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Friday, March 14, 2014

Staff Interview: Ben Teton

Ben Teton is the newest staff member for the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, as a Wildlife Technician he will help gather data on wildlife populations throughout the ranch. We would like to introduce him to the TR Conservancy community by asking him a few questions.  

Where are you from? What’s your background?

I am California grown. I was born in the Bay, moved to Santa Barbara as a toddler, which is where I spent most of my formative years. After high-school I figured I might as well go check out some big trees, good beer and crappy weather, so I headed up to the Pacific Northwest where I splish-splashed my way to an undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon. From there I joined the Forest Service and began splitting my year between chasing wildland fires in the summer months and travelling abroad during the offseason. In 2012 I spent the off-season interning with the Leatherback Trust on a remote stretch of coastline in North-Western Costa Rica, where I helped take data on a population of nesting marine turtles. I returned from Central America mostly feral and entirely resolved to commit myself to field biology full-time. I signed up to intern with our local darling of endangered species conservation here in So-Cal, the USFWS’ California Condor Recovery Program. Again I found myself tracking down the eggs of animals who look like they escaped from Jurassic Park, and again I loved every minute of it. From there I got a job, again working with marine turtles, this time for the NPS out of North Padre Island in South Texas. I Returned from Texas last fall and began the enrollment process for UCSB’s Bren School and their Masters of Environmental Science Management. It was my intention to make my triumphant (more or less) return to academia this coming Fall, but having been spirited away by what I can only describe as a dream opportunity for experience and on the job training here and the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, I have chosen to forgo graduate school until 2015. I am now the most recent addition to the Conservancy’s team, and as Wildlife Technician I have been privileged with the task of surveying the great mosaic of wilderness that compose the ranch. Beneath this interview I have included some photographs depicting my first impressions of this incredible place.

Word is that you’ve done a good deal of international travel. Do you have any favorite destinations? How has your travel affected your perspective on biological work?

It is difficult to pick favorites. For me, travel memories, like junk food or old music (see below), are all about the mood I’m in when I happen to stroll down memory lane, or into the fridge, or through the stash of old mix-tapes I have strewn about my truck, whatever the case may be.

My perspective on biological work was entirely transformed by my experience working with the Leatherback Trust in Costa Rica, in tandem with my experience a year before, visiting a sloth-bear rehabilitation facility outside of Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, India.  In both cases small groups of motivated, impassioned people, were working with extraordinarily few resources towards the conservation of endangered wildlife. In both cases not only were they making a real positive impact on the condition of the species of concern, but were doing so in a way that incorporated those local community members most impacted or displaced by the conservation efforts themselves. In Agra’s Bear Sanctuary I saw gypsy families hand over their livelihood by relinquishing their captive “dancing” bears to the facility in exchange for trade skills that they could use to support themselves in a more ecologically sustainable way. In Guanacaste I met life-long turtle poachers turned conservation biologists using their knowledge and understanding of local wildlife to protect the very animals they used to harvest. In this way I have come to appreciate the need for holistic conservation strategies that include the interests of impacted communities and invest in grassroots stewardship at the local level, in addition to the direct protection of wilderness and wildlife species of concern.     

Is there anything in particular on Tejon Ranch you are excited to see?

Rain! Familiarizing myself with the ranch over the last few weeks has left me with the impression that everybody is feeling pretty parched out there. I believe I speak for the seed beds when I say that this year has left something to be desired in the way of precipitation.

Please describe one amazing nature moment you had in 2013.

Last year around this time I was working for the Condor Recovery Program out of Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. I was hiking out one late afternoon to do some remote nest observations when I crested the ridge of a deep canyon to find no less than ten condors flying in concert with one another at almost exactly eye level with me. They were so close I could hear the wind rushing through their great wings. I remember thinking they looked like severely sunburned old men, expertly hang-gliding. They made three or four passes over me while I fumbled with settings on my camera and tried not to stumble of a cliff in awe. To see even a single condor riding thermals in that way is to witness a rare and uniquely Californian expression of natural grace and wild freedom; to see such a grouping (especially considering that for many years that number did not exist in the wild), and in that setting, was an absolute all-timer for me.

We at the Conservancy are pretty big audiophiles. Can you list 5 of your favorite albums?

In no particular order…
Taj Mahal - Recycling the Blues (1972): Taj is my all-time favorite musician, he has been so prolific over the years it is impossible to pick a favorite record. Recycling the blues is an early example of his range and depth.

Talking Heads- Stop Making Sense (1984): There are old home-movies of me at three years old dancing around in my underpants to the original concert movie. What can I say, I’m a David Byrne guy.

DJ Quik- Rhythm-al-ism (1998): Smooth West Coast hip-hop from the golden-era. Reminds me of my high-school days, pretending to be cool, chasing girls and getting into trouble.  

Radiohead- In Rainbows (2007): Seeing this played live was the greatest stage performance of any kind I’ve ever seen. Also, this was the first major band to self-release a record without a record label, offering a pay-what-you-want download direct from the band’s website.      

Valerie June- Pushin’ Against a Stone (2013): Favorite new artist and number one celebrity crush. If you have never heard of her, she’s worth a google, truly amazing talent.

We like to talk about how Tejon Ranch is at the confluence of 4 of Ca’s major ecoregions (southwestern Ca, SJV, Sierra Nevada, Mojave Desert). Do you have a favorite one?

The Eastern Sierra is where I learned to love wild places and so it will always hold a special place in my heart. A as a toddler, my folks threw me in a backpack and hiked me into Tuolumne Meadows. I’ve been a sucker for the woods ever since.   

Besides Tejon Ranch, can you list 5 California locations you love?

Tuolumne Meadows- Like I said, it’s where the dream began!

Henry’s Beach, Santa Barbara- I think it goes by a different name now, I grew up down the street from this beach. I spent more time here than at my house, it is the landscape of my childhood.

Big Caliente Hot Springs, Los Padres National Forest- Santa Barbara’s local hot spring, beautiful and well maintained, minimal old naked men.

Heather Lake, Desolation Wilderness- Desolation gets crowded in the summer, but in the between seasons and off the beaten path, it is absolutely breathtaking.

Lost Coast, Mendocino/Humboldt county- The longest stretch of undeveloped coast-line in the continental 48, may it stay that way forever! 

As I am new to the Conservancy and new to the Ranch, I have spent my first month or so immersing myself in the amazing diversity of plants, animals and landscapes that the ranch has to offer. My camera was by my side throughout this introductory period, and I would like to share with you all my first impressions of the ranch through this brief photo montage. I hope you enjoy!
Sunrise on Cordon Ridge.
Deep beneath the cedars, masses of ladybugs dog-pile for warmth and wait out the winter.
       Hundreds of turkey vultures migrate over the Tehachapi’s from the Antelope Valley
Love conquers all! Colony Collapse, habitat decline, penetrating drought- against all odds, sparks still fly between these two evolutionary soul-mates. 

These Rocky Mountain elk look as stiff and groggy as I did on this foggy morning at Comanche Point.

Red Tailed Hawk taking flight across the Tejon Hills.

Not much variety on menu for this heifer at the mouth of Tejon Creek.

You never know what you might find in among the Joshuas

Tired mounts get a much needed feed after a day on the trail.

Horned lizard looking sporty in profile here on the slopes of the Blue Ridge.

Rudely awakened ravens are thrown about by the high desert winds of Antelope Valley.

Moonrise over the bull pasture.