By Melanie Dabovich, USFWS
Rumbling through the dense brush of a washed-out riverbed in a beefed-up ATV in more than 100 degree heat, stumbling upon a den of rattlesnakes and capturing feisty razorback suckers was just another day on the job for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intern Nicki Devanny.
Devanny worked for a year at the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge in Parker, Arizona in a position funded by the Recovery Act. She explains with excitement how she started the internship without an idea of what she wanted to do with her environmental science degree from the University of Vermont. Yet Devanny finished her term at the desert refuge with valuable experience, a clear career path and a newly-found passion for hydrology.
“Coming into this, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but now I know I want to get a master’s degree and pursue a career in hydrology,” Devanny said. “I didn’t really have any kind of specialized experience before, but the internship has exposed me to so many different fields and agencies. It’s so much different than being in a classroom. Here you can actually see things firsthand.”
Devanny, 23, had the opportunity to perform a wide variety of duties and gain experience at Bill Williams River and three other refuges in the area including Havasu, Cibola and Imperial.
Devanny fires off her list of job duties and experiences in a humble, non-chalant tone, but anyone who’s spent any time around the Dublin, Ohio native can’t help but have some of her infectious energy, determination and unbounded curiosity rub off on them.
“I’ve been able to help in areas of botany, hydrology, in doing small animal surveys, fish surveys, water elevation surveys, groundwater monitoring, as well as the regular office work,” Devanny says. “It’s been great to gain such a wide variety of experience and on-the-job knowledge.”
Devanny makes little mention that she did many of these duties before dawn or in sweltering heat, often wearing chest waders or protective Kevlar snake luggings covering her lower legs. In addition, the hot desert terrain can make frequent outdoor field work quite a challenge for someone used to the chilly weather of the Northeast.
Andrew Hautzinger, regional hydrologist with the Service, served as Devanny’s mentor and shares that he was impressed by her work ethic.
“It’s a hostile environment that we work in, but Nicki never once complained. On 125 degree days she was out there collecting water information. Not once did she gripe. I thought ‘Hey, I want her on staff,’” Hautzinger said. “There were instances where Nicki made modifications to something I was doing for 10 years and she was right on. She really wanted to do quality work.”
Bill Williams River refuge manager Dick Gilbert explains that Devanny was hired for her internship through the Student Conservation Association (SCA), which provides college and high school students conservation service opportunities.
“We hired Nicki specifically to assist with hydrologic issues. The refuge is home to the largest remaining riparian habitat on the lower Colorado River and water rights issues are very important,” Gilbert said. “Nicki has been a great asset to the staff. She’s out in the field most of the time, measuring groundwater at Bill Williams River, helping with water use management at the Cibola refuge, managing water pumping for the Havasu refuge, and working with regional water resources staff.”
On a sweltering afternoon in late September, Devanny demonstrated how she monitors groundwater levels. She drives a pick-up truck pulling a large ATV to a sandy, closed-off road at a spot on the Bill Williams River refuge. From here, she hops on the ATV, traversing through overgrown trails thick with brush and a washed-out riverbed, navigating around a maze of cottonwood and willow trees.
Devanny stops at several unmarked spots where the monitoring wells are located. She then snakes the well monitoring equipment, known as a well sounder, into the well, waits to hear the beep that indicates she has reached the water level, and records the level on a clipboard.
Devanny notes the task is typically uneventful, but she has had the occasional run-in with desert wildlife including bighorn sheep, coyotes, javelinas, jack rabbits and—gulp—rattlesnakes.
She recalls that her first rattlesnake encounter was quite a memorable one.
“I had never seen or had any interaction with a rattlesnake before. So it was my first time working out at the Havasu refuge and the staff was showing me how the water pumping system works. This was in April and it was starting to get warm again,” Devanny said. “So I’m walking around and came upon a rattlesnake den—there must have been at least 10 rattlesnakes that were there, sunning themselves. It was pretty creepy.”
Gilbert has hired three interns through SCA over the past two years and notes all three have moved on to permanent positions in their career field.
“This is a two-way street,” Gilbert said. “Interns provide that extra set of hands needed to complete important projects and in turn, my responsibility to the intern is providing a diverse experience to give them marketable skills for more permanent positions.”
Thanks to the great experience and knowledge Devanny gained as a refuge hydrology intern, in November she landed a job as a watershed coordinator for the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition in Crested Butte, Colo. She said she enjoyed working at the Arizona desert refuges, but colder weather beckoned.
“The places that I worked at were such cool and unique areas and everyone I worked with was really great. I would like to stay, but I’d like to live somewhere where there’s a real winter,” Devanny said with a laugh. “I’m more of a cold climate person.”
Interns like Devanny are one of the Service’s most important tools, Hautzinger explains.
“We are continually undermanned and under-resourced. Having youth scientists that are energized and can work long hours is very valuable and essential,” Hautzinger said. “In turn, there is a commitment by Fish and Wildlife to offer a diverse range of experiences so interns can put their toes in the pool and see where the water feels right.”
Devanny plans to return to Bill Williams River NWR after receiving her Master’s Degree to do a hydrology research project. She said she is ever-grateful for the learning experience and knowledge the internship provided to her.
“Everyone was always willing to teach me new things and share what they have learned, and it has definitely helped me a lot,” she said. “I would tell anyone who’s interested in doing an internship with Fish and Wildlife to be willing to take risks and throw yourself into a new environment. That’s the best way to learn.”
In addition to SCA interns, the Service also looks to hire students with a passion for conservation through the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP) and Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP) programs. Many employees with the Service and other government agencies use these programs to help define their career interests and goals, network with professionals in the field, and use those experiences to find full-time employment within the federal government.
Information on the 2011 SCEP positions can be found on USFWS Southwest Region’s website at: http://www.fws.gov/southwest/AboutUs/student.html
Originally Posted 11/18/2010