It’s a story that is growing more and more familiar.
One day, nine years ago, Patti Martin said, the area manager walks into her office at her old job in Powell. Medicare had recently made a lot of changes, the area manager said.
“By 8:30 all of us were standing on the sidewalk,” Martin said. “At 55 years old, you think what are you going to do?”
For many, it’s the start of a tragic story. For Martin, it was the start of the best job of her life.
Martin comes from a long line of farmers and has long been an advocate for the Pryor Mountain wild mustangs.
“I was raised growing out of this soil,” Martin said. “I was taught to love this soil.”
And as for the wild horses: “I’ve adopted wild horses. I belonged to the Pryor Mountain group. I was the one who first got that going,” Martin said.
So when the job description written by the Park Service popped up for a biological science technician, Martin’s response wasn’t in doubt.
“It was fixing the fence, spraying weeds, growing trees, managing horses, walking the boundaries, and I thought, ‘I could do that,” Martin said. “I’ve been doing it all my life.”
Martin is retiring as the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area’s biological science technician after nine years on the job. She got old, Martin concedes, and if she never got old, she’d never leave.
There are multiple reasons for that.
The first, Martin said, is nature. Every day is an escape.
“Let’s say you have a rough morning meeting and your bosses got on your case,” Martin said. “What do you do? You go out in your government vehicle and you get out to the beauty. You leave all that behind.”
Martin gave an example of what a typical day in the summer might look like.
“We go spraying weeds in the Black Canyon. We get out, we’re all in the boat. We’re going down the canyon,” Martin said. “There’s snowcapped mountains, there’s elk drinking out of the lake. I love my job.”
As the biological science technician, Martin has had a few primary responsibilities. She’s overseen weed spraying and the growing of vegetation. In the last four years, she’s checked boats into the south side of the lake, and overseen the same process on the north side. She also participates in fertility control for the wild mustangs.
Age has got the better of her as of late, but, Martin said, in her first five years of the job, the typical day might consist of her walking up to ten miles spraying weeds and planting seeds. She was in the best shape of her life and she got to know herself. It’s hard not to know yourself better in the job, Martin said, many days consists of eight hours of solitude.
Martin recalls when she was tasked with revegetating a patch of ground that had been burned barren by a controlled burn that escaped its boundaries.
“I spent a month out there by myself, making rows, so the water can get down and underneath the seeds. I made an American flag, I dug little stars,” Martin said. “My boss, she walked out there to see what I’m doing. She asked, and I had this sheepish grin, ‘I’m making an American flag, I’ve been out here for a month alone, I’m getting creative now.”’
Martin has overseen many of the vegetation, trees and flowers added to the recreation center. Some areas in the recreation area see less than two inches of rainfall a year, and grass and other plants are vulnerable to being munched on by various species. It’s a labor of love to get something to spout out of the ground, Martin said. Sometimes that work involves creating tomato cages made out of sticks to protect the plants, and then there are other more unconventional methods.
“We’d play them music,” Martin said about the process of growing a number of trees outside the visitor center, “and there’s one pine I used to dance with. It had two arms. Every one was like, what are you doing? Maybe I’m crazy, but it grew.”
But Martin isn’t just close to the plants in the park, she knows the living creatures in the park just as well. She’s personally named every bear who resides there, she said.
“Shakesbear lived down in Hillsboro,” Martin recalled.
“So many times, he’d be sleeping and he’d stand up on me, because I’d be spraying weeds. He was napping around the sage brush, and I came spraying and he stood up on me again. I told him, if he stood up on me again, I’m going to go and get my broom, and he ran off.
“I was just tired of this; he’s always napping on me,” Martin said.
She’s also overseen projects to count every bighorn sheep in the park. That involved arming many of the seasonal workers with paintball guns.
“We paintballed them. With different colors. That way you knew you weren’t counting the same sheep twice,” Martin said. “The sheep had splotches of orange and purple and blue.”
Martin recalled seeing the bighorn sheep population plummet from nearly 300 in count to just 45 during her tenure with the park service. After the University of Utah conducted a study, it was discovered to be the work of one female mountain lion. They got a collar on her and it
became clear. In 90 days the lion had devoured 33 more sheep.
Then one day it got dire.
“We got her on camera eating some deer, and she had three kittens,” Martin said. “I said, ‘It’s going to take two weeks to finish the sheep off.”’
But nature intervened. Another larger male mountain lion stumbled upon her camp, and after killing her in a fight, he also took care of the kittens.
“The sheep are up to 200 now,” Martin said. “They used to be so scared, they wouldn’t come out to the canyon edge. Now they go right up to the road. They’re all over.”
Martin has never been up close and personal to a lion herself, but rattlesnakes are another story. They’re thicker than many imagine in the park, Martin said and one day she counted 13 of them. Another day, she herself got struck.
“I was spraying at the Ewing-Snell Ranch, and it was lying in that parking lot,” Martin said. “I turned around to spray and he struck without even rattling. He struck hard, too, and then he came back up and rattled.”
Martin, thankfully, was wearing snake chaps, leaving her unharmed. She felt the force of the snake’s bite days after, though.
But of all the animals in the area, the horses are the most dear to Martin.
Martin was intimately involved in the process of discovering the Pryor Mountain Horses’ rare Spanish genetic lineage. She contacted the biologist who documented it herself, she said. She played a role in naming many of the horses as well–including Phoenix, the mother of the famous Cloud. It’s only fitting that her career ends alongside them.
Fertility control, Martin said, is necessary The environment can only support so many horses, sheep and deer. But, it’s tricky business.
“Our dart guns go 40 yards; we try for 20 because if you get them at 40, they’ll stand 50,” Martin said.
The horses have long been wise to the plot. Fertilization control starts in February and ends in April so they can get horses vaccinated before they breed. Martin recalls herself and coworkers spending all day working their way up a snow bank last spring.
“We spent half a day walking up a snowdrift and they just stood and watched,” Martin said. “We finally got to them and they took off. They went over the top.”
They’ve come to recognize park service uniforms, so many attempts involve dressing up as a tourist, with a camera around one’s neck, and a dart gun hidden at one’s side.
Not only did Martin have to be creative, she had to be timely.
“It wears off in one year, so we have it all marked on a calendar,” Martin said. “We were one day late revaccinating this one mare and she got bred. There isn’t much room for error.”
How much does Martin love the job? Her retirement plans consist of two things. The first is spending more time with her father. The second is volunteering at the recreation area – now that she doesn’t work there.
“I want to come back as a volunteer, manage the flower beds out here, take care of the trees,” Martin said. “…Now I can hike those trails and spend as much time as I want out there.”
By Ryan Fitzmaurice