For many kids in the Kootenays, becoming a biologist might seem like a dream job, especially if it allows them to live and work in the beloved area where they grew up. This was the case for Jakob Dulisse, a wildlife biologist based in Nelson.
A West Kootenay childhood spent catching snakes and frogs led to a biology degree and a career in conservation biology — mostly catching snakes and frogs. Jakob has more than 25 years of experience working throughout the Kootenay region on many field projects, often involving amphibians, reptiles and birds.
“Growing up I lived in really rural places and spent a lot of time outside, playing in the creek, fishing, taking care of baby birds. But I wasn’t expecting to have a career in biology, I wanted to have a bike shop,” he laughed.
It wasn’t until his second year at the University of Victoria that Jakob met working biologists and realized he could make a career out of his love for the natural world. A summer job near Ashcroft catching woodpeckers using radio telemetry for a grad student who was doing his masters on Red-naped Sapsuckers convinced him. As luck would have it, a Nelson consulting company was beginning to research cavity-nesting birds and woodpeckers around that time and hired Jakob while he was still an undergraduate student.
“Marlene Machmer and Chris Steeger with Pandion Ecological Research hired me for one summer and I went back after my degree and worked for them full time. I ended up working for them for seven years,” Jakob said. “I learned a lot about consulting, then I went out on my own after that. I still get to work with Marlene quite a bit so that’s kind of cool.”
While most of his projects are centred in the Kootenays, he’s also worked on ones further afield including a bird project in Hudson Bay, amphibian surveys in the Northwest Territories and even an endangered bird project on Maui earlier in his career. He considers himself lucky to work on mostly research projects with a conservation focus but admits that working in conservation can be tough going.
“It’s a lot of losing. There are not a lot of wins,” Jakob said. “When you’re working with species at risk and conservation in general, the wins that you do have you really have to hang onto.”
Jakob considers the Western toad project he’s been involved with for the past 10 years to be a win. Along with the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program and wildlife biologist Irene Manley with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development, Jakob has been trying to address the issue of toad mortality on Highway 6 at Summit Lake.
“It’s one of the most important breeding sites for the species in the entire global range, so it’s a super important site. The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure has installed a couple of toad underpasses and the latest population estimation shows the population is holding steady,” he said.
He feels much less confident about working with snake species at risk in the South Columbia/Trail and Waneta area.
“It has been super challenging, with all the industrial activities down that way and there’s not a lot of awareness as far as how special that ecosystem is down there. It’s an important grassland shrub land ecosystem that’s very unique in British Columbia. We’re trying to really promote the conservation value of that ecosystem and I don’t know if I would call it a success. We’ve learned a lot but I don’t think it’s resulted in a net benefit for the snakes.”
Through another FWCP project, one focused on small wetlands health in the drier range land ecosystems of the East Kootenay, Jakob had hoped to engage more people to protect important amphibian breeding wetlands impacted by cattle but came up against the same challenge of entrenched perspectives.
“It’s a tricky one. It’s been happening on the landscape for so long, it’s hard to change the trajectory,” he remarked. “But we did a lot of work that I hope people will build on.”
Jakob in part attributes the success of the Summit Lake toad project to the Toadfest festival they started, which was held annually up until the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It became a really popular annual family event where we stopped traffic and kids came and helped moved toadlets across the highway,” he said. “Conservation in the end is much less about biology and more about human relationships.”