Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
SAN LUIS NWR COMPLEX: San Luis NWR Complex Celebrates 10 Years Working with Youth Conservation Corp Students
California-Nevada Offices , August 21, 2015
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San Luis NWR Complex YCC student Victoria Fipps is excited to find a young snake while preparing waterfowl hunt blinds.
San Luis NWR Complex YCC student Victoria Fipps is excited to find a young snake while preparing waterfowl hunt blinds. - Photo Credit: USFWS
YCC students Cesar Iniguez (left) and Richard Ponce keep track of tule elk running by during an elk census survey on the San Luis NWR.
YCC students Cesar Iniguez (left) and Richard Ponce keep track of tule elk running by during an elk census survey on the San Luis NWR. - Photo Credit: USFWS
The San Luis NWR Complex YCC crew works as a team to clear walking paths near the San Luis NWR visitor center.
The San Luis NWR Complex YCC crew works as a team to clear walking paths near the San Luis NWR visitor center. - Photo Credit: USFWS

By Madeline Yancey

The San Luis NWR Complex in Merced and Stanislaus Counties, Calif., has achieved a milestone this year marks the 10th anniversary conducting consecutive summer Youth Conservation Corp (YCC) programs. Over the past decade, 106 high school students from local communities have had the opportunity to work alongside refuge managers, biologists, field staff, and fire personnel as they performed tasks that contributed to the Service’s mission of working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats.

The habitat and wildlife of the San Luis NWR Complex have benefitted from nearly 400,000 hours of labor performed by these young people as they learned about, appreciated, and connected with nature. The tasks performed were varied and certainly not all jobs were enjoyed equally. Projects included tasks that were challenging and involved working under difficult conditions. Trail maintenance and monitoring of vegetation transects required being outdoors in summer heat sometimes exceeding 100 degrees and trudging through dense vegetation full of biting insects.

Some outdoor maintenance work, crew members found interesting and maybe even a little exciting. The annual cleaning of waterfowl hunt blinds always held surprises when students uncovered spiders and snakes, and other wild creatures taking refuge in the blinds. Working with the fire crew was usually pretty popular, as well. There was the work, of course, but it always included a tour, led by members of the fire crew, of the cool fire engines, water tenders, and other equipment used by them to carry out the mission of the refuge’s fire program.

Tasks that allowed YCC crew members to get up close with the wildlife were at the top of the popularity charts. Crew members were thrilled at being able to hold young Riparian Brush Rabbits, perhaps California’s most endangered mammal, as they prepared to release the animals into the San Joaquin River NWR; part of a project to reintroduce the species into areas of its historic range. Crew members got to go where few people have gone before as they entered the elk habitat at the San Luis NWR to assist biologists and other staff members with tule elk censuses.

Those surveys provide information for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and refuge managers regarding the herd’s population size, composition, and mortality, informing management decisions for the elk and their habitat. Crew members also got to help with the annual mourning dove banding, becoming some of the few people who ever get to hold a wild mourning dove and see the colorful plumage of the adult males, and the “buffy” feather tips that give the juvenile doves their “scalloped” appearance.

Perhaps mid-range on the popularity scale with students, but hugely important because of the volume of data generated, are the annual vegetation transects on multiple refuge units monitored each summer by the YCC crews. One refuge staff member did the math and concluded that each summer, YCC crew members walked nearly 60 miles by the time they completed all the vegetation transects! Tremendous amounts of data regarding the location and spread of exotic invasive plant species and the existence of native species across the Complex are now being used by refuge managers to evaluate treatment effectiveness for controlling target exotic weed species like yellow star thistle.

Environmental education has also been a part of the YCC crews’ experience. As a part of their vegetation monitoring work, 106 students have become adept at identifying more than 50 native and exotic plant species of the San Joaquin Valley’s grassland and wetland habitats. They have also learned about native pollinators, threatened and endangered species like the Tri-colored Blackbird, and they’ve been introduced to pillars of conservation like Aldo Leopold.

Whether viewed by YCC crews as drudgery or fun, the tasks in which they engaged introduced them to the duties and responsibilities of having a real job. They learned the importance of being punctual, dependable, and working together as part of a team. Whether working inside or outside, crew members learned how essential it is to create and maintain a safe working environment by learning to handle and use tools correctly, by being aware of one’s surroundings, and by learning to avoid, and recognize the signs of, perils like heat exhaustion.

Another shining outcome from the YCC’s presence at San Luis NWR Complex has been the individuals who have gone on to join the refuge’s conservation team. After their YCC tenures, three have become FWS Pathways Interns. One has returned to be the YCC Crew Leader for the past two seasons, and one student, after completing her education, has joined the refuge’s admin program as a permanent employee. One YCC crew member from the program’s first season later became as a seasonal firefighter at the Complex.

During the past 10 years, these young people from the local community have left their marks on the San Luis NWR Complex. For eight weeks each summer they have spent, collectively, hundreds of thousands of hours in the field sweating through the hot summer sun of the San Joaquin Valley. They have had the opportunity to develop work ethics and self-discipline. They have learned the importance of working with others. Some have built enduring bonds with youth from other backgrounds. Their hours of labor have contributed to wildlife and habitat conservation.

Perhaps more importantly, 106 young people have been exposed to the outdoors and nature, to wildlife and their needs, and to a vast team of people working towards common conservation goals – exposed during a pivotal time in their lives when they are thinking about the path down which their lives will lead them. Their time as a YCC crew member may influence the decisions they make.


Madeline Yancey is a visitor services specialist at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Los Banos, California.

Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov
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