By Erika Webb
Rapidly growing vegetation and high potential for wildfires during the summer keep three employees busy overseeing more than 21,000 acres at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
There are only so many hours, even on long-lit summer days, for Refuge Manager Lance Koch, Supervisory Fire Technician Chris Wright and Equipment Operator Wes Allie to tame the wild and investigate, for preservation's sake, all of the life forms that inhabit the abundant sanctuary.
They rely heavily on volunteers, but also gratefully accept help from college interns.
Teaming up with North Carolina State University through its Biological Sciences Wildlife Services department, refuge staff has had enthusiastic assistance for two summers in a row.
Mr. Koch said for 10 weeks -- from June to mid-August -- each summer two interns live onsite at the old office on Grand Avenue.
"It serves as a rustic barracks or bunkhouse," Mr. Koch said.
This year's interns, Joshua Simkins and Sam Freeze, both juniors at NC State, are fine with the accommodations.
Their interests lie more outside anyway.
"It's been great," Mr. Simkins said. "I've learned a lot about field work in general and we do a lot of upkeep on the equipment, so I'm learning a lot about that. And I'm getting a lot of education from Chris and Wes about invasive species and why things are done."
Mr. Simkins is working toward a degree in natural resources policy and administration. When the opportunity to work at Lake Woodruff was presented, he quickly completed his Firefighter Type 2 training.
"I busted it out and completed it in a week," he said.
Intern duties include monitoring invasive species while photo-plot monitoring for fire and wetlands as well as surveying gopher tortoise residents and types of vegetation, according to Mr. Koch.
They help conduct prescribed burns and input Geographic Information Systems data.
Other duties may consist of helping refuge staff with impoundment management, public use programs and projects, mowing and general maintenance.
Using herbicide to treat species, such as cogon grass, air potato, Caesar's weed and other exotic plants, the interns help staff manage the ecosystem.
Mr. Freeze is studying fisheries wildlife and conservation biology with a concentration in wildlife sciences.
Six weeks at the refuge have cemented his plans.
"So far it's really awesome," he said. "I'm learning a whole lot. It's really interesting to experience. Growing up in North Carolina, I've gotten familiar with all the critters and flora and fauna there, but I didn't have much experience anywhere else. I'm learning about a whole new set of flora and fauna in a subtropical climate."
"We definitely don't have armadillos in North Carolina," he added laughing.
And in other fauna ...
"The pygmy rattlesnakes are really cool," he said. "There are lots of pygmy snakes around here ... and alligators. They're pretty neat."
Using a pair of binoculars Mr. Freeze was enchanted as he "got to watch a baby sand hill (crane) running around."
Multiple habitats represented at Lake Woodruff include cordgrass marsh, hardwood hammock, hardwood swamp, pine flatwood and upland oak scrub.
Curious about what it would be like to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mr. Freeze is now more interested than ever in becoming a wildlife biologist and eventually a supervisory biologist.
He recently completed a vegetation plot survey on the refuge.
Sixteen fixed-radius plots out in the woods are monitored using GPS points, he said.
"(The goal is to) identify plant species within each two and a half meter radius plot," Mr. Freeze said. "The reason is, we want to measure shifts in vegetative succession -- ecological change -- to help determine if our habitat management efforts are successful."
He's looking forward to his next project on the refuge: a small mammal survey.
"We don't have much data on what small mammals are on the refuge," he said. "To our knowledge no one has trapped in the marshes or impoundments so I'm going to try to do that."
He'll use a Sherman live trap, equipped with oatmeal and sunflower seeds.
"I'll go in the morning and see what I've got," Mr. Freeze said. "Then I'll weigh and ID the species and let them go."
Mr. Koch said the program has been extremely mutually beneficial.
Interns earn a stipend of $150 a week, a portion of which is paid by NC State.
"It's been a really positive experience," Mr. Koch said. "They have a lot of energy and ideas. They get to learn some things about wildlife management, prescribed fire, wetlands management and maintenance programs on the refuge. We get the benefit of having some high-energy field hands."
The students, he said, are like sponges.
"You never know how much they know when they come in," Mr. Koch said. "They might have worked with wildlife or biological surveys or on farms or ranches."
He's impressed by the students' passion and eagerness to learn more.
As always, he added, Stetson University has been a "good partner" in the internship program.
"We've had help from the professors at Stetson with survey protocol and design," Mr. Koch said.
Last year's vegetative ecological baseline survey involved establishing the herbaceous monitoring plots and this year's, never previously undertaken, baseline small mammal survey will help determine composition diversity with small mammals, he explained.
Interns work Monday through Friday, 40 hours per week, with the possibility of weekend hours.
Experience in the program areas will better prepare students for a career with numerous federal, state and local agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as non-profit organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and the National Audubon Society.
After limited exposure to Florida's wildlife -- and that's only if you count the famous rodents dressed in polka dots and gloves -- this summer Mr. Simkins is thoroughly enjoying a more natural side of the Sunshine State.
"It's enhanced my education and opened me up to a lot of different stuff," he said. "It has influenced the way I think about how a refuge works and land management works, how decisions are made and put into place."