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Name: Ryan Slack
Company: Civil & Environmental Consultants (CEC)
STEM Career Lesson: Wildlife Conservationist
Course: Intro to Computer Science Applications
Hang around with an ecologist that specializes in bats! Explore a career as a Wildlife Conservationist with Ryan Slack of Civil & Environmental Consultants (CEC). Ryan works with construction teams to make sure that species of endangered bats are staying safe during a build.
Learn more about CEC: https://www.cecinc.com/
Katie: Did you know that bats are the only known mammals that can fly? Sadly, these amazing creatures are disappearing from the Earth at an alarming rate. Luckily, though, there are many dedicated ecologists and scientists that work to preserve these endangered species.
Today, you’ll hear my conversation with a wildlife conservationist that specializes in bats. Ryan Slack is a Principal at Civil and Environmental Consultants, or CEC. CEC is a company that provides consulting for large construction projects, ensuring that environmental impact is minimized during a build.
Welcome to My STEM Career, inspiring the next generation of leaders. This show is brought to you by Codelicious Computer Science Curriculum; I’m Katie Baird.
In this first section of the episode, we’re diving into questions from our Wildlife Conservationist STEM Career Lesson from Computer Science Applications, built for grades 6 to 8. Then, we’ll transition and learn more about Ryan’s life, career, and advice.
Katie: Thank you so much Ryan, for joining us on My STEM career today.
Ryan: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Katie: Oh, absolutely. We’re going to get started with some questions from our STEM career lesson, which is wildlife conservationist for sixth grade. And this lesson is from our intro to computer science applications course. So for any people listening, um, either on the podcast, or watching the video right now, you can find more information about that course, either in the description box or the show notes of the podcast.
So, Ryan, I’d love for you to start just by introducing yourself. So what is your name, what’s your job title, and where do you work?
Ryan: Hi! I’m Ryan Slack, and I work at Civil and Environmental Consultants also known as CEC. My job title is Principal, but I’m really an Ecologist.
Katie: Good deal. So, I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about what a wildlife conservationist is, and what that person might do.
Ryan: So an animal conservationist is somebody in my, as far as my shoes, I, uh, help with endangered species. I, I help keep them alive. I help, uh get, give them the things that they need to stay alive. And endangered species struggle to exist in the world we have today.
Katie: So in this world there’s this term called biodiversity which is maintaining the variety of all the different types of life on earth, so that could be plants, animals, humans. So can you talk a little bit about why biodiversity is important to conservation and the work that you do as an ecologist?
Ryan: Yes, most animals and plants need a high biodiverse habitat to live in on the earth. They’re, they’re not going to do well in just concrete and city type environments. They need a mixture of forests and open area and water and wetlands and lakes, and all the things that’s called biodiversity is all of those things in a in a big mix. And most animals and plants are, are not specialists where they can deal with losing any part of that. They need basically all of it. That’s why it’s important.
Katie: Can you tell us a little bit about the technology you use to help maintain biodiversity and preserve endangered species?
Ryan: So we typically go out looking for bats. That is our thing. I like to look for birds, too, but our thing mostly is bats. And the technology we use for that are called mist nets, and we put these mist nets up, and they look like a hair net. But the the bats basically can’t detect that they’re there, and they get tangled up in it, and we lower them down and we get them out.
The other piece of technology that we use now is called an acoustic detector, and the detector can hear the bat calls, and then we can put them, the bat. They record them like a like your digital camera does, put them on a screen, and then we can identify what’s flying around by what we’re seeing on the call on the screen. So those are the 2 biggest things of technology that we use when we go out looking for endangered species, especially bats.
Katie: Great, and what traits do you think a wildlife manager must have to be successful in this industry?
Ryan: One trait is you need to be able to work outside with a lot of mosquitoes, and a lot of uncomfortable, hot and uncomfortable cold, and be possibly wet raining that’s, That’s one of the skills that you definitely need is to be able to like to be outside in harsh environment. Another skill is you, you need to have an advanced degree and say, and you know, lots of lots of schooling is also another another good skill to have to be become this. Yeah.
Katie: Just out of curiosity, what was your degree in to go into this specialty? What does an ecologist study?
Ryan: I have a bachelor’s degree in wildlife science. So very specific, actually, degree, it’s called and it’s called wildlife science and it is a major in college.
Katie: Great. Yeah. So you do have to have some sort of upper level of education to be able to go into this field.
