So long, and thanks for all the fish

I learned and did so many interesting things during my time in Klamath Falls. Some things I expected to learn, like new field techniques and endangered species protocols; others I did not, like how the public perceives government work.

We found this sucker spp. young of the year while conducting a stream survey for Bull Trout.

I’ve grown pretty attached to the less-loved fish (like suckers, see left, sucker spp. young of the year), even though in the end I think I spent more time working with trout. Still, there were so many species to study (and to stumble upon in passing). I’ve added quite a few to my life list, some that I never even knew existed.

This was a great first experience in long-term fieldwork. I can’t say I loved every second of it, because waking up at 2 am is hard, getting eaten alive by mosquitos, and lugging heavy equipment in the hot sun is hard, but it was great nonetheless. The work may have been hard, but it meant something, and work worth doing hardly feels like work at all. We participated in so many projects: bat surveys, vegetation surveys, electrofishing, snorkel surveys, larval collection and rearing, stream surveys, mussel salvages, fish geometric morphometric analysis, wolf management projects, wolf monitoring projects. I’m sure I’m forgetting some. They kept us busy.

The staff in Klamath Falls were the best. Everyone had something to teach us. Everyone had a different story about how they ended up in conservation and some wisdom to go with it. I’m glad that working with Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife could become part of my conservation story. In short, I’m so glad I decided to make the move to a small high desert town in south-central Oregon. I’m so thankful to everyone I met and worked with in Klamath Falls as well as the staff of the Chicago Botanic Garden. In the words of Douglas Adams, “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” I fully expect to keep chasing animals (in a respectful way) on and off the job. Here’s some assorted pictures:

Trail camera. Lesson learned: aim low (with remote cameras at least). A family of elk spent some time at this crossroads.
Trail camera. Lesson learned: be curious. Deer definitely saw my camera and left some hilarious pictures as evidence.
I headed to Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge after work. Left me feeling a little patriotic.

Signing off,

Brianne Nguyen
Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office

the Klamath Falls crew decided we need a picture of us all together in the field. Photo taken by a Pelican case wedged in a bucket.

Chapter 5: Literature. So much literature.

Reading is a large part of science, as you may or may not know. The past two weeks we’ve been tasked with assembling a few literature reviews and compiling data.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife does a lot of work reviewing papers and writing reports. We did preliminary research on a the effect of beaver dams on bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), a threatened fish native to the Klamath basin, and other fish. We compiled a report based on previous studies, and this research could be used to make management decisions in streams in the area at a later time.

My desk looks something like this. I do say “something like” because this picture is staged. I couldn’t find my highlighter when I decided to take the picture, and I moved some pads of paper around. The contents is accurate. The arrangement is not.

In an effort to get ahead of the curve, we were also tasked with compiling reports on species endemic to the Klamath basin that are not well studied or monitored. These included three species of freshwater sculpin and blue chub (Gila coerulea). Literature review can always be a bit of a grind, but when you’re in the zone it’s exciting, as well as educational.

Something possibly more interesting that I also did during what I’ll call our “indoor weeks”, is historical distribution compilation. We had a selection of newspaper articles that mentioned bull trout. I read through them and made note of where exactly the fish were reported throughout time. Newspapers really are time machines. There were articles from as far back as 1892! Here are some examples. Click to embiggen (the bottom row is fun).

Brianne Nguyen
USFWS, Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office

Chapter 3: Milk-vetch. I become an archaeologist.

I’ve learned that a biologist at Fish and Wildlife must wear many hats in order to get the job done. This includes possibly dealing with species you’re not familiar with, and interacting with the public in different ways.

A couple of weeks ago, we did milk-vetch surveys, making use of all of the information we learned at the CLM Workshop in Chicago.

