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Hands on Nature: Learning about the spotted frog in LaPine with Wolftree

Wolftree brings alternative learning strategy to the kids of LaPine.



Early last Thursday morning, Bess Ballantine, field manager for Wolftree, an Oregon-based ecological education outfit and her side-kick, Rachel Manzo, met with mentor Ed Brown, a plant specialist with the USFS Chemult Ranger District.

But that's not it. Also on hand were wildlife biologist Hailee Newman from the USFS Bend office, Cassandra Hummel, from the BLM office in Prineville, Tom Walker with the USFS, and Jennifer O'Reilly with the USF&WL Service - both fishery biologists. This seemingly all-star assembly met with La Pine Elementary teacher Anna Bajorek, and her fifth-grade class.

After a holy-cow-gee-whiz get-acquainted time, Bess explained the Scientific Method of conducting research to the class, and each student was given a field journal with instructions on how and why to record accurate field notes. They then broke up into groups of five, each group with a mentor (and parent) and headed out to explore the natural history of Prairie Creek.

The tiny stream runs behind both schools, and has been badly abused by people tossing in old tires, large wooden drums that held reels of wire and other trash. But in spite of the junk, it has been (and could be again) suitable habitat for one of Oregon's rarest amphibians, the Oregon spotted frog.

Jay Bowerman, naturalist and Sunriver Nature Center and Observatory researcher, has been studying spotted frogs throughout southern Deschutes County for several years and took the time to share his work with Bajorek's students.

Of the 12 native species of frogs and toads that are known to live in Oregon, the purplish Oregon spotted frog, Rana pretiosa, has been disappearing at an alarming rate from its historical habitat. ("Pretiosa" is Latin for "precious," a fact that prompted one of the mentors to encourage the students to watch for Oregon "precious frogs.")

Spotted frogs are highlighted in ODFW's Oregon conservation strategy as a species in need of help, because they have low or declining populations. In addition to loss of habitat, another reason may be that the tadpoles are being gobbled up by the huge and aggressive American bullfrog, an invasive species.
The students knew (from Jay's talk) that Oregon spotted frogs like to keep their feet wet, therefore, from the moment they arrived at Prairie Creek, they were looking for them. They also learned from Jay that spotted frogs eat beetles, flies, spiders and other insects and are patient predators, remaining motionless until they see something that looks tasty. The frog then lunges and captures the prey with its sticky tongue.

Wolftree mentors discussed all aspects of water health and methods were taught to the fifth-graders on how to measure the water quality of Prairie Creek. Dissolved oxygen is important to the health of everything that grows, swims, crawls and hops in water, and while the students were taught methods of measuring this factor, they were also encouraged to record their discoveries in their field journals.

Bess and Cassandra were helping their small group of students measure the pH of Prairie Creek. (The pH of water determines the solubility and biological availability of chemical constituents such as nutrients - phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon - and heavy metals: lead, copper, cadmium, etc.). The students had a hypothesis that a pH of six would be ideal for aquatic life in the creek. When it measured four, a lively discussion ensued about how the scientific method could be used to determine the answer to their hypothesis regarding Prairie Creek.

The student's teacher, Anna Bajorek, was busy moving among each group of students, trying to be helpful when needed to ensure they got the most out of the Wolftree experience. During lunch, she said, "It is important to understand what's going on in this beautiful little creek that flows right through the school's back yard, and to gain an appreciation for its qualities. Who knows, that may be helpful in their becoming stewards of their land, and maybe for a career some day."

Tom Walker, fishery biologist for the Forest Service, took his group out to the far reaches of Prairie Creek, while Hailee Newman, who also is with the FS, teamed up with Rachel Manzo of Wolftree to conduct their fieldwork in a portion of the creek near the high school. They must have been holding their tongue right, for they were the only team to capture a spotted frog in their live-trap set out the afternoon before.

Jennifer O'Reilly, of the USF&WL Service, found several non-native stickleback fish in the traps in her area and used this opportunity to discuss the harmful ecological consequences that follow the introduction of invasive species.

Bess and Cassandra, a wildlife biologist for BLM, also found stickleback, after which they discussed the presence of native beaver on the creek, and how their dams help recharge ground water aquifers.

All in all, Wolftree day in LaPine was a win-win situation and the students had a full day in the field with a group of mentors who enjoyed teaching and sharing what they do with others. At a time when funds for education are being drastically reduced, Wolftree is fulfilling a need for additional outdoor science opportunities. And this past week was a wonderful example of how Wolftree works in teaching outdoor sciences while utilizing the "Three 'R's."

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