Ryan: Yep. Yep, that and a true desire to be miserable outside a lot of times.
Katie: You’re working with nature. You gotta love to be in the nature
Ryan: That’s right, not always like your living room at all, yeah.
Katie: So those are our questions from our wildlife conservationist lesson, and now we’re going to transition into part 2 of the interview, where we’ll talk a little bit more about your specialty and your career. So, I’d love to start out and just taking all the way back, how did you know you wanted to go into ecological services?
Ryan: Well, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian. And I went to college to be a veterinarian, and I actually went to my day on campus just to go see what the veterinary school was like, and then I decided I’m gonna go see somebody else, and I’m gonna go see a conservation type person in the school of forestry and natural resources. And when I walked in that person’s, office I saw everything that I love all the the ducks I could see, and all the skulls of the different thing. All the, all the creatures were out there on display in his office and after we got done talking he said you can do a double major, the wildlife ecology and veterinary. I said, Okay, that’s what i’m doing it.
It shook my world. It change everything, and then, I just ended up sticking with wildlife science fully instead. And I was a little disappointed I didn’t get into that school, but I was kind of concentrated on wildlife, so much it kind of caused me not to and I went into his office 4 years later, and I said, I, I’m very disappointed I’m, I didn’t get into that school I’m so disappointed, and he told me the best wildlife scientists are pre-vet majors, he said, you’re gonna be fine, you’ll get out there, and you’ll be fine and I was, but I would say that I’ve always, I also, prior to that spent all my time outside. I was running around bird watching with people that were 10, 8 times my age. The time I was not with my own group of people and just just that, that’s that’s part of it, too. It’s that, yeah, sometimes what you think might have been a disappointment at the time ends up working out for the better. He explained that to me in that moment and I took it and ran with it, and it’s been nothing but that.
Katie: So present day you work for a company called Civil and Environmental Consultants, or CEC. Whats ecology? Can you tell us a little bit about what you do in the ecological services department there?
Ryan: Yeah, I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I’ve been at CEC for 11. So when I started out I was doing a lot of surveying for endangered bats and surveying for birds. I did some endangered muscle surveys. I got to go down south and walk across multiple states looking for go for tortoises. So it was it was a a myriad of things. And the reason I was doing these things is because we have impacts on our environment. No matter what we do, whether we build a house or a road, or a transmission line, or put up a windmill. We have impacts. So there are regulations in place that make anybody who’s going to do that stuff evaluate what they’re, what they’re doing to the environment it’s, it’s laws. And so between wetlands and threatened and endangered species, we have to go evaluate what’s happening with that. It’s part of, it’s just part of the application process from doing anything. So what I like to say is we we help people get through that process.
That’s really what we’re doing even though we’re running around looking for stuff, that’s not just, we’re just not running randomly, running around looking for things. We’re helping people who are doing impacts get through a process. Now, the past probably 10 years I kind of sit in a chair and tell everybody else what to do. It transitions from being out in it to telling everybody else where they need to be, and what they’re doing. So that’s what I do now.
Katie: Sounds fun. Well, I’m ready to talk about bats because bats are really cool. So let’s get into talking about some of that. When you go surveying for endangered bats, which is the term you mentioned earlier, what does that process look like?
Ryan: Yeah, so we have a protocol that we need to follow. So we’ll take our nets. It’ll put up a certain number and a certain number of places depending on how much impact, this goes back to impact, how much impact was happening. And so these nets go can go they go 20 to 30 feet high, and they’ll be 18 to 60 feet wide, and what we’re trying to do when we put these nets up and they’re on a pulley system they’re obviously very large. We are trying to block off an area that the bats are commuting through, and we want to pick out a place that they’re going through every night. They know the environment, just like you know, how to get from your bed to your bathroom in the dark. They’re going through their thing every night just doing their thing, like like you know how to drive down the interstate.