Our first day, we scouted a potential new site for our species, Applegate’s milk-vetch (Astragalus applegatei), that we learned about from an anonymous tip (submitted by mail no less!) that the office had received. It was all very exciting. Armed with a letter with a description how to get to the site and a map they supplied with an area of interest circled, we hiked about a mile out to the site in question and looked for our plants. I felt very much like an archaeologist, trying to piece together the location of the plants from a pretty cryptic description of the location from a letter written long ago. We found hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), invasive, and similar looking, but we didn’t find any Applegate’s milk-vetch (AsAp), much to our disappointment. It’s not called a rare species for nothing. We think the tipster might have mixed them up, and we’ve sent a response with pictures of the vetchs we found to try and confirm the misidentification. Still waiting to hear back on that front.

Our second task with milk-vetch was surveying a known population. Contrary to what you’ll find on Wikipedia about AsAp, there are around eight populations extant. They are surveyed on a rotating schedule. We surveyed a site that had last been surveyed in 2013. There isn’t cause or manpower enough to survey each site every year. Most of the populations exist on private property, so they are not protected from take. It’s a sad situation sometimes. Our lead biologist on the species told us that a site they’d surveyed just last year was bulldozed immediately after for development. Life of an endangered plant is rough. Still, AsAp is a tough plant. At least to of the locations where it occurs are mowed regularly, and it seems to do fine with that. In fact, mowing seems to beat back its competitors, and there has been discussion about mowing aiding AsAp growth and propagation (it lies low to the ground, and so can be undisturbed by mowing). The site we surveyed had cows actively grazing, and the plants seemed to be doing just fine.

Anyway, surveying was done in two ways: censusing, which is basically counting every plant you see in a general area, and sampling, which is where you count a subset of the population and extrapolate a guess of the total count from that (which we helped design the protocol for). All-in-all we counted thousands of plants, and we estimated the site to have over 100,000 plants from sampling data. It involved many flags, flagging tape, a GPS, walking a lot, and teamwork.

The lead biologist happens to also be assigned to grey wolves (Canis lupus). We did a little work on them during the week, which Jessie and Jenny both definitely explain, so you can read about it on their posts. It was interesting to do our mammal and vegetation work at the same time, but USFWS covers a lot of ground.

Until next time,

Brianne Nguyen
USFWS, Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office

Chapter 4: Fecundity. Not couscous.

The interns from last year had collected some brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) egg sacs for a study on brook trout fecundity (the ability to produce offspring). They didn’t finish, so we had the lovely task of processing the ones that were preserved in formaldehyde (yay!). A smelly, but not overall unpleasant task. We knocked it out in three days while listening to podcasts. It involved weighing the eggs, measuring their volumetric displacement, and counting them. So much counting, and also the least amount of counting we’ve done so far. Brook trout eggs are pleasant to handle, sturdier than I would have imagined, and closely resemble couscous.

Not couscous, but brook trout eggs.

I should mention that brook trout are an invasive species. They endanger our species of interest bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) through competition and hybridization. We’re looking at their fecundity in order to see what sort of impact we make by removing them from the streams (which we will be doing by electrofishing starting next Monday!). It’s possible that us removing them reduces intraspecies competition, and count therefore improve their fecundity. We’d have to harvest them again to compare before and after. We’re also checking other studies to make inferences.

Until next time,

Brianne Nguyen
USFWS, Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office

Chapter 2: Suckers. Growing up.

This post is long overdue. We finished larval collection more than a month ago, but I thought I should still touch on the subject. Jenny and Jessie have probably caught you up, but here is my summary of events.

We finished up larval collections. It was a success. One day, Jessie and I collected over 9000 individuals. We’d harvest them, put them in buckets and haul them to our satellite hatchery at Gone Fishing. It was reminiscent to me of the fish in a bucket video I was shown in college. The entirety of a species saved by one bucket. Except in our scenario there were many buckets, and many days, and still suckers in the lake. But the principle remains the same.

The larvae that went into our buckets would survive, and those that drifted down the river would not. It was a sobering thought, but it make the late night shifts worth it. On cold nights the larvae would ride in the truck with us. We buckled them in to keep them safe.

