Featured Scientist

  • September 30, 2020

Laureen Thompson conducting a salt marsh harvest mouse survey in the Suisun marsh.

two scientist attaching a radio collar to a mouse in a dry grassy area with blue sky
Thompson and a UC Davis graduate student putting a radio collar on a salt marsh harvest mouse.

scientist using a pvc pipe grid to survey mice in a grassy field
Plant survey at the Suisun marsh.

When people ask Laureen Thompson what she does for a living, she often tells them she’s a “glorified mouse trapper.” If you get her talking more, she’ll tell you she’s an environmental scientist who works in the Suisun Marsh in Solano County. Much of her work involves the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse. Her duties also include managing CDFW’s role in monitoring compliance of permits for outside agencies and preservation agreements that protect the marsh and its wildlife. Thompson graduated from University of California, Davis, with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology. She was hired by CDFW in 1993.

What sparked your interest in wildlife conservation?

When I was a kid, my grandparents were very involved in the Associated Sportsmen of California. They interacted with the California Fish and Game Commission, wrote letters and commented on laws and regulations. I used to go out in the field with them. At the time, I didn’t realize how much they were influencing me. All through school I kept moving toward wildlife conservation. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I kept following what I liked.

How did you become involved with the salt marsh harvest mouse?

I started out my career as a waterfowl biologist, and I heard of the position in the Suisun Marsh where an endangered mouse was potentially being affected by duck club owners managing facilities for waterfowl. I had the impression that the mouse was not being negatively impacted by the way duck clubs were managed for wildlife. We started surveying for the mouse the way it had always been done: putting traps in areas of short pickleweed plants. But when we didn’t catch anything, we started trapping in tall vegetation – really tall, almost to the point where it resembled an apartment complex to a mouse. We started catching a lot of the endangered mice, and we soon realized that the marsh likely has the highest numbers anywhere in the mouse’s range. We were able to hire some really good scientific aids and received several grants. We started doing radio telemetry studies, putting tiny radio collars on mice, as well as studies looking into mouse numbers in tidal wetlands vs. diked wetlands, and we were able to show that the mouse population is equal or greater in diked wetlands in certain times of the year. Now we’re looking at genetics and genetic diversity – not just in Suisun but in the mouse’s entire range from the bay area to Lower Sherman Island Wildlife Area and into the Bay-Delta.

What threats does the salt marsh harvest mouse face?

The public is familiar with sea level rise, and how we’re going to lose existing marshes and infrastructure as sea level rises. The marsh is where the mouse lives and they will eventually get flooded out and have no place to go. If we don’t accommodate for sea level rise and keep the marshes expanding and alive, we could lose the mouse. It may not seem like that big of a deal. But the mouse is a key indicator showing the health of the marsh. By losing the marsh, we lose what’s filtering and cleaning the water, which results in loss of habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife species. Diked wetlands are a way to protect the mouse and provide protections for roads and buildings. If we can improve management of diked wetlands, those improvements will also help bird and waterfowl communities.

What would you like the public to know about Suisun marsh?

The main thing I’d like people to know is that public use near the marsh can have a negative impact on the animals that live there. We want everyone to be able to recreate in the marsh and appreciate all it has to offer, but we also want people to follow a few simple rules like keeping your dogs in line and not dumping trash. There’s a lot of wildlife living out there that you don’t ever see. Be mindful. If there’s a trail, stay on the trail. You can end up destroying the marsh if you go deeper into it.

Are there any species of wildlife in the marsh that might surprise people?

There’s a population of western pond turtle, and many snake species including gopher snakes, racers and garter snakes. Additionally, there are numerous bird species, river otters and a large tule elk population.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Getting out in the field at o’dark-thirty and watching the sunrise. I get to be out in the field five to 20 days per month. My duties allow me to have maintain flexible hours for the most part, so I can be out working before sunrise and after sunset.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Sometimes, it’s not having enough time in the day to get things done. Collecting and managing data, answering emails, attending meetings, and report writing. I really do enjoy all aspects of my job.

What advice do you have for people interested in conservation careers?

Get out and volunteer. Find out what you really like to do and don’t like to do. I receive many applications for seasonal staff positions. Too often, applicants have the necessary college education, but have not tried to obtain any conservation-related experience. When people apply for our positions, they should know how to think on their feet and have some basic experience through class fieldwork, seasonal work with an agency, or volunteering. When you volunteer, you get to know your likes and dislikes and increase your networking opportunities. If the people you work with like your work ethic, they may be able to help find job opportunities in the future. Don’t be afraid to ask someone if you can help out. You never know when it could lead to a paying job.

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