Low pay. No benefits. Long days in the lonesome desert. Why do field biologists do it? A thirst for adventure — and a sense of purpose
I mistake them at first for street kids bumming on the sidewalk outside the Rosewood Apartments, a well-worn complex over in Winchester. Then I notice their bags are a bit too full, too well-packed; their sun-battered skin and dusty boots have an aura of purpose. These are the people I’ve come to meet, a team of field biologists about to head deep into the Mojave to monitor the rare and threatened desert tortoise.
Kirsten Dutcher, the crew’s leader, pulls up in a massive truck emblazoned with their hand-painted insignia — “Knight Viper” — and stamped with carapaces, like kills on a cockpit, to commemorate each tort they’ve spotted.
“You’re lucky,” Dutcher tells me. “Most days we start out at three or four in the morning.”
The waiting crew members fling their heavy packs into the truck, scan maps, and assess water and provisions. These are the foot soldiers in the struggle to defend the environment. Field biologists do the dirty work that provides much of the raw data that guide preservation and recovery plans around the planet and help shape local, national and international law.
They’re also the bohemians of the science world. Their jobs are generally low-paying, itinerant and rarely last longer than a couple of months, so they routinely camp out on each other’s floors and crowd into cheap apartments. Like members of a band, they travel the country in run-down vans, heading to whatever gig they can find.
When Dutcher was getting her master's degree in ecology, one of her advisors warned her that field research is “the bottom of the barrel of biology.”
“It’s the most physically demanding,” Dutcher explains, “definitely takes the most of your time, still requires the same amount of education (as laboratory work), the same amount of hard science background, but often you’re paid less than minimum wage. You rarely have health care, don’t have benefits, and the jobs don’t last.”
I’m about to follow her into the untrammeled desert to find out why she’s been doing it for a decade — and has no intention of quitting any time soon.
And then we walk
Their crew of six heads north on Highway 93 into Coyote Springs as fighters from Nellis zip overhead. We follow a gravel road until it becomes a dirt road, and keep going until that trickles down to two ruts in the earth that eventually dissolve to nowhere in particular. Then we walk.
The team must hike in and establish a base camp five kilometers away, just on the far side of a saddle in the Desert Range that rises nearly a kilometer high. We each have to hump in about 30 pounds of water, plus food and supplies.
At this point I might as well note that I’m not really a backpacker — in that I’ve never done it before. Most of my gear is borrowed. My boots have their shoe-store sheen. My hat is a fedora. None of my clothing bears the imprimatur of an outdoorsy European brand — just brown cotton slacks and an old army jacket. No fibers naturally “wick.”
As I clamber up the rocks, I struggle to cope with having a third of my body weight swinging on my back and attempt to tune out a discussion of rattlesnakes — specifically, what a great habitat this is for rattlesnakes.
At the crest, we’re rewarded with a view of limitless ranges and valleys all around. The only trace of humanity is the highway, reduced to an indecipherable ribbon of white far below. We stop for just a minute or two to suck on the thin air. Then we descend. On the way down, I notice that my comrades do not employ the arm-flailing balancing technique that I tend to favor.
Here, tortoise tortoise tortoise
In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the threatened Mojave population of the desert tortoise must be monitored for at least a generation; for a species that can live to be octogenarians, that means at least 25 years of close observation. Dutcher and her crew, who work for Reno-based Great Basin Institute, are among more than 50 biologists from three organizations surveying 46,000 square kilometers of critical habitat that also includes areas of Utah, Arizona and California.
Instead of hunting for tortoises, the researchers use a method called line-distance sampling, which requires hiking in pairs and scouting for torts along square, 12-kilometer transects. These randomly generated routes provide researchers with an unbiased sample over a large area. The downside is that for the stats to work, the teams must follow the transects precisely — and the computers give no allowance to terrain. The routes cut at all angles across mountains and cliffs, and through gullies, canyons and washes.
Teams have the option of cutting really brutal transects in half, but they seem to prefer gutting it out. Simeon Caskey and Daniel Leach pride themselves on conquering a transect that marched straight across a series of six deep washes.
