A passion for wildlife
September 15, 2016
When most of us think of the US Forest Service (USFS) we think of the two most high profile areas they oversee, forestry and recreation.
But the USFS does much more than that. Ranger Districts throughout the nation employ a broad range of specialists, researches and seasonal workers conducting operations the public doesn't necessarily associate with the agency. Here in Granby Doreen Sumerlin serves as the District's Wildlife Biologist. She also oversees the District's rangeland program, livestock raising program and the noxious weed mitigation program. Sumerlin functions as the District Wildlife Biologist for both the Sulphur Ranger District, in Granby, and the Clear Creek Ranger District, based in Idaho Springs.
She has been with the USFS since the late 1980s and has been at the Sulphur Ranger District in Granby since 1989. While she's not the most keen on talking about herself she has a passion for wildlife that is exuded in nearly all her projects. Among the most high profile aspects of her work for the USFS are the annual Christmas Bird Count, which has been held in Grand County for the last 15 years, and the amphibian education program she helped develop with others for regional middle school students, in operation for about eight years now.
Sumerlin focuses her efforts on a broad variety of projects but really emphasizes the community outreach and collaboration aspects of her job. "I think making wildlife issues relevant and compelling to the community is so valuable in the long run for our programs," Sumerlin said. "We want people to understand the wildlife resources we have here and the challenges they face."
Part of her work with wildlife includes improvements to wildlife habitat. She has been working this summer on burn projects in the Clear Creek Ranger District, to improve habitat and migration corridors for bighorn sheep, and to remove barbed wire and other fencing from regional bear and elk habitat. She also works closely with the National Park Service and the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies on the local osprey monitoring project, something she has been involved with since the start of her tenure in Granby.
Sumerlin has seen, first hand, the local success story of ospreys. When she started monitoring the large raptors there were only 10 summer breeding pairs in the county. Numbers have grown steadily over the past several decades and Sumerlin and others now regularly identify over 60 unique breeding pairs in the area.
This summer, as part of the monitoring program, researches captured two female ospreys and fitted them with solar powered satellite transmitter harnesses that relay location information on the birds; providing data on when the large birds head south for their annual migration and where they winter over.
"I love all the species I work with from insects to mountain lions," Sumerlin said. "But I think the two species I spend the most time with up here, ospreys and boreal toads, are the two species that are likely my favorites." She laughed before jokingly adding, "We're not supposed to have favorites."
The two species somewhat represent the opposite ends of the spectrum for Sumerlin. Ospreys, and their increased numbers, are a striking success story. "We are so lucky to have the population we have here," she said. "To me they signal the beginning of summer and the end."
But boreal toads are different matter altogether. Boreal toads are one of only a handful of amphibian species that are native to Grand County.
Numbers of boreal toads have been declining, reflecting a "global amphibian crisis", as Sumerlin called it, caused by the spread of certain fungal diseases that are deadly for amphibians. "Boreal toads in the southern Rockies are tremendously susceptible," she said. "Grand County is a microcosm of what is happening globally. In eastern Grand County this summer we had breeding at one known boreal toad breeding site. That is down from about five. Boreal toads are beautiful animals and are so rare and really imperiled."
Sumerlin says the most rewarding aspect of her job is when projects are completed that will benefit wildlife. She also highlighted finding tiny boreal toad tadpoles at the single remaining active breeding site as something truly, "heartwarming". But Sumerlin was quick to acknowledge the importance of the agency partners the USFS works with and the citizen volunteers that help bring projects to fruition.
"Working with partners and volunteers that are just as enthusiastic about wildlife as I am, who are willing to take their precious free time to collect discarded fishing line, to clean out and repair old bluebird houses, to put up poles and platforms for ospreys as Mountain Parks Electric does, that is rewarding."
If you are interested in volunteering on any of the wildlife projects administered by the USFS, including the upcoming Christmas Bird Count, you can contact the Sulphur Ranger District in Granby for more details on how to get involved.