Warning: Sappy post ahead
Yes, I disappeared again. I’ve been traveling the Rockies- a trip that was initiated by the Wild Trout Symposium in Yellowstone, and then quickly got out of hand when I decided to tack on a few vacation days after realizing how close all of the national parks are. I obviously use the term “close” loosely here, and my bright ideas received further encouragement by my inability to look at the scale bar on a map. But, after nearly 3,000 miles, three national parks (Badlands, Yellowstone, and Grand Tetons), a national memorial (Mount Rushmore), a national monument (Craters of the Moon), and eight states, I am officially working my way back towards home. Very slowly I might add- I’m currently overlooking the sunset over Great Salt Lake from Antelope Island State Park (state park #2, for those counting) before catching the red eye back east.
It goes without saying- this was a trip of a lifetime. But, maybe for reasons that aren’t so obvious. Yes, the parks were gorgeous. I’m already planning my trip back. You can’t help but be amazed by the geological and biological wonders of this region. And, I got close enough to pet a bison on multiple occasions (I didn’t…my advisor warned me it would not end well).
But, I kind of expected most of that to happen. What I wasn’t expecting was to walk away from the conference so inspired. The Wild Trout Symposium gave new breath at just the time when a PhD student needs it most. Don’t get me wrong, I love my research. I cannot possibly imagine a better project, and there are very few days where I don’t love coming to the office. But, sometimes you get caught in the weeds, especially as you’re trying to string together the analyses, appease reviewers, write papers, and run the rat race of academia.
And, while I also enjoy larger meetings (like the American Fisheries Society meeting I attended in August, which always has attendance in the thousands), there is something special about speaking to “your people.” The people who love trout, study trout, and work harder then you to protect and conserve trout. It was interesting to hear about the research advances and conservation challenges that others are facing around the world and across all trout species. It really helped put everything into perspective about the more global significance of the work that is happening in my little corner of the trout world.
At the meeting, I also realized more than ever that I’ve grown. A lot. Science education happens very slowly, and there are very few benchmarks for measuring success. You can take tests and get degrees, but those don’t necessarily measure your ability to practice sound science. Soon I’ll be trying to convince my defense committee that I’m worthy of a degree, and the thought of it is panicking- do I really know enough science to deserve a doctorate? Hard to say, and I think the more degrees you get the more you recognize that you’ll always wish you knew more.
But, I was reminded this week that while I still have (and will always have) a long way to go, I’ve also come a long way. At the meeting, I was honored to win the Marty Seldon Scholarship. The person presenting the award was a member of my Master’s committee, and was almost certainly in attendance the first time I presented at a fish conference. He said the traditional mumbo jumbo- my degree, my school, my project, but then went off script to express how proud he was of the scientist I had become. It meant a lot, and reminded me of the knowledge base (or lack thereof) I had when I first started working in fisheries about 10 years ago. I’d sit in the audience at conferences, having no idea what people were talking about and praying no one asked me questions about my own project. Today, I’m winning awards and serving as a source of advice and knowledge. Crazy. I still, and will forever, have a lot to learn. But, I’ve grown. I’m getting better. Something I’m doing is working.
Part of that growth is being able to recognize the significance of a research project. And, there was some great research presented at this meeting. Unfortunately, many of the presentations painted the same dark picture we all know have come to associate with native trout conservation. Habitat is tanking, temperatures are rising, diseases are becoming more common, harvest regulations are inadequate, and hybridization could mean the end to entire species. It would normally be enough to make a trout lover walk away extremely disheartened and hopeless.
But, I didn’t. I walked away more confident about the future of trout populations that I had been before because I realized that there are some amazing people in this field. It’s a group of biologist that work tirelessly and are making some great advances in the ecology of wild trout management. We’re moving away from the emphasis on stocking and towards a more holistic approach to conservation. Everything from genetics to metapopulations, habitat improvements to angler satisfaction. It all needs to considered to get the harmonious balance needed to have a chance of conserving wild trout. And, the group gets that.
The next hard step that many people identified was now getting all of that science into the hands of managers, anglers, and citizen scientists. We can’t keep managing our resources in ways that we know defy science, but we also can’t change our management when the science is unknown or untrusted. So, my only criticism of that meeting was that I wish you, the angler group that I think comprises the majority of my readership, could have bene there. I think one of the missing pieces of the puzzle at this meeting, but also in general management, is the union between scientists and the public. We’re living in separate bubbles to a large extent, and until we close those gaps we’ll continue to struggle to find the happy balance. Nothing is new on that front, but it’s more justification for why things like this blog and other outreach initiatives are so vital.
Even in a perfect world, I don’t expect the fight for native trout to ever get easy. I think one of the lines that echo in my mind was from a presentation from the Yellowstone National Park Superintendent. He talked about their efforts to restore populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, which are declining due to habitat loss and invasion by nonnative fishes. At the end, he mentioned some of the hurdles associated with Yellowstone cutthroat trout conservation, and overwhelmingly he noted that he never dreamed that the fight for wild trout conservation would be met with so much resistance. If Yellowstone struggles to restore wild trout, how will all the tiny streams with brook trout possibly fair? I’m not sure, but I have no doubt that we’ll keep putting up a good fight.
Exhaustion has set in, and I’m now sitting in terminal A of the Salt Lake City Airport awaiting my midnight boarding call. I’m tired, I’m behind on work, but my head is clear and drive is restored.
Wild Trout XII was a success.