“They weren’t even washes, they were canyons,” Leach, 26, says, recalling the steep, 50-meter faces he traversed despite a blister on his heel the size of a silver dollar (though it “wasn’t as bad as it looks”). The really tough part about walking transects, he says, is that after you make it up that last cliff, “you turn the corner, then you have to go back through everything you just did again.”
“Honestly, I really enjoyed it,” says his partner, Caskey, 25. “We were in some mountains that probably very few humans have ever been in. This one peak was more or less inaccessible unless you wanted to climb some cliffs. It was pretty neat to think that you might be the only people who have ever been there.”
“And we did destroy last year’s time,” Leach adds.
This gig is tough, but it beats other jobs he’s had, like crunching data in a lab or “watching plants grow.” As a proudly proclaimed “dirtbag biologist,” Leach hasn’t worked a job longer than seven months since he graduated college. Unemployment is frequent, and competition is stiff.
“You have to apply to 50, 60, 70 jobs, because you’re going to get a call back from maybe two,” says James Miller, 25. As a result, instead of having a narrow specialty, field biologists tend to move all around the country, or the globe, working on a wide range of projects.
Dave Ellis, 27, has worked in South Africa, Central America and Peru, and Corrine Michaud, 28, is a lepidopterist with two master’s degrees, but this is their first time in the American West. They were welcomed to February in the desert by thunderstorms, hail, snow and a windstorm in a fire-ravaged transect that blackened them with soot “like firefighters.”
Not that they mind too much. Ellis, who grew up in a tough-luck Philadelphia suburb, got to fulfill his boyhood dream of spotting a Gila monster in the wild.
“I’ll never forget the look on his face,” Dutcher recalls. “He smiled from here to here and here to here,” she says, touching her chin, nose and ears. (They beg Ellis to flash his Gila-smile again, but he just reddens a little over a tight grin. “Can’t be replicated,” he says.)
Attracting experienced researchers like these who can be counted on to bring home sound data is critical to any study.
“You can’t describe the status of a species by waving your arms in the air,” says Linda Allison, Desert Tortoise Monitoring Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who oversees the operation. “So much conservation work would not even get through the planning phase without nuts and bolts information about where the tortoises are and what types of places they live in.”
Allison says they try to recruit researchers who take pleasure in the tough conditions (“it is very hard work, otherwise”) and strive to keep them motivated throughout what can be a grueling season.
“They need to feel confident that they can work in any situation and that the difficult work they do matters,” she says. “It sounds abstract, but becomes very real if field personnel give up on a project.”
These jobs are in high demand, despite the drawbacks, but it takes a special breed of scientist to serve in the field year in, year out.
“There are lot of people who graduate with degrees in biology (who) want to go out and do the kind of work they see on the Discovery Channel,” Dutcher says. “They have a real romantic idea of what it’s going to be and go out and (only) work for a season or two … There’s a definite weeding-out process.”
At 35, Dutcher, who grew up as a military kid and spent the most time in California, is a veteran of several tortoise seasons. She may also win the prize for diciest transect. A couple years ago, she and her partner were stopped by a swarm of armed men in desert fatigues.
“They didn’t tell us where we were,” she says. “They just said, ‘Don’t you know where you are? Every map in the world will tell you not to enter this place.’”
The place was the Nevada Test and Training Range, home (perhaps) to Area 51.
They were released after a three-hour Q&A with a man in a Hawaiian shirt who, despite the shirt, Dutcher says, “had no sense of humor.”
The (slow) thrill of the hunt
“Base camp” turns out to be a bit of over-exuberant marketing. It’s the spot where we roll out our sleeping bags between bushes. The threat of rain forces us to abandon the soft sands of a wash for higher, harder ground called, quite aptly, “desert pavement.”
It doesn’t take me long to realize that I am over-prepared in terms of fancy (heavy) trail mix, and under-prepared in terms of clothing to block out the chill desert wind that has begun to ripple down the valley, heavy with moisture. I planned to use my extra socks for a tiny pillow, but I stick them on my hands instead. As the temperature drops with the sun, I uncrinkle my emergency blanket like a giant noisy sheet of cellophane.
“Who’s eating chips?” a voice asks in the dark.
