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Yotes research in Idaho backcountry

The engine roared as a small bush plane flew a few hundred feet above the tree tops. Below, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River meandered through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. As the plane dipped lower and lower, following the river, it turned toward the right bank and a small cut-out of green grass.

Landing at Pistol Creek Ranch, College of Idaho junior math-physics Natasha Dacic helped geoscience professor Jaime Goode unload their gear and get ready to trek into Idaho’s backcountry. For the next five days, the crew would visit various stream sites and perform field research to see how wildfires play a role in shaping salmon spawning habitat.

“It was unbelievable to be able to fly over the Salmon River basin watershed and be able to look at all of the forest and burnt areas,” Dacic said. “It was an experience for sure.”

As fires burn through Idaho forests, 740,000 acres in 2015 to be precise, the result is a scarred landscape that causes debris, such as sediment and wood, to flow into Idaho rivers. A desire to understand the relationship between fires and waterways led Dr. Jaime Goode to apply for and receive a $48,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Trust last year. With funding in hand, Goode and her team set out to see if, without fires and debris flows, would Idaho rivers have the right type of fine sediment needed for salmon to spawn?

While helping Goode, Dacic also conducted her own summer-long research. She collected sediment samples in order to measure in-stream carbon storage at the different sites and will present her findings at the annual Murdock College Science Research Conference Nov. 4-5 in Spokane, Wash. But Dacic’s summer research adventure wouldn’t have been possible without an Environmental Leadership Initiative grant.

"Receiving the ELI grant for my research with Dr. Goode was a tremendous help and opened many doors,” Dacic said. “It allowed me to purchase the necessary equipment and supplies for my summer research and will allow me to travel to multiple research conferences to present my work. Without this funding, these opportunities would not have been possible for me and I am so thankful for it."

Car camping for the first few weeks, the group went off the grid by flying into the Idaho backcountry in August. Camping around 6,000 feet, they awoke to the cold chill of mountain mornings, sometimes before the sun rose. A campfire and coffee were a must to warm up as breakfast was prepared.

Packing up their equipment each day, they hiked a few miles to stream sites. With waiters on, the team spent about 10 hours collecting data in rivers and mapping out the various sites which had different fire histories.

“We look at what’s happening to the complexity of [salmon] habitat—do they have places to feed, places to rest, what are the water flows like, what are the nutrients in the water like?” Goode said.

The outdoor lab environment wasn’t quite what Dacic was expecting. It was a lot of field work, getting your hands dirty, hiking though vegetation and climbing logjams while trying not to fall. Cuts, bruises, scrapes—all became souvenirs. But the junior, who wouldn’t describe herself as outdoorsy, found a new love for nature.

“Being able to see [the backcountry] definitely gave me a whole new perspective of Idaho,” she said. “So don’t tell anyone that we have amazing backcountry. We only have potatoes.”

For Dacic, who plans on going to graduate school, performing research for the first time this summer was more than just a crucial step in pursuing a career in renewable energy resources. It also offered a chance to realize all the amazing opportunities she’s had in life.

It’s been a long journey for her to Idaho and the C of I. Being born in Germany to Bosnian parents, she moved to Idaho when she was three years old. A last minute choice on National Signing Day led her to play basketball at the College—a decision she calls her “best choice.”

“It’s crazy to look back to see how far my family has come, how far I have come,” she said. “Being the first generation—not only in the States, but to go to college—definitely motivates me to finish school and be able to help out my family when I finish grad school.”

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.