Years-long CASEE study reveals changes in local amphibian populations

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On an overcast Friday morning, students at the Center for Agriculture, Science and Environmental Education (CASEE) stepped outside for a short walk to a pond on the 80-acre campus in Brush Prairie. 

Once there, high school students waded into the shallow water to retrieve nets and bottles set up to catch salamanders, frogs, insects and other pond life, while peers catalogued what they found and tagged the creatures before releasing them.  

The students attend CASEE, a program at Battle Ground Public Schools where students study a science-based curriculum immersed in biology, wildlife, food science and other topics before they head back to their home high school for half a day to round out their studies. 

Students and staff work alongside professionals from agriculture, environmental and science agencies as well as businesses as they pursue a science pathway in career and technical education. Students of all ages have access to CASEE for field trips and experiments.

“They’re learning, essentially, what a scientist does,” CASEE teacher Irene Catlin said in a news release. “They’re learning field skills, they’re learning how to work together. They learn so much about the natural world in the process.”

Catlin started the amphibian population study in 2006 with Charlie Crissafulli, a research ecologist at the US Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. The CASEE study is based on similar population studies conducted around Mount St. Helens following its 1980 eruption. 

“There’s this huge dataset that students end up having to work through,” CASEE teacher Chris Collmer said. “It’s much more ‘real world’ instead of a typical high school experiment where you might just have the data from that, and it’s pretty easy to sort though.” 

A news release from the district said the program is working to track two major trends: how species in the pond’s aquatic ecosystem respond to environmental changes over time and how the presence of the invasive American Bullfrog is impacting native populations. 

“We can see how things are changing,” Catlin said. “And there have been a lot of changes.” 

When they first started setting traps, for instance, they would often pull in hundreds of bullfrog tadpoles. Now they’re seeing far fewer, though evidence of the invaders is still clear as at least a couple young specimens were found during this year’s collection. 

Data collected by the students also shows that many of the amphibians that call the pond home are returning to breed earlier each year.

Knowing the data they collect will add to a growing catalogue of information that future scientists will analyze and put into use is especially gratifying for the students. 

“It’s definitely really cool that our data matters,” CASEE sophomore Emma Young said. “Other people are looking at it, it’s not just us.”

After collecting information at the pond, students return to the classroom where they catalogue their data and then learn to put it into spreadsheets and infographics to illustrate their findings. 

Outside of the classroom, CASEE students say the lessons learned at the 80-acre laboratory help shape their view of the world around them. 

“You just know more about everything around you,” sophomore Danika Schnell said. “All these little fun facts about how specifically a tree works or just whatever, and that just feels really cool.”

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