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Snakes, Amphibians and a whole lot of learning!

May 23rd, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

Editor’s Note: Do not attempt to capture any wildlife, especially snakes. This class was done with trained professionals who kept all participants safe with decades of experience.

As a graduate student at the North Cascades Institute, most of my experience in environmental education over the past year has been teaching fifth graders in Mountain School and graduate natural history retreat classes. Earlier this month I got to experience a whole new side to environmental education at the institute: adult field classes.

Designed to get students of all ages (10-110) into the outdoors, these excursions happen all over the greater North Cascades bio-region. On Mother’s Day I went over to the Methow Valley to help John Rohrer and Scott Fitkin, district biologists, with the Snakes and Amphibians of the Methow Valley class.


John Rohrer, District Biologist for Methow Valley Ranger District in National Forest.


Scott Fitkin, District Wildlife Biologist for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

» Continue reading Snakes, Amphibians and a whole lot of learning!


Amphibians of North Cascades National Park: Their Importance, Sensitivity, Habitats, Threats and Management Implications

July 21st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Chelsea Elizabeth Ernst, Candidate for Master’s of Environmental Education

The North Cascades are a rugged and dramatic landscape that offers habitat to thousands of plant and animal species and is an epicenter for biodiversity in the contiguous 48 United States. The ecosystem within North Cascades National Park (NOCA) is a popular location for mountaineers and naturalists alike. Many of the people who visit NOCA come hoping to see one of its charismatic megafauna, including American black bear, grey wolf, or the elusive wolverine.

However, an often-overlooked group of organisms that thrive in the Park are amphibians. Not only are these creatures fun to search for and fascinating to study, they are an important contributor to the NOCA ecosystem. Wild and preserved places like NOCA offer amphibians a large landscape in which to thrive, in a world where their numbers are rapidly declining due to anthropogenic effects. Proper research, public education and management strategies can help maintain healthy populations in a group of organisms that are incredibly sensitive to human activity and global climate change.


Western redback salamander

The Importance of Amphibians to Ecosystems and People

Due to the nature of amphibious life cycles, being both aquatic and terrestrial, they occupy multiple trophic levels — as predators, primary consumers, detritivores, cannibals, and either specialists or opportunists — and provide a variety of ecosystem services. (Hocking & Babbitt, 2014, pg. 6).

As larvae, many salamanders and frogs are aquatic and regulate nutrient cycling in streams, ponds, and riparian areas. Nutrient cycling contribution by amphibians is apparent in every stage of their life cycle: from eggs that do not hatch providing nutrients to larger riparian consumers to tadpoles scraping diatoms off of rocks. As adults, they can comprise a large portion of the biomass aquatic ecosystems.

Amphibians also play a role in providing ecosystem services that affect people. Frogs often eat insects that that are capable of spreading disease among humans. Culturally, frogs have been important as a clan totem for Native American tribes such as the Tlingit in Alaska. According to the Squamish Lilwat Cultural Center website (2011):

The frog is a sign to our people to put away the winter activities and prepare for a new season. The frog symbolizes cleansing, peace and rebirth. In Northwest Aboriginal Culture, a Frog is a great communicator and often represents the common ground or voice of the people. A Frog embodies magic and good fortune connected with shaman or medicine man and with spiritual and therapeutic cleansing. Frog’s songs are believed to contain divine power and magic. Frog is a messenger and communicator between species being valued for his adaptability because he freely travels between and survives in two worlds land and water, inhabiting both natural and supernatural realms. (Animal Symbology)

Frogs and salamanders have been important throughout history to humans physically and spiritually. They also provide nostalgia for many folks who enjoyed tromping about riparian areas as children in search of amphibious friends.

