In an earlier life, Vikki Jackson studied peatlands. These soggy zones of decaying vegetation were enough for a master’s thesis, but they left Jackson curious about livelier waters. While studying at Western Washington University, she encountered Herb Brown – decked out with knee boots and waders and nets – heading pondward. “He was a real herpetologist,” she remembers, “and I thought it so odd his work required all that.”
But in the early 1990s, when a friend asked Jackson to help with a wetland survey, something changed. She was good on birds and plants but when it came to amphibians – the “herps” (frogs, toads and salamanders) – she had to confess she knew nothing. Yet soon enough she learned something, then wanted to know everything about this peculiar suite of creatures. Research was just starting to show the herps’ promise as environmental indicators for wetlands, one of the world’s most dynamic, at-risk ecosystems.
Given the way amphibians (from the Greek amphi-bios, for “two-lives”) go through life with phases in water and on land – complete with a switch from vegetarianism to carnivory – they challenge us to conserve varied habitats and links in the food web. And when Jackson says “their skin is their lungs,” she means it: their outer layers are so thin and so porous that they can breathe from anywhere on their bodies. They deeply feel each degree of temperature – or drop of oily runoff – before we even get the hint.
In 1994, Jackson founded Northwest Ecological Services (NES), a comprehensive consulting firm that offers key wetland assessment, planning and educational services for a diverse set of clients. This work is not focused exclusively on herps, but it does provide Jackson valuable perspectives and context for how we might best coexist with their needs. Whether offering delineation and design services for the creation of Cordata Elementary School or chairing the Whatcom County Wildlife Advisory Committee, Jackson always keeps herps in mind.
And lately, she’s instilled herps in the minds of others, too. Jackson’s NES work revealed that for all we’ve learned about herps and their ideal habitats, there’s quite little about their numbers, their movements and the actual places they live. So when British Petroleum approached NES with a project to survey amphibians on the wetlands surrounding their Ferndale refinery, Jackson knew it was meant for more than her business.
In 2013, the contract helped launch the Whatcom County Amphibian Monitoring Project (WCAMP, pronounced “We Camp”) to collect baseline data about amphibians with the help of “citizen scientists.” After five hours of training, these volunteers slosh off to the ruckus of Pacific chorus frogs (and quieter herps) to complete weekly surveys through the breeding season. By counting individual species, egg masses and observing habitat conditions these trainees are providing exactly the kind of knowledge many “experts” – who often lack the time or money, or both – need to see nature’s connections, trends and responses to change.
Because Jackson’s volunteer trainings fill to capacity each year, WCAMP’s forays are making an impact. Their observations directly inform the species habitat maps and management plans for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. They have also located key populations of the Oregon spotted frog, a federally-threatened and state-endangered species that has been found on properties conserved by the Whatcom Land Trust. WCAMPers have learned a great deal about this unique frog’s needs for different wetland zones throughout the year – the kind of diversity that beavers might create. And with the next-closest Oregon spotted frogs all the way down in Thurston County, Jackson sees a prime opportunity for learning. “We are lucky,” she says, “for the chance to influence this species’ survival.”
Besides the spring surveys, there are still other ways people are helping the herps’ croaks be heard. For her species mapping, Jackson values observations sent from anyone who can place and photo-document any herp, anytime, from anywhere in Whatcom County. You don’t even need to know the species. And WCAMP’s efforts are expanding, with opportunities for invasive bullfrog and green frog surveys, as well as fall studies of salamander migration.
Almost 30 years ago, that young student watching Herb Brown never would have guessed she caught his obsession for herps, nor could she envision building two organizations that work – independently, yet together – to advance amphibian conservation. But Jackson does know that watching the inner child come out of her volunteers is one of the best parts. Herps might not always be cute or charismatic but these “little underdogs of the world” have a way of winning over the curious. They are certainly a core ingredient for our inherent sense of wonder, and the recipe is complete with ample water and a dash of mud.