Featured Scientist

  • March 15, 2017

Marcia Grefsrud is an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Bay Delta Region. She spends much of her time working in the field, reviewing requests for incidental take permits and streambed alteration agreements. Her work helps to ensure that urban development does not destroy the resources upon which wildlife depend. She also serves as an advocate for many vulnerable species in the Bay Area, most notably the California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), a stocky black and yellow amphibian that inhabits many of the stock ponds and grasslands in Alameda County.

Marcia took an unconventional path to her current position. She has attended a number of colleges and universities from as far north as Bemidji, Minnesota to as far south and east as Puerto Rico and as far west as Cal State East Bay in Hayward. A former petty officer in the US Navy, she also served as a CDFW wildlife officer before becoming a scientist.

Outside of work, Marcia is also skilled photographer with an extensive portfolio of wildlife images. She is particularly good at “macro-photography” – capturing small details of a dragonfly’s wing or a bushtit’s feathered breast. Her images are often featured on CDFW’s social media pages and in publications.

woman talks to six children in a dry meadow of golden grasses

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

I grew up during the time of “Wild Kingdom,” “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and “Jaws,” and I became fascinated with marine biology, especially sharks. My passion at the time was to be a marine biologist, but there obviously weren’t any colleges in Minnesota offering that field of study and I didn’t have the money to move out of state. Eventually, I couldn’t afford to stay in college, so I opted for something else – the Navy. That decision sent me on an entirely different career track of advanced electronics and cryptology.

How did you come to work for CDFW?

I moved to California after accepting a job as a Navy Tech Rep/Project Manager at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. That job required extensive overseas and stateside travel and long work hours often in remote military bases such as Iceland and Adak, Alaska. The base closures left two options – I could relocate to San Diego or find another job. I opted to leave the federal government and return to school with the goal of studying raptor biology. But life had other plans, so after graduating from CDFW’s Resource Academy, I worked as a fish and game warden for three years. I made the jump to the scientific side 17 years ago.

Your job involves working with developers and builders to issue permits in the East Bay. Why is that important?

I cover all of Alameda County, which includes the highly urbanized area along the easternmost portion of San Francisco Bay and the more rural, eastern portion that supports ranching, with an urban/suburban center located in the Tri-Valley region. The county is approximately 50 percent agricultural land and 50 percent urban lands. Then there is the Altamont area of Alameda County, which is known for the wind turbines populating the hillsides. Combined, each of these areas make Alameda County one of the busiest counties in the region for Habitat Conservation. For example, from 2010-2015, approximately 668 acres of habitat in Alameda County was permanently lost as a result of residential development alone. But approximately 2,066 acres of habitat has been permanently conserved as a result of incidental take permits issued for those residential developments.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

When I’m in the office, I spend the day answering emails and telephone calls. I split my time between writing permits and agreements, reviewing conservation lands packages and monitoring reports. On the fortunate days when I’m in the field, I could be doing compliance checks, visiting project sites or attending meetings. If I’m really fortunate, I could be doing stream or pond surveys.

What is your favorite species to interact with or study?

Hands down, the California tiger salamander. They are my favorite probably because there is so much more to learn about them and I love the challenge. There have been many studies but there are still gaps in our knowledge that may never be filled. Plus, they are so darn cute!

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

The California Endangered Species Act (CESA) was intended to help protect wildlife and their habitats, but it can also create unintended hurdles. For instance, in Alameda County, privately owned stock ponds – which are prime breeding grounds for the California tiger salamander – have a finite lifespan, and may require maintenance and upkeep in order to function properly. When California tiger salamanders became a candidate species for state listing in 2009, new permitting and mitigation requirements went into effect. Because any land improvements or changes within CTS habitat were now subject to strict oversight, I became concerned that some ranchers would let their stock ponds go unmaintained rather than attempt to go through the permitting process.

After doing a lot of digging, I found a little-used section of the Fish and Game Code regarding Voluntary Local Programs (VLPs). These are similar to the state and federal Safe Harbor Agreement program, except the VLP is specifically for routine and ongoing agricultural activities on farms and ranches that encourage habitat for state listed or candidate species. A VLP must include management practices that will avoid and minimize harm while encouraging the enhancement of habitat. Landowners or ranchers that sign up with the local VLP agree to voluntarily carry out specific habitat improvements and to abide by avoidance and minimization measures. These measures are developed and agreed upon by CDFW, the program administrator (in this case, the Alameda County Resource Conservation District), the California Department of Food and Agriculture and other agricultural experts.

Ranchers can then perform routine and ongoing agricultural activities and necessary maintenance to stock ponds, roads, streams and other agreed-upon practices without risk of violating CESA. Even though we had to “give a little,” the Alameda County VLP has helped CDFW build trusting relationships with the Resource Conservation District and the local ranching community, and has ultimately allowed more potential breeding ponds to be repaired in a timely manner.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career as an environmental scientist?

The enormous amount of work and the limitations of our job duties.

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

At the moment I want to do a study on teeth patterns of California tiger salamanders compared to hybrids and non-natives. One study I looked at found that considerable variation in tooth morphology may be found between species of the same genus. There is a possibility that the teeth patterns between the native salamanders, non-natives and hybrids are different. If so, it may provide another indicator to determine whether or not a specific animal is pure CTS or hybrid.

What is it about the work you do that you’d most like us to know?

Some people think Habitat Conservation work is boring and/or not important because it doesn’t sound as exciting as chasing poachers or studying wildlife. Sometimes the work is tedious, but what we do is extremely important because without it we would face more species’ extinction and destruction of terrestrial and aquatic habitat.

How does your interest in photography intersect with your work as a scientist?

I have had a lifelong interest in photography and art, but only recently started to explore photography as art. In addition to photographing wildlife (which has its challenges), I am drawn to the old, obscure, dilapidated and overlooked parts of our environment -- from the tiny mushroom to the broken-down piano dumped on the side of the road. One of the joys I find with photography is being able to show beauty in things that often go unnoticed.

One of the cool things about photography for me is it allows me to visually study some of these animals without physically capturing them. It is amazing what you learn when you are looking at a macro, like the wing structure of a dragonfly or embryos of foothill yellow-legged frogs. I’ve also been able to capture some remarkable photos of birds in action. I have a series of photos of an osprey repeatedly dive bombing a bald eagle. Then another series with a red-tailed hawk attacking a bald eagle that was trying to steal a fish from an osprey. One photo that will hopefully be published in a short note soon is of a peregrine falcon that predated a federally and state protected Ridgway’s rail. The photos are not National Geographic worthy, but they do tell stories!

Do you have any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

With so much information available on the Internet now, I would start by exploring government and non-profit websites to find volunteer opportunities. The more field experience they can get the better off they will be both in finding a job and really beginning to find their passion. Finally, I would recommend when they do find something they are passionate about then stay focused and go for it!

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