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Summer job chasing fish: Idaho teen wins scholarship to learn ins and outs of fisheries biology biz

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 8, 2021

By Jerry Painter The Post Register

IDAHO FALLS – It was not your regular teenager’s summer job of flipping burgers and frying potatoes.

For Anika Tolman, a junior at Salmon High School, summer work bordered on adventure. For one task, she donned a wetsuit, mask and snorkel, and crawled on her hands and knees up Big Timber Creek for about 330 feet, counting fish.

On other days she helped with fish surveys feeding out gillnets at Meadow Lake, or walking stream banks counting salmon redds, or installing PIT tags in trout, or manning rotary screw traps to monitor juvenile salmon headed for the ocean.

Another task involved carrying an electrofishing backpack to temporarily stun fish during a stream survey.

The opportunity to work on various fisheries projects with Salmon-Challis National Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game biologists and technicians came through the Hutton Junior Fisheries Biology Program. The competitive, nationwide scholarship program selects a couple of dozen high school students and matches them up with pros in the fisheries field. The hope is to light a fire in the rising generation and stimulate interest in fisheries science careers.

“I didn’t really know about fisheries at all until I got into this program,” Tolman said. “It’s definitely an amazing opportunity and I’ve loved every step of it.”

She started the program in mid-June and finished at the end of August. She rotated weeks working with the Forest Service one week and Fish and Game the next.

The scholarship program has engaged 727 students since 2001. Many continue on with careers in fisheries or environmental science. The Hutton program emphasizes minority and female participation. Tolman said most of the biologists and technicians she has worked with in the Salmon area are women.

“In 2020, the (Salmon-Challis) Forest hosted two Hutton scholars out of the Lost River Ranger District in Mackay – one from Butte County High School and one from Mackay High School,” said Amy Baumer, of the Forest Service Salmon office.

Those students, Halee Angell and Riley Moore, helped on the Bonanza Stream Restoration Project. The project worked to restore about a mile of the Yankee Fork near historic Bonanza that was affected by dredge mining.

“On a related note, we hired Halee as a seasonal employee in our program this year down in Mackay,” Baumer said.

Another Mackay High School student, Caleb Hampton, participated in the Hutton program this summer working on a fish restoration project in the Little Lost River basin.

The scholarship lasts for up to eight weeks and pays up to $3,000.

One new skill Tolman acquired was learning how to take environmental DNA samples from streams to learn what species are present.

“We take a water sample of certain creeks and you can send this DNA sample into the lab and they can tell you exactly how many species and how many fish are in a certain area of that creek just from the DNA sample,” Tolman said. “It’s crazy. I didn’t even know it was possible until I started doing it. I’ve loved it. It’s super awesome.”

Tolman is the first student selected from Salmon. She was tipped off to the scholarship by her high school biology teacher. Although she enjoys the outdoors – hiking, fishing and riding motorbikes – fisheries biology is new to her. At one point, biologists gave her a fish identification tutorial, plucking fish from a bucket.

“They’ve been good about teaching me what they’re doing, especially since I have zero experience in anything in this career,” she said. “They’ve done really good at showing me how to do things. I’ve just been kind of tagging along with them.”

When she’s not chasing fish, Tolman spends some evenings on a co-ed softball team with friends and has a weekend job at Rise and Shine Espresso in Salmon and also mows lawns. She’s taken up weightlifting to beef up for the coming track season.

“My sophomore year was the first year to do shot put and disc, and I made it to state in shot put,” she said. “I didn’t do so great, but I really love doing it. I have a passion for it, and I will be able to improve a lot and keep going.

“(The Hutton scholarship) definitely opened up a lot about what I think I’m going to do when I get older. I want to get more information about it and hope to excel in it and think it over.”

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