The rain holds off. When the clouds break I am awakened by the light of a full moon shining down on me like God’s own headlamp.
We set out at dawn. Or they do, at least. Every team must start at precisely the same time, so there’s no waiting up for me as I chase after them, marveling at how the desert teems with vegetation. Or perhaps I should say “bristles” — there’s the majestic, pointy Joshua tree; the noble, spiky yucca; the ancient, pokey creosote.
Blossoms speckle the valley in colors of lavender, blood orange, lemon peel, neon magenta. Even the ground is alive — cryptobiotic soil crawls in patches of black, white and blue.
But there’s a new color in the desert, a brown that creeps over the landscape like rust. This is bromus, an invasive kind of cheatgrass that is drought-adapted and fire-resistant. It grows too rapidly for this land of eons — the surrounding Joshua trees are several centuries old; the creosote bushes have been growing bit by bit for perhaps a millennium, perhaps more. Bromus sucks up water and chokes out the colorful natives. It spreads like wildfire, and then it spreads the wildfire, too. The battle against it is all but given up. The most the researchers can do is take photos at every waypoint.
“Bromus wasn’t (at this site) two years ago,” Dutcher says. “If in a couple of years this is all grassland, they’ll be able to document the change.”
For a couple hundred meters I attempt to scan for tortoises, moving my gaze like a lazy scythe. The study assumes researchers will find every tortoise at their feet and a diminishing percentage at distances farther off the line, so it’s crucial on these long, hot, rugged treks that the teams keep up a constant search for reptiles that look just like rocks and often move like them, too. It’s surprisingly fatiguing, and a good way to test the toe of your boot against sharp rocks. The hardest part is to just keep at it, like a zen discipline. We walk an unseen mandala through the Mojave.
Mostly, I linger behind and take pictures of pretty flowers and the stately husks of yucca I give names to (names like “Mojave Cockatiel” and “Rat King”). Dutcher spots an orange-tinged horned lizard. Her partner, Miller, points out a pack rat’s nest built in the side of a gully like a scale-model cliff dwelling. Other teams cross a coachwhip snake, even a den of coyote pups playing. My find is a few popped balloons, stamped “Verizon.”
We do not find tortoises.
We hump it back to the trucks, back out the same five kilometers over the same ridge after the eight-hour hike. Dutcher’s crew heads for a fresh transect tomorrow. They spend five days a week in the desert and hike a transect every day. On their off days, they do laundry, maybe hit a buffet, and often manage to squeeze in some climbing or bouldering or even hiking, these curious fauna.
Exhausted, I beg off and head for civilization. It isn’t long until downtown comes into view. In under an hour I have journeyed from nature untouched by humanity back to what is, in a sense, humanity untouched by nature.
Where refrigerators go to die
On the way out, the researchers talked about how draining it can be to work for days without spotting a tortoise. Even though they, and not the Gopherus agassizii, were my quarry, I’ve got a taste for how they feel. I’m sunburned, sore, and gimpy — and I want a look at one of these buggers.
To cheat a little, I link up a week later with Brent Sparks, who monitors a separate tortoise population that was relocated away from a water line to the eastern fringe of Henderson. He keeps tabs on them via telemetry, tracking them by their radio transmitters, so we know just where to find them.
We roll up to what ain’t the prettiest part of town, desert-wise. It seems to be a popular dumping ground/shooting range.
“This is where refrigerators, microwaves, and computer monitors come to die,” Sparks says. We tiptoe through what looks like a dystopian battlefield of spent shells and broken glass. Sparks points out what was, until recently, “Osama’s fridge.” “They put Bin Laden’s face on it and shot it up pretty good,” he says.
The low hills, though, are clean, and the tortoise population seems to be adapting well to the rugged terrain — a promising sign for tortoises threatened by development. Sparks, 37, has been observing them for three years, a rare long-term gig for a field guy. A West Virginian, he did a lot of work with bats back east before moving to Vegas.
“I really like bat work,” he says. “Of course, you got to work nights. You don’t really have a normal social life when you’re working with bats.” He hopes to stay on in the Mojave when his project ends this year.
