11 August 2023

Reconnecting with My Inner Child

Written by: Astarte Brown

Working with the Fish & Wildlife Service this summer has allowed me to reconnect with the curiosity of my childhood.


Growing up, my friends and I often explored the small creek behind our apartment. Being from the San Francisco Bay Area, the creek was nestled in a concrete jungle: between our apartment and a business complex, and positioned underneath the BART train tracks. We would hop the fence to go to “The Creek”, and would survey the habitat and wildlife that inhabited the area; often this consisted of small freshwater fish, bamboo, racoons, and birds of which we never learned the names. 


With nothing better to do we began “fishing” using a simple yet innovative method: we would tie a short piece of string to the top of a paperclip before dipping it in the water. The paperclip was slightly bent and fastened with a portion of an Oscar Mayer hotdog.


We would wait patiently while the crawdad would scope out the hotdog, grab on hungrily for its next meal, and then we would quickly yank it out of the water, beaming at our success. After a minute or so of examining it, we would release it back into the water. And don’t worry, we let them keep the hotdogs!


The feelings I held when playing in the creek and admiring the animals were of wonder, curiosity, and playfulness. These feelings were so readily available as a child, but, like many adults, I have struggled to tap into those as I have grown older.


However, this summer I have been able to experience these feelings all over again! I have been able to explore freshwater ecosystems, just as I did as a kid. And although I have seen a ton of crawdads, this time I am hunting for a different animal–freshwater mussels!


Mussels play critical roles in freshwater ecosystems by increasing water quality through filtration, and by providing and concentrating food for other animals. Once home to almost three hundred freshwater mussel species, North America has lost about thirty species and around two hundred more are thought to be imperiled. Of these species, only three groups of freshwater mussels occur to the west of the Rocky Mountains–two are in decline and one has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).


In the Columbia River Basin, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) and freshwater mussels have a deep connected history. Mussels are considered to be a First Food of the CTUIR, meaning that they are a tribal traditional food. First Foods are integral to traditions and ceremonies of the tribes, and help reinforce the connection between the CTUIR people and their food, values, and the environment. These foods–water, fish (including mussels), deer (big game), cous (roots), and berries (huckleberry)–constitute the minimum ecological products necessary to sustain the CTUIR culture. Many first foods, including freshwater mussels, have declined significantly, prompting CTUIR to lead the efforts in their conservation and management. The tribes’ goal is to protect and restore these foods to healthy, self-sustaining populations.


Of special concern, the western ridged mussel (Gonidea angulata), currently petitioned for listing, has been lost from an estimated 43% of its original range and many of the extant populations have recently experienced massive enigmatic die offs.


I am interning with the CTUIR Freshwater Mussel Research and Restoration Project (FWMRRP) and the Fish & Wildlife Service to help fill knowledge gaps into why these populations are dwindling, with special focus on the western ridged mussel. This consists of me spending many days snorkeling in (mostly) crystal clear rivers and basins in search of the mussels. The survey areas usually sit in the valley surrounded by gorgeous mountains filled with ancient evergreen trees, elk, and a wide variety of fish–very different from the small urban stream with which I grew up. As I search for the animals I am charged with investigating, I find myself filled with awe and amazement of the wildlife around, much as I once did in that stream trickling under the BART tracks. Floating in the water, I think back to an almost familiar period, watching crawdads move about. Only this time, the crawdads are often spotted alongside mussels, and I am armed with a sense of purpose to help this at-risk species.


Snorkeling in rivers surrounded by the Blue Mountains has allowed me to feel like a kid again, and yet the work holds a deep importance for saving this declining species and supporting the culture of the CTUIR. I hope to continue to foster my and others’ sense of wonder in our environment as I grow my professional career advocating for animals such as the Freshwater Mussel with the Fish & Wildlife Service. 

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