Instead of listening to the top hits on their iPods, 15 Ashland High School students spent Friday morning tuning in to flying squirrels on a radio in the city's watershed.
The juniors and seniors followed U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Dave Clayton as he held out a spider-like antenna used to pick up the radio emissions of flying squirrels, northern spotted owls and Pacific fishers that have been tagged, and equipped with telemetry collars or backpacks.
Suddenly, the radio began beeping, signaling there was a flying squirrel in the area. Based on the strength of the signal, the squirrel likely was about 50 yards away, perching in one of the Ponderosa pines or Douglas firs, Clayton said, as the students scanned the treetops. "I've seen this on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, but I've never seen it in real life," said senior Alex Barsekian.
The students, part of the high school's alternative program Catalyst, huddled under falling snow about five miles up Tolman Creek Road in the watershed, observing a wildlife tracking station, where animals are trapped, tagged and fitted with telemetry devices.
"I'd like to have a job where I do this when I get older," said senior Noah Killeen. "I've always been interested in the environment, and we haven't done such a good job taking care of it, so I'd like to help."
The four-hour field trip was part of a program run by the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project to teach local students about the Ashland Forest Resiliency project, which aims to restore the forest to the way it was 150 years ago, when wildfire naturally thinned trees and brush.
"This is an active project, so we're creating the lessons around what's happening," said Niki Del Pizzo, Lomakatsi education and outreach director. "It's important that our youth understand their local bioregion."
Because of fire suppression efforts over the past century, the forest has grown overly dense, crowding old-growth trees and harming some wildlife, she said.
And, ironically, because it's been so long since fire swept through the watershed, a fire in Ashland's forests now could result in massive damage, destroying huge swaths of trees and threatening nearby homes, Del Pizzo said.
The forest resiliency project — a partnership between Lomakatsi, the city, Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy — involves thinning brush, conducting controlled burns and removing thousands of small trees from the watershed via helicopter.
However, all steps in the plan must be approved by wildlife biologists to try to minimize harm to endangered and threatened species, such as the spotted owl and pacific fisher, Clayton said.
To try to determine the effect of tree-thinning, biologists are tracking the animals, as well as their prey, such as flying squirrels, using telemetry. Data are being collected now, before the thinning begins in the area, and it will be compared to data collected after the forest work is complete, years from now, Clayton said.
This kind of tracking of spotted owls and pacific fisher has never been done before in southwestern Oregon, he said.
When the tagged animals are nearby, their telemetry devices emit characteristic beeps, letting biologists track their movements and discover how they are spending their days in the forest.
Friday was the first time students have visited the tracking site off Tolman Creek Road, but since last summer, hundreds of Ashland and Medford youths have participated in forest resiliency projects through Lomakatsi.
"Every time we go out, we talk about observation, and now this time around, the students were able to relate that to wildlife and how the forest changes may impact wildlife," Del Pizzo said.
The students, who donned colorful hardhats as they hiked through the watershed, said they appreciated a chance to get out of the classroom and learn about science through hands-on activities.
"This lets us be involved in real work that's being done in the forest," said junior Asaya Wood. "I've been documenting animals since I was 6, so this is very interesting to me."
Among the things Barsekian learned Friday, after studying the handheld telemetry antenna, is that not everything on TV looks the same in real life.
"It looks so not high-tech," she said. "I'm surprised it works."
Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or email@example.com.