willows and cottonwoods.  Previous data collected by refuge staff demonstrates that elk browsing is having a significant negative effect on the reproduction, establishment, and growth of willow, cottonwood and other woody species and is affecting stream stability, health, and function.  On Crestone Creek (Baca NWR), some fencing has been constructed to exclude elk from portions of the creek’s riparian habitat and more is planned.  On Alamosa NWR, some fencing was constructed on portions of the riparian habitat along Rio Grande to exclude elk.  Student Conservation Association interns will help Refuge staff collect willow browse measurements inside and outside of these elk exclosures to determine the intensity of browsing pressure and the effectiveness of the elk-proof fence. 

Invasive Weed Monitoring:  This project will occur on Monte Vista NWR.  Across the refuge the establishment and spread of invasive weed species are of considerable concern to Refuge managers.  The presence of invasive weeds can degrade habitat quality for a wide array of migrating and breeding wildlife species.  As a result, Refuge staff expends a considerable amount of time and financial resources applying chemical herbicides and conducting other biological/mechanical control activities to reduce invasive weed presence and limit spread.  This project will involve documenting invasive weed presence and density using accepted methods and protocol as part of a long-term monitoring program to determine the effectiveness of various invasive weed control actions.  Student Conservation Association interns will help Refuge staff in data collection which will greatly aid future management decisions using an Integrated Pest Management approach which control methods are the most cost effective and biologically sound.

Waterfowl Banding:  This project will occur on Monte Vista NWR.  Waterfowl will be trapped, banded with individually identifiable metal leg bands, and released in order to acquire information on waterfowl survival rates, dispersal, and nesting philopatry as it relates to habitat conditions and climate change.  SCA interns will help Refuge staff set up waterfowl traps, bait, and band captured waterfowl.  Information collected will include identifying species, sex, and age of captured waterfowl.
Compensation amounts:

  • $1,100 - one time RT travel allowance
  • $160 - weekly living allowance
  • AmeriCorps eligible ($1,566 education award)
  • Housing

*All allowances subject to applicable federal, state, and local taxes

  • San Luis Valley NWR Complex, San Luis Valley, Colorado. The San Luis Valley is located in southern Colorado situated between two mountain ranges, with the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east and the San Juan mountains to the west. Local cities and towns include Alamosa, Monte Vista, Del Norte, La Jara, Crestone, and South Fork.
  • Refuge staff will provide training on plant and bird identification as well as waterfowl handling and banding techniques. All training that may be needed by interns will be provided by Refuge staff.
  • Numerous outdoor recreational opportunities (hiking, biking, wildlife observation, fishing) exist in the San Luis Valley and in the surrounding Mountains. The Rio Grande runs through the SLV.
  • No
Main Area of Focus
Wildlife Mgmt
Education, Training & Skills Expected
some coursework or experience