Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Ashley Can’t Believe This Is Her Job

In this post, Ashley Oblander, one of our current Hubbard Fellows, reflects upon some of the more memorable moments in her conservation career so far. She’s going to have many more as she leaves us in January and goes on to whatever her next step is (anyone looking for an outstanding land steward?). Ashley and her fellow Fellow, Dat Ha, have both pushed through what has been a more complicated Fellowship year than any of us had anticipated. The pandemic has hindered our ability to provide all the experiences we were hoping, but they’re still having a great year and have provided us with much needed optimism and energy. If you or someone you know would be interested in being one of our 2021 Fellows, applications are being accepted through September 30, 2020. Read more here and share this opportunity widely!

A couple weeks ago, Chris, Dat and I went out to set up an experiment. We’ve done a few of those during our time here, it might not seem out of the ordinary, but this one was different. We went out to part of the preserve with a big group of cattle and started our search. What were we looking for? Their poop. Yep, you read that right. We were on a hunt for fresh cow poop. We were setting up an experiment to examine the effects of cow manure on plant and soil communities, and that would be hard to do without manure.

The fun didn’t stop at collection. Once we got the almost 30 samples that we thought would be sufficient, we took them back to the shop and mixed them together to standardize them. Then we went out to our test plots and constructed our own cow pies. After a day of this smelly task, I caught myself thinking “Who would’ve thought that I would spend a day of work doing this?”

Dat scooping out the correct amount of manure to make each patty the same size. (Photo by Ashley Oblander)

I started reminiscing about other times I thought “I can’t believe this is my job..” While there are a few unusual days, like collecting cow poop for science, most of the time this thought comes when I’m overcome by how lucky I am to do what I do. I think the best way to show this is to share some photos and the stories associated with them.

This photo is from one of my first burns with The Nature Conservancy in Iowa. Like every burn, I was excited to be there and even more so when Katie, the burn boss with our partner Louisa County Conservation, told me that I could light the head fire. She walked with me to ensure that I was feeling confident and going the right way, when all of a sudden she turned around and started taking pictures of me. The smile on my face is partially because of the work I’m doing, but I’m also laughing at the funny scene happening on the fireline. The patience and willingness of staff to put me in a position to learn is something that I will always be grateful for. Photo by Katie Hammond
This is one of my favorite pictures from my time at Broken Kettle Grasslands. In an effort to train the bison and make roundup less stressful on us and the animals, we take out cattle cubes to give them a treat and entice them to follow a truck with a siren. Doing this is always amazing, being surrounded by all these beautiful animals, but this time was extra special. My parents were visiting and we had spent hours the day before searching for the bison with no luck. So the next day (this was also Father’s Day), Scott, the director of stewardship in Iowa, went out and helped us find the bison. My parents not only got to see them, but also got in the back of the pickup and experienced a once in a lifetime opportunity. Getting to share my work with the people I love is something I really enjoy, and I worked for someone that understood that and was willing to give up his weekend hours. I was so appreciative and felt fortunate to be where I was. Photo by Sandy Oblander
This photo is from the sandhill crane migration here at the Platte River Prairies. I can honestly say, I haven’t experienced anything like this in my life. Not only are there too many birds to even try to count on the river, but the noise that they create is insane! I felt moved sitting in a blind with my colleagues getting to enjoy this magical moment together. It’s really hard to put my feelings at that time into words. Photo by Ashley Oblander
This is a photo that Chris took of me on one of our trips to the Niobrara Valley Preserve. There aren’t many things that would get me out of bed at 5 AM, but watching the sun rise over the hills while surrounded by miles of prairie is one of them. It had me feeling energized for the rest of the day, and was one of the many times I felt in awe of my surroundings.
This photo is from a few weeks ago when Dat and I joined Mike, a retired wildlife biologist, and Laura, a graduate student from UNO, on small mammal trapping. I had done some trapping for my thesis at Central College, but it had been years since I got to hold one of these cute critters and remember the little personalities that they all have. It’s invigorating to revisit the experiences that really kick started my love and passion for conservation. Photo by Dat Ha

I never thought that I would be surrounded by 200 bison, explore and take pictures of gorgeous landscapes, or watch a crane migration and call it work. This job definitely has it’s tough and sweaty days, but the good days consistently outshine the bad. Even through the bug bites and sunburns, when you know your hard work is part of a bigger picture and you’re doing what you love, you can end the day with a smile on your face. Thanks for reading my moments of wonderment, and I would love to hear your favorite stories in the comments below.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

4 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Ashley Can’t Believe This Is Her Job

  1. Ashley, Thank you so much for writing about your experiences this year. I grew up on the prairie and miss it greatly. I too am energized each time I get back to Nebraska. You have worked in all sorts of hardships and glory days. Sometimes on the same day! All I can say now is, “Go forth and do great things!”

  2. “Who would’ve thought that I would spend a day of work doing this?”

    Just the night prior to your post I was running composted cow manure through a screen and spreading it on my garden.

    I sure hope you find the cow manure helps plants grow better. I would sure hate to have spent all this time over the years spreading it over my garden to only learn later it doesn’t make a difference.

  3. Ashley, I’m retired now but I too had the privilege of setting fires and managing a bison herd as part of my duties. Most days I had the same feeling of “I can’t believe they are paying me to do this”. I wish you all the best in your future career, and don’t forget to pay it forward to the next generation.

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