Western toad

Amphibians’ Environmental Sensitivity

Amphibians are considered indicator species in the ecosystems they inhabit. When their populations decrease, it is often the first sign to humans that other organisms are at risk and that that ecosystem may be unhealthy. Certain aspects of amphibians’ physiology and ecology make them particularly sensitive to changes in ecosystems. As a result of these sensitivities to largely anthropogenic-induced fluctuations in their habitats, Hocking and Babbitt (2014) write that “amphibians are currently the most imperiled class, with approximately 41% of more than 7,000 amphibian species on the planet threatened with extinction” (pg. 1).

Because amphibians require water during part or all of their life cycle, climate change has a substantial impact on them. In the west, important amphibian habitats like high alpine lakes and montane wetlands are drying and warming (Ryan, Palen, Adams, & Rochefort, 2014). Their physiology makes them sensitive to climate change, among other environmental factors. Amphibians breathe cutaneously, absorbing moisture through their skin as part of their respiration process and to stay hydrated. They are ectothermic and require water to regulate their body temperature.

In addition to climate change, deforestation can affect this balance of moisture in ecosystems. Amphibian populations are also sensitive to UV light (Adams et al., 2005), diseases like Chytrid fungus (Chestnut et al., 2014), habitat fragmentation (Pilliod & Wind, 2008), and the introduction of non-native species to habitats (Ryan, Palen, Adams, & Rochefort, 2014).

With the variety of anthropogenic factors that have negative effects on amphibians and the increasing human population, the cause of worldwide amphibian vulnerability is clear. This highlights the importance of amphibian research in relatively untrammelled habitats like NOCA.

Amphibian Habitats in North Cascades National Park

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Thank you, North Cascades Institute. Sincerely, a loving intern

September 4th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

A group of Base Camp participants, Carla (a fellow summer naturalist), and I piled into a North Cascades Institute vehicle one morning in August. We were in search of amphibians at the famed “Ag Ponds” near Newhalem. Carla knew where we were going…kind of…with directions from a graduate student tucked into her brain—“A gravel road on the right with a signed gate, about a mile or so East of the Visitor Center.” As we happily drove on the chilly morning over to Newhalem, it really hadn’t crossed my mind that we could run into anything but a great day. I trusted in Carla (as I always do) that the directions she had would be clear.

Aha! A gravel pull off, about a mile from the Visitor Center, on the right! We pulled in, unloaded the bus of people and our fancy, giant water nets, and began walking down the trail. “A 10-minute walk to some gravel pits,” she said. I was at the back of the group and was focusing on a “piggyback” plant with another participant. I heard Carla call my name so I stood up…and saw that ahead of us was a gun range. Targets lined the edge of a clear-cut far in front of us, speckled with bullet holes. My stomach dropped to my feet as I quickly scanned the area for people. (I think it is safe to say that this shooting range is quickly on its way to becoming ancient—it’s overrun with tall tanzy and young alders and thankfully, no recent sign of humans.)

» Continue reading Thank you, North Cascades Institute. Sincerely, a loving intern

Gravel Pit Pond

A day at the Gravel Pit

June 30th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

I live in a stunning place. On clear days, slate colored mountains capped in white meet blue skies in a crisp line and from there melt into a maze of light green meadows and dark green stands of trees until they reach the emerald lake. On days with low clouds, fog lingers between the trees in a tranquil embrace of hills and peaks. The lake echoes with the call of a loon, and in spring the forest bursts with the song of Swainson’s Thrush, Pacific Wren, and Yellow Rumped Warbler. Just outside my window, I have been graced by Pileated Woodpecker, Black Bear and American Marten.

Picture now a gravel road leading to a gravel mountain next to a gravel pit filled in with water seething with mosquitos and smelling of detritus. Why, you might ask, would someone who lives in the shadow of Sourdough mountain with American Martens as playmates and the soundtrack of a Swainson’s Thrush consider leaving to spend an afternoon in such a place? The answer to your question is glorious amphibians. Cold-blooded, metamorphosing, water-loving, skin-breathing amphibians. Seeking amphibians, I went to this place, and amphibians I found.

» Continue reading A day at the Gravel Pit