Well, we’re putting something in the middle of the interstate or in your trip to the bathroom that surprises you. That you had no clue was going to be there and we capture you, and they get tangled in the net, and then we lower the net down, and we remove them, and when we remove them We’re, we’re having to take very specific measurements because if I hold a bat arms length away, several of the species are going to look exactly the same. I can’t tell at arm’s length away what I have yet. I’m looking at literally ankle attachments, toe hairs, the claws, the tragus and the ear, that’s a little thing in front of your ear is called a tragus. We have one too. Theirs are all very specifically different, because they’re trying to hear different things. So that’s a very good quality to look at. So we’re down to how, whether the hair is two toned or one tone, I mean all these things we have to look at to identify the bats. So we’re taking you know male or female, whether they’re reproductive. We want to know if they’re pregnant, or if they’re lactating, things like that. and then if we really want to know what’s going on, if we catch an endangered species we typically will put a transmitter on its back, which is a little watch battery with a hair antenna, and we’ll put that we’ll glue that with skin glue to the middle of their backs, skin usually wears off in the in the weather. So within 2 weeks it falls off and we let them go and then that’s given us that little beep that you see on all the PBS channels where they’re chasing something around with the little beep.
We do that, too, and that’s the purpose of that is to find their, they’re typically a maternity roost is what we’re looking for. In a maternity roost can have, with Indiana bats, that’s our main endangered species here. They just happen to be called Indiana bats, that’s just their name. 200 of those can be in one tree with all their young, so you can realize how important just a single tree is when an impact happens. If they’re 200 with their young in a you know defenseless young how quickly you could take out a pretty large population of bats. So that’s most likely how they became endangered. Is from that kind of impact. So that’s why, that’s what we’re going out and doing typically and that’s why we’re doing it. So that’s how that’s what that looks like.
Katie: Yeah, so when you find that maternity roost are you also working on relocating the bat safely, or are you letting them mature and leave the nest? Like what’s the result of that survey once you find where they are?
Ryan: Yeah. So we find where they are. Hopefully, they’re not on the site, and a lot of times they’re not. These bats travel 2 and a half miles in any direction from their from their tree so there’s a much better, greater chance that tree is not on the site than it is on the site. Now, if it’s not on the site there are sometimes we have to, you know, buffer, buffer it. Give them the space that they need. If it’s close they, cause they need the trees around the tree they don’t just, they can’t just handle having the one tree, you know. So, we’ll typically do that or if it’s on the site, the advantage you have with bats as they go to a cave in the winter to sleep. So they’re not in the tree at all times of the year. While it’s devastating to possibly lose the tree that they’re in, they could, they can deal with losing the tree that they’re in while they’re not in it.
So there’s a there’s a science to that because the bats, We’ve discovered with the radio transmitters are always looking for second homes. They, they don’t always go back to the same tree every night. There’s, they have scouts. You end up finding a primary tree, and you find secondary trees, and they, I think they’re taking care of each other’s young inside the tree. We have no idea how we know, but they they have to be, because sometimes a mother will spend a night in a different tree. And so, because storms happen, and they like dead trees, so it’s a it’s a what we call an ephemeral habitat. Anyway, that tree could fall over naturally on its own at any time, and probably does because it’s dead. So that’s why they have these scouts because that happens. They’re gonna pick up the pieces and they’re gonna run to, I know a good tree over here. Everybody’s gonna go there. So that also works for when they come back from hibernating in the cave.
That tree may have fallen over in the wintertime, frosty, even all that knocks trees over all the time. So they’re on the ready for the tree not to be there when they get back, and they have a secondary plan. So that you can work around it by cutting trees in the wintertime. And then the other thing that we do, If we know that the tree is going to go, like a good tree was going to go, we will put up artificial roofs. We put up, we put up trees that look like they look like dead trees, but they have rubber bark on them. It’s basically stuff you see at the mall. We take that type of stuff and we can make artificial trees in areas that the bats, that they’re not doing the impact. And the bats will find those trees, and that boxes also do work for that situation, too. So we might, we’re gonna, if we know we’re gonna take out a good tree, We might saturate the area around it with these artificial trees, and they’re actually made better quickly. Then then possibly a real tree is, and if you have a bunch of those, then the theory is, hey, they’re looking, anyway and they’ll find it and they’ll relocate. That’s how you relocate them.
Katie: Yeah, that’s amazing. So what are the different roles that these bats are playing in the larger ecosystem?