We also got to watch the larvae grow up. Through our seven weeks of larval collections, we harvested in the morning, and performed husbandry in the later morning (or the day if we were on the day shift, we rotated on a cycle for the night shift, two on-one off). This involved feeding fish, hatching brine shrimp (yum), cleaning tanks, and doing behavioral observations to monitor fish health. The fish changed so much over the course of our time there. It was easy to tell the differences when comparing fresh-caught larvae to the ones that had just come in that morning. I think I felt the same pride for them as new parents must feel for human babies, but I’ve never had kids so I can’t be sure about that. Leaving them when our rotation with the SARP (sucker assisted rearing program) was over was a struggle.

Week old suckers
Month old suckers

Brianne Nguyen
USFWS, Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office

Chapter 1: Burning the Midnight Oil in Klamath Falls

A field site at sucker springs on the edge of Upper Klamath Lake. Two Lost River suckers are spawning in the foreground. A USGS passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag reader in the distance.

The activities during our first three weeks in Klamath Falls were very diverse. Our first day, we finished up all our paperwork. Then, we did a tour of the field sites where one of our species of interest, the endangered Lost River sucker (Deltistes luxates), spawns. We even got to see them in the act. Our first day was a window onto the significance of the work that we do, even though we may not be in continual contact with organisms everyday. A contingent of folks from California Fish and Wildlife was a part of our tour group, and we received a short demonstration from some folks from USGS. I was surprised by just how much collaboration there was between organizations and how many government organizations have offices in the relatively small Klamath Falls.

Each sucker to be released was PIT tagged, weighed, measured, and had a fin clip taken in order to possible perform DNA analysis in the future.

We spent the rest of the week working as part of the sucker rearing team. This involved constructing new tanks for juvenile suckers in the morning, and preparing for and releasing some 2-year-old suckers into the lake in the afternoon. We got to handle individuals while we were tagging and measuring them and while transferring them into the soft-release pen, but we couldn’t actually see them when we removed the net to release them into the lake -due to the low visibility on the water. Some tasks are more rewarding than others, and sometime you gain satisfaction from the goal and the idea of the deed rather than its execution. Sidenote, I hadn’t realized how large Upper Klamath Lake truly was until I was on it. It’s huge! It takes 25+ minutes to go from the southernmost to the northernmost point on plane in a powerboat.

Floating soft rearing pen. Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office (KFFWO) is currently testing different methods to improve growth in juvenile suckers. One method is rearing them in net pens on the lake.

The hatchery is being expanded to account for an expanded effort (rearing 30,000 opposed to 10,000 suckers this year).


There are three species of sucker that are endemic to the Klamath Basin. Two are endangered: the shortnose sucker (Chasmistes brevirostris) and Lost River sucker. One is not: the Klamath largescale sucker (Catostomus snyderi). 

In recent years, there has been a decline in the total population of the two endangered species as the older individuals die off and juveniles fail to be recruited into the adult population. The cause of this is not quite known. Adult suckers are extremely hardy and can withstand large changes in pH and temperature. Juvenile and larval suckers are possibly troubled by increased turbidity in the lake (which would affect their ability to hunt for the zooplankton that they eat) caused by effluent from adjacent agricultural fields. There have also been harmful algal blooms that occur in the summer, which juveniles cannot withstand.

To combat this, KFFWO captures larval suckers as they drift towards the lake from spawning sites in the Williamson river. They then raise them for 2-3 years and re-release them into the lake. The hope is that larger fish will be able to survive to adulthood.

Our second week we worked the night shift. Larval suckers have some control over there moment and drift downstream at night, the peak flow is from 3am-5am. This meant that we spent a week working from 2am – 10am. We would attempt to collect larvae using plankton nets from ~2:30 – 4:30. We didn’t catch any our first week, and it’s hypothesized that the weather is was a bit cold for the season. We spent the rest of the time continuing to prepare the grow site for fish. It was a very sleepy week. We’ve got another five weeks of a similar schedule on the docket. I hope I’ll get used to it by the end.

This week we’ve been working on our electrofishing certification to prepare for a later project. It’s pretty jarring to go from the night shift in the field to the desk in a cubicle, but it must be done. To top it off, they caught the first larvae on Monday this week! The first day we didn’t take part. We’ll have something to look forward next week when we roll out of bed at 1am.

Brianne Nguyen

USFWS, Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office