Featured Scientist

Jack Crayon
  • February 28, 2017
Jack Crayon is an Environmental Scientist for CDFW’s Inland Desert Region, which includes Imperial, Inyo, Mono, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Jack has spent his entire 16-year career on a single area of study: the Salton Sea.

Jack Crayon is an Environmental Scientist for CDFW’s Inland Desert Region, which includes Imperial, Inyo, Mono, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Jack has spent his entire 16-year career on a single area of study: the Salton Sea.

Jack earned a B.S. from UC Davis and a M.S. from UC Riverside. He has worked in the lab and in the field for a number of US Geological Survey researchers. Originally from upstate New York, Jack developed his passion for the outdoors and its denizens when he was still very young. After mostly working in the trades after high school, he spent 11 years working for the (then) San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, including several years as an elephant keeper. Today primary job duties include study and analysis of Salton Sea fish and wildlife issues and how the sea impacts the ecology of the region and, ultimately, the entire west coast.

Did someone or something inspire you to study science or the environment?

While at the Wild Animal Park, I volunteered in a scientist’s lab and realized I really wanted to work in a more impactful capacity than just caring for captive wildlife. I saw how the power of research was driving conservation efforts.

What is your favorite area or species to study?

I caught my first snake in the late ‘50s. I’ve been infected with a severe case of herpetology ever since. Working around the Salton Sea I run into sidewinders and Western Diamondback rattlesnakes – the stuff of my childhood dreams!

What inspires you in your job or area of study?

The good-hearted people I have met and worked with who have decided to spend their lives trying to make things better in the natural resources world.

Why is the Salton Sea important?

The Salton Sea is a very large example of a phenomenon I recognized years ago: that the degraded and limited habitats that have been damaged by human development and recreational activities can still harbor vital resources for wildlife. For all its supposed unattractiveness, the lake generates unbelievable productivity for wildlife. It has become a birder’s paradise since its accidental inception. And, most importantly, we have lost so much of California’s natural wetlands … this lake has now become an irreplaceable surrogate habitat. In many cases, the bird species using the Salton Sea no longer have other options available for resting and feeding during migration.

What is CDFW’s role in the Salton Sea restoration?

In the 1950s and 1960s, CDFW was deeply invested in establishing and supporting a sport fishery here. This ended up becoming a world-class angling opportunity. But as the water quality has deteriorated over the years, our focus and emphasis have shifted to broader-scale environmental issues that go far beyond just the loss of a recreational fishery. Much of what we have engaged in during the last decade – analyzing the environmental threats and designing restoration strategies – has been driven by legislative directives.

Over the last century, the lake has become so much more than just a good place to fish. Now, its decline raises economic and human health issues. We no longer work in an arena of simple wildlife conservation. We sit at the table with a large and diverse array of stakeholders, including Native American tribes, federal agencies, local governments, environmental advocacy groups and water districts. The challenge now facing the Department is to achieve our wildlife management efforts within a broad and complex setting of social, political and economic concerns.

What should people know about the desert region? How does it affect the rest of the state?

The average person thinks the desert is an unproductive place – a wasteland of sorts. It sometimes becomes an easy target for development since people assume it has less ecological value than stands of redwoods, or salmon-filled streams. But so much of its botanical beauty is seasonal and ephemeral. So much of the wildlife diversity spends a large part of lifetime underground, or is active only at night. The unique adaptations of desert dwelling plants and wildlife are fascinating.

What would a day in the field be for you?

Lately, I’m often called upon to provide mini-workshops on the Salton Sea, traveling with others to highlight the ecological values of the lake and letting them experience some of the truly awe-inspiring visual treats you only can see from an air boat.

What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?

Two projects were interwoven. The first was developing and implementing a sampling protocol to monitor the Salton Sea fisheries. There were periodic fish die-offs numbering in the millions in the lake, and the causes weren’t fully understood. The second was working with US Fish and Wildlife to implement bird salvage efforts during the botulism events that plagued the lake. During the late 1990s the Salton Sea experienced die-offs of fish-eating birds numbering in the tens of thousands. It turned out that they were being poisoned by eating the dying fish, but then their carcasses became vectors for additional poisoning of many other bird species, from ducks to egrets. Sick birds could be saved with Vitamin K and fluids, and collecting the dead birds would break the cycle of poisoning. So summertime would require all hands on deck, collecting as many dead and dying birds as possible from a moving air boat.

Over the course of your career, was there a discovery or an incident that surprised you?

The Salton Sea’s sport fisheries were established back in the 1950s when the Department stocked the lake with several species from the Gulf of California. Orangemouth corvina, Gulf croaker and sargo took hold and provided hugely successful fisheries. During the 1960s, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area was a popular spot for anglers, and it hosted more visitors than Yosemite National Park during those times. Fish die-offs occurred occasionally throughout the lake’s history, but the fisheries always rebounded.

After we started to sample the Salton Sea fisheries, we detected the crash of the sport fish populations over a single year’s time. It was unusually abrupt, and we met a lot of skepticism from the local folks who insisted it was just part of the fisheries’ “cycle,” and the fish would come bounding back as they had before.

What was different this time was the suppression of reproduction by some unique water quality conditions. The increasingly saline water body was now 50 percent more salty than the ocean these marine species came from. At the same time, scientists were piecing together a driver behind the fish kills totally different from the algae blooms which everyone assumed were responsible. Hydrogen sulfide and ammonia (products from the microbial decomposition of organic matter) accumulate at the lake bottom.  When the lower water is mixed during summertime wind events, these chemicals strip the oxygen from the entire water column. In the early 2000s, these upwellings were so persistent and widespread that it meant the end of the three sport fish species.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

There are many secretive and understudied reptile and amphibian species for which we have so little information. I’d love to use a dog trained to scent track species like rubber boas or Couch’s spadefoot, and fill in the blanks about their distribution.

What is the best thing about being a wildlife scientist?

As a CDFW employee, I get to go places, see things and handle animals in ways I could never do as a private citizen. One special treat I like to give visitors is to take a boat to the middle of the lake and turn off the engine. I ask them to just be silent and experience the feeling of complete detachment from civilization.

The world of science and managing natural resources is often confusing or mysterious for the average person. What is it about the work you do that you’d most like us to know that will take away the mystery?

This is a really tough question. The education, training and experience that wildlife professionals acquire allow them to work from a perspective of profound expertise, which isn’t accessible to the average person. This is what creates the “mystery.” I think the most impactful way of getting people to understand our work is being done on television, e.g., on PBS and National Geographic specials.

Is there a preconception about scientists you would like to dispel?

Yes – the whole ivory tower thing. There are indeed scientists who are locked away in their own world of basic research. The ones I call friends and colleagues are personable and humorous, with a heightened awareness of the political framework within which we operate. They’re passionate about seeing their work having a positive impact on the “real” world.

Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Get as much insight as you can about the career you seek – from internships, volunteering and talking to people who do the job you want to do. What we do is often presented as overly glamorous or exciting on TV. Find out what it’s like down in the trenches.

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