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Field Stories: Bill Pine

Dr. Bill Pine is a professor at WEC and has a joint appointment with UF’s Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences program. Most of his work concerns assessing how large river and coastal ecosystems respond to changes in freshwater flow availability and quantitative population modeling to inform management decisions about endangered species.

He spoke with us about his best and worst days of field work.

You always wonder if the best day in the field is the first day on a project or the last day on a project. We’ve had some of both.

I’ll start with what could have been a bad day. It was a day that we learned a lot from.

We had a multi-year project working on the Apalachicola River. We had a big group of students and technicians living in a field house and everybody had lived there and worked really hard for a couple years. It was a fantastic group of students and technical folks.

Students holding enormous Gulf sturgeon

We had two projects running at the same time and both of the projects were a big success. It was the fourth of July, and the crew had decided that they were going to do the site cleanup and finish everything for the projects and then head back to Gainesville. The truck had a little camper shell topper on it, and was loaded down with all the field equipment. They were putting the boat in the water one more time to pick up some temperature sensors they had deployed in the river. They came back in the boat, and one person backed the trailer down the ramp. The other person had waded out and was getting a sensor off a post that was in the water, and the boat was sitting on the bank.

The driver got out of the truck to get the boat and load it on the trailer, and the truck started rolling really slowly down into the river.

So this person jumped back into the truck and was trying to stop it from rolling, and the other person was shouting for them to get out, and the truck just sort of sank into the river. The truck didn’t sink all the way down, it just sort of floated, and luckily it didn’t float down the river and disappear around the bend.

So the truck sank with all the field equipment in it. It could have been a really bad day if somebody got hurt, but nobody got hurt and that was really good. We did lose some equipment, and we did lose the truck.

That was an interesting call to get from the crew. I was really worried that someone had gotten hurt. Nobody did, but we did learn a lesson. I always tell that story so we make sure to get everything locked down tight with the parking brake, and that everything’s in park. I think in this case the truck got bopped in between four wheel drive and neutral and jumped out of gear and into neutral in the transfer case and that’s why it rolled back like that. So it was just one of those things that happens. It could have been a bad outcome if somebody had gotten hurt, but it turned out to be a good learning opportunity for all of our other fieldwork.

Another good day:

I’ve worked off and on in Grand Canyon since 2003. Originally I was a reviewer of their ongoing mark-recapture programs, then I was a volunteer doing fieldwork, then an analyst as a volunteer, then I had a small contract to do some analyses, then we had a long time cooperator with USGS; Lew Coggins came and worked with us on a PhD. I had worked in that system for gosh, six, seven years with different things before I applied for a grant to actually co-lead a research project. We were fortunate enough to be selected to work with the cooperators on that project.

So this had been a really busy time; my first time with a cross-continental research program. I had students and technicians who were UF employees that would be living and working out of Flagstaff, on the other side of the continent. It had been one thing for me to go back and forth working with people there, another thing to be hiring and training students, sending them there, and getting equipment and supplies in place.

The logistics part had been really complicated, plus the whole project was dependent on whether we would actually be able to do a capture-recapture study on these juvenile native fish, humpback chub. We’d done some pilot work the year before with our cooperators that was really promising, but not a lot of people had even caught very many juveniles at that time, and we didn’t really know how we were going to do it or how well it was going to work.

The first trip for our project was July 2009, with a large group of new grad students and technicians. It was our first time working with all the people involved and all the different moving parts, and there we went taking off into the bottom of the Grand Canyon for about seventeen days.

When you go on one of these trips, you have to have all your logistics dialed in. It’s not like if you forget something you can run to Walmart. You have to either hike out, or get it hiked in, or get a helicopter to bring it in. Once you go, you go, and you don’t take the boats out for more than three hundred river miles, so you’re always worried whether everything is right, and how you’re going to put all the people who are new on the project into place.

Juvenile humpback chub

That trip was really successful!

The first couple of days the mark recapture stuff was working. We were getting animals marked, we were getting recaptures back, and the field crews were coming together. We overcame some early challenges in our field program, and I just remember at the end of that first trip how good it felt.

I had probably worried and sweated about all the details every day for more than a year and yet our field trip was only seventeen or eighteen days. It was the last night. We were leaving the next day and our part of the trip was done. We would hop back on the boats, the boatmen would run the rafts out for us, and within two days we’d be downstream enough for a group of us to hike out.

It’s a ten mile hike, then you’re done. That last night, when it looked like the whole project was going to come together after all the sweat and tears and worry, all I could think was “It worked!”

That was a day I still think about a lot.

A few of the USFWS collaborators

I think overall that project was a success. We were super diligent in the process, and the planning, and trying to make sure that we did everything we could do so the components of the project would come together. I think that’s one reason why it was a success. We had really good people to work with, really good people on the project, and we put a lot of time and effort trying to lay this thing out so it would work well.

So good and bad days, they’re all learning opportunities, you just have to keep them in that context.


Thanks to Dr. Bill Pine for sitting down with us!

This is an outtake from an interview by Rhett Barker, made for the UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. Find the full interview here!

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