Ryan: So. bats, you know you always hear this bats eat their body weight and mosquitoes. You know, I, a lot of people hear that, and that’s a misnomer that’s a bit of a misnomer that came from a study, where they put a bat in a cage, and only put mosquitoes in it. And lo and behold! The bat ate its body weight in mosquitoes that night, and so they can do it. Now, do they really do it? They prefer beetles and moths, and you can see the size of a beetle and a moth compared to the size of a mosquito. How you would probably prefer that too, then trying to run around and find all mosquitoes that that those are snacks, I would say. But meals are beetles and moths. Now what do beetles and moths do? They eat crops, and they do a lot of devastation uncontrolled. They, when everything’s in sync, everything’s okay, and bats help keep all of that balance in sync. The bats, one of the biggest things they do is eat crop damaging insects like beetles and moths, and they also really like aquatic habitats as well. So they like aquatic insects as well, and they, their big thing is insects. They’re all insectivores here in the midwest, most of the United States. Down in the desert Southwest, and that kind of thing, They do pollinate cactus, and they they do a little bit of pollination. But every bat in most of the United States is an insectivore, or they they eat insects and control those populations in a good way.
Katie: Great. So that’s really interesting. We know bats like to eat insects but, I’m a lover of a good fun fact. So I’d love for you to share what, what’s the most interesting fact about bats in your opinion?
Ryan: Oh wow! That’s a good question. The, I think the most interesting, I, I’ll tell you this: I do not like mice. I don’t like rats, and I don’t like mice. They freak me out, and the first time I was going out to do bats, I thought I’m gonna be freaked out! I’m gonna be freaked out! And we caught a bat and for whatever reason it was nothing like a mouse or a rat. It was self aware. It was looking around, and almost understood that at some, we weren’t going to hurt it. You know, that we’re a threat but we’re not, we’ve almost like I would have been eaten by now if this was a threat, and they almost start to help you out, dealing with I mean they’re still angry there. It’s almost like it’s more anger than it is like trying to get away, just trying to get away in any direction. They’re thinking it through and everything, and then looking more into the fun facts of bats, I found out that they’re much more related to primates than rodents, and Their, their family name is Chiroptera, and Chiroptera means, Chiro means hand, and Optera means wing. And when you look at their, when you put the the flashlight up to the wing, they have 4 fingers and a thumb. The thumb is a little claw, and the fingers are super long, and it all attaches. The whole membrane attaches to their ankle, and when you have them out, you’ve got these great big hands that they fly with, and their feet are standing up, and they’re facing, they’re looking forward, and they have these traguses and all that, and you there is something to that vampire thing that, that they’re they, and they really are a lot more related to primates than humans than rodents. They even have one young per year, or maybe 2. They may, they may have twins, but mostly have one, and you know mice have litters all year long. You know, that kind of thing. I mean that’s probably the coolest fact to me is that they’re more related to humans than rodents.
Katie: Yeah, that’s amazing. It sounds just like they’re an incredibly smart species, just even the way you’re describing how they have multiple trees and scouts, and you know they sound incredibly intelligent
Ryan: Just for them to fly, they don’t have hollow bones like birds. They don’t have air sacks like birds. They, it’s, some scientists have said they can’t even understand how they physically fly. But they do, and it’s it’s almost like swimming on the air more than it is flight like feathers and birds have. It’s almost like a swim that they do in the air and they are excellent swimmers. We’ve had them fall out when we’re getting them out of the net in a stream, they’ll fall, and they’ll they’ll start to and, man, they’re swimming off like like nothing. You have to really go get them really fast if they, if you let them get it accidentally gets in the water so yeah, they’re cool.
Katie: That’s very cool, for sure!
Katie: Those questions drew from our Wildlife Conservationist STEM Career Lesson, part of Codelicious Computer Science Applications for grades 6 to 8. You can find more information about the course in the show notes. Now, on to the second part of our show. Join me as Ryan explains how he safely captures, studies, and preserves engaged species of bats.
Katie: I’d love to transition from bats and kind of talk a little bit more about you and your career. So what were some of the types of training that you needed to be prepared for your job?
Ryan: Yeah, so I did I, spending a lot of time out with that biologist. Because you have to know these species. We all have to get what’s called a scientific collecting permit, because we’re we’re doing something. Otherwise we’re doing something illegal. Any time you capture an endangered species, or you are holding it that’s called take, and it’s harassing or harming all the things that anybody else does to an endangered species applies to us, too. So we have to go get a scientific collecting permit and have it, you know, renewed, and all that kind of stuff. So you have to have very specialized training in the fact that you have to know what you’re looking at, and know how to handle it. You can’t, you know, kill something trying to get it out of a net, because you don’t know what you’re doing, and all those kind of things. So you have to prove to somebody at the Fish & Wildlife Service that you know what you’re doing before you can even do it. And how do you do something? How do you get to do something that you can’t ever do if you can’t ever do it, you know.
