Enthusiasm for work with natural resources leads to internships at Camp Ripley

One of the high points of May’s time as an intern was keeping a bear cub warm for a few hours one afternoon while its mother was being weighed, measured and having her collar replaced.

Laura May continues work at Camp Ripley by volunteering

By Jennie ZeitlerStaff Writer


It doesn’t seem to happen very often that a person is able to spend years of their life working at their dream job, but Laura May has found that niche in her life with internships at Camp Ripley.

May, a 2003 graduate of Little Falls Community High School, found out about internships through her natural resources program at Central Lakes College (CLC) in Brainerd.

“My main goal while at CLC was to get to work at Camp Ripley,” May said. “I had interviewed in spring 2010 but didn’t get it then.”

In 2011, May and Matt Toenies of Randall were chosen to be the two paid interns for the summer, working with the Camp Ripley Environmental Office and the Department of Natural Resources.

Their main duties were working with telemetry, controlling invasive plant species and surveying Blandings turtles.

Telemetry uses signals from an animal’s collar with a process called triangulation to determine where the animal is. Known locations within a specific study area, and the angle of the collar signal from those known locations, can tell a person where the animal is.

Invasive species such as common tansy, spotted knapweed and leafy spurge were removed by hand with the help of St. Cloud State University (SCSU) graduate students. This was done every alternate day all around Camp Ripley, with every location being mapped by global positioning system (GPS).

“With the Blandings turtles, we looked for them every evening as they came out to dig nests and lay eggs,” May said. “We then covered the nest with a cage to protect the eggs from skunks, raccoons or fox digging it up.”

The nests were watched so that the new hatchlings could be protected. They were hand-carried directly to water in an effort to help increase their population. They are a species of special concern in Minnesota, with concentrations of them only at Camp Ripley and another location near Rochester.

As part of a CLC work-study program during winter 2011-2012, May was able to continue working at Camp Ripley. Winter work included following fishers and performing bear assessments.

Fishers are similar to minks and weasels, but larger. There is a small population of them at Camp Ripley and further north. “They were live-trapped and collared so that we could learn more about them and their habitat,” said May.

“Bears lose no muscle mass while they are hibernating; they only lose fat,” May said. “They expel any foreign object from their bodies, such as implants and bullets.”

The bears are being studied to better understand these phenomena. Using telemetry, a hibernating mother bear wearing a collar was located and sedated. Her collar was replaced and measurements were taken. Her blood was drawn and fur samples taken.

“Two bear cubs were found with her, about six- to eight-weeks-old and weighing five pounds,” May said. “We got to keep them warm while their mom was sedated.”

“The state shutdown disrupted our work in 2011; they didn’t ask us to reapply in 2012,” said May. The intern positions were apparently just awarded to May and Toenies again.

This past summer they captured one red-shouldered hawk, did more Blandings turtles work and were part of a study for the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas Survey of 2010-2013.

The statewide study is attempting to identify birds in their natural habitats. But in order for a sighted bird to count, the bird needed to be seen with evidence of its breeding activity.

“Matt knows his birds really well,” May said. “I know more about Camp Ripley’s bird population now — it was a lot of learning this year. Listening is really hard but a lot of fun.”

Early in June, one red-shouldered hawk was captured and a transmitter attached. It is a species of special concern in Minnesota which needs large patches of undisturbed woodland.

Although they heard more hawks over the course of the summer, they could never draw another close enough to capture. A second transmitter which was available remained unused.

“Brian made a backpack with a strap especially for the hawk,” May said. “We’ll have to try again next spring.”

Working at Camp Ripley in any capacity also includes the not-so-fun stuff such as post pounding, digging turtle cages at 2 a.m., very hot days and lots of bugs and wood ticks.

Now that summer is over, May continues to spend time at Camp Ripley, this time as a volunteer. “I’ve been there about once a week doing telemetry and other assorted tasks,” she said.

May is now working on her bachelor of science degree at SCSU with majors in ecology and field biology.

“I couldn’t wait to go to work every day,” she said. “I felt very fortunate to be there. I try to go on Saturdays too sometimes for fun, because it’s so pretty. I’m hoping to get an internship at Camp Ripley working with the invasive species control through SCSU.”

May is considering such future work as terrestrial invasive species control or teaching.

“I love sharing the wonderful things about nature and conservation with others,” she said. “I feel honored to have had the opportunity to learn about and explore that pristine place just a few miles away.”