I track a tortoise with an antenna that looks like a homemade lightning rod. Louder blips mean we’re on target. “Think of yourself as a radar-guided missile,” Sparks says. “That’s all it is.”
I get a lock on #132, a young male Sparks calls “Sleepy.” After this long, Sparks identifies them by their habits — like “Dr. Evil,” who seems to delight in forcing his trackers along steep precipices, or “Mama,” whom he has caught more than once in flagrante delicto.
On this afternoon Sleepy betrays his moniker and emerges from his burrow to investigate us. He looks like a gentle creature, wizened, as if each specimen somehow bears the collective weight of the species’ paleogenic age. But Sleepy is a young buck, somewhere in his teens. With a full life, he could see the year 2075. The question is whether his habitat, this edge of living desert abutting the developed world, will last that long.
Tortoise #132 turns around and, with striking ferocity, flings up clouds of dust and stone as he claws his way back underground.
Next leg of the journey
I finally catch up to Dutcher again late one night after she’s returned from a trek, recreational this time, to the hot springs. The season is over. They each hiked 500 kilometers in eight weeks. Laterally, anyway — vertical distance doesn’t count. The “Knight Viper” truck spotted 57 torts in all. It’s not for them to say if that’s good or not; it will take months to sift the data and years to interpret it.
“(We’re looking for) gradual change, which is about what a tortoise does — change gradually,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Allison. Some indicators do suggest, though, that the population — estimated around 100,000 in the monitored area — remains in decline.
Over in the Rosewood Apartments, nearly two dozen young scientists are clearing out of the three apartments they’d been crammed into for months and begin to scatter to new projects across the country.
Dutcher doesn’t live in the Rosewood Apartments, not anymore. And she’s not leaving this time. She’s decided to stay in Vegas, an ideal habitat for a herpetologist, and just took out a mortgage on a rancher near Paradise Park.
Granted, she still has a half-dozen biologists bivouacking in her living room and plans to spend time each year on projects elsewhere, but a permanent address is a big step for someone who has worked more than 30 jobs on three continents over the last decade.
“I got tired of living out of my truck,” she explains. “Last summer in California I caught myself dreaming about a couch. This is the first sofa I’ve had since college.”
Setting roots isn’t easy in this line of work, especially when you have to explain your job history to loan officers.
“That was hugely problematic,” Dutcher says. “They were like, you worked five places in 2010? Did you get fired?”
Dutcher is accustomed to defending her work and resisting pressures that sound a lot like those faced by artists — pressures to find office work with benefits, to go back to school, to teach. And there’s always the temptation of what they call “biostitution” — contracting for developers. It can pay five times what they make in the field and does provide a valuable service (the 'dozers are coming, someone might as well move the snakes), but to some it feels like selling out.
Surviving a life in the field requires toughness that goes beyond enduring back pain and a paltry bank account. It’s hard forming such intense relationships — some forged by working with a single person for months in isolation — that often pass with the seasons.
And it’s hard living on the front lines of what can seem like a losing battle. Field work has been critical to landmark victories like the recovery of the bald eagle or the banning of DDT, “but the field researcher tells the same story over and over and over again,” Dutcher says. “You can ask someone what’s causing the decline of this or that species and they might word it differently, but the answer is always ultimately the same: We are.”
So why does she do it? Why does anyone do it?
The need to keep fighting, she says, in the face of it. And the desire to live as a part of the natural world in a way that few people do anymore. And a sense of enlightenment. Some things are more valuable than a 401k. And then, of course, there’s the simple joy of a girl who loved to play in the dirt.
“It’s shocking to me sometimes that I got paid to walk around a forest and look for something amazing,” she says. “Or that I got paid to catch frogs all day. To be able to say, that’s what I did today: I walked through a marsh and caught frogs.”
Dutcher reclines on her new used couch and sings a few lines of “I Don’t Mind,” a song by a band called the Tabasco Donkeys, kind of a field workers’ anthem:
I wouldn’t want to be an old man
Sittin’ in an office building someplace far away
With worry on my face.
Well you can take my car, my stereo, my little money,
Leave me with nothin’ but my trail family.
Take my dress-up clothes, my cheap cologne, my college loans.
I don’t mind. I don’t mind.