So you you spend a lot of time around people that know what they’re doing, and then they start to let you do some of the stuff. And so when we used to, I still joke about this, it’s funny, We used to do, we’d do 7 nights, 10, we’d probably do 10 nights of bat netting in a row, and then have a couple of days off. And what will we do when it was our day off? We would call people that we knew that we’re netting bats somewhere, and we would say, are you catching anything that we need to see? And we drive part way across the country multiple states over if they said yes, and sit out there with them in hopes that we’d be catching the things that we needed to see to be able to get our own scientific collecting permit.
So that’s the biggest thing, specialty stuff that we have to do and every endangered species, biologists has to spend a ton of time seeing nothing. Most of the time because these these things are rare, so it’s not like you can just catch them every night. So you spend a lot of time with nets in the air, hoping that you get the experience you need to do that. And as these things, I’ve noticed that as these species disappear off the landscape, which they are, it’s getting harder and harder for people to get those permits. So that that’s the biggest thing. We also have trainings on how to delineate wetlands. That’s another thing that a lot of us do and that’s something we can do in an off-season. You know, bats are only out in the summer, but we’ve got a whole other, you know, 9 months out of the year have to be doing stuff, and one of the things that we do is all a lot of us learn how to identify wetlands and streams and there are a lot of specialty classes that go along with, because a wetland is defined as 3 things that has to have the right plants. It has to have the right hydrology. It has to have the right soils. So you have to learn the soils, the plants, and how to recognize the hydrology, even when there’s not water there. There are signs there that you can tell okay water is here, you know. When it’s in August, you still have to be able to.
And the other thing is when it’s in April and the waters everywhere, you have to be able to say, Ok, not a wetland, even though I’m standing in knee-deep water, this is not a wetland. You know, so, there’s a lot of training that goes along with that, too.
Katie: Absolutely. So does what you do in the off-season change based on where you’re located geographically? Like when maybe people in the South be having a different training other than a wetlands training that you might see in Indiana?
Ryan: It can, yeah, it can. Those seasons are extended, yeah, and you can any time there’s not snow on the ground you can pretty much be looking for wetlands. But, so down South people are always out being able to do that. So yeah, yeah, that does change, and the bats are out longer in the southern climates than the northern climates and things like that. So sometimes we do end up with you know, oh, there’s a project in Alabama, in January, and often go, you know. So yeah, that’s a great observation. Absolutely.
Katie: Nice. All right. So I have one more question here for you, and that is what advice would you give to students who are interested in following your career path? Well, I would say that, don’t, for what I do is called Environmental Consulting. That’s what Civil and Environmental Consultants is CEC, is environmental consulting. They still don’t do that great of a job of letting people know in school that that is a career choice. So don’t ever forget about environmental consulting if this is what you want to do.
You get told you’re gonna work for the state. You’re gonna work for the feds. You’re gonna, you know, you’re gonna get a state job. You’re gonna work for the Bureau of Land Management. You’re gonna work at the national park. You’re gonna work at the state park. That’s only a piece of what you can do with this. You also can be an ecological consultant, and it is a is a large career field that they seem to forget about still today.
Katie: Very cool. Yeah, we love spreading awareness about the different types of things you can do with, as a wildlife conservationist with a degree in ecology, so.
Ryan: Yeah, yeah, and you’d be surprised how many of us. Even when I, I mean I’m not discounting federal and state jobs. I mean they’re Indiana department of transportation has biologists that work for them.
You know you there are things like that that you don’t think about as well, how does, how does an electric company have a biologist working for them? They do. So yeah, those type of things are important to keep an eye open for as well.
Katie: Yeah, great things to keep in mind. So thank you so much, Ryan, for coming on the show today. Really appreciate your time.
Ryan: Sure, thank you. It was a pleasure.
Katie: Thank you Ryan Slack, Principal at CEC, for coming on the show today. Listen to every episode of My STEM Career at ellipsiseducation.com or wherever you get your podcasts. See you soon!
Teachers and students: explore STEM careers and discover the ways computer science knowledge can help regardless of your path. In this show, we speak with industry experts that share information about their careers, describe their professional experiences, and offer advice to students. This show is hosted by Codelicious Computer Science Curriculum.