Posted on July 16, 2022 by Sonoma Valley Sun
The Sun’s Anna Pier sits down with Dan Levitis, PhD, to find out what he’s doing for Sonoma Ecology Center at Sugarloaf State Park, how he got there and delve into his professional passions.
What was your path to Sugarloaf? When I was six years old, I announced that I was going to be a zoologist. I earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, and before starting a PhD at UC Berkeley, I did a variety of field work. I’ve found Florida jay nests, studied bird behavior at the Bronx Zoo, banded migratory birds in Canada, tracked California condors at Ventura Co. I’ve lived in nine states – California four times – and Papua New Guinea, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark.
How did you get to Sonoma? Sonoma itself was a hit.
After a post-doctorate in Germany, I taught in Denmark, Maine and at the University of Wisconsin. I realized that I get sick in cold climates. My wife grew up in northern California, so we moved here in 2018. Along with my cousin, in a moving van driving 70 mph on the “loneliest road in America” - the highway 50 in Nevada, we flipped. When I was recovering from surgery for a spinal injury, I volunteered for the Sonoma Ecology Center. Then they hired me as the volunteer coordinator.
How is the work environment at Sugarloaf? It’s a real gift. Spending time in nature frequently is essential to me, and getting paid to do so is just lovely. Helping others enjoy time in nature is even better.
I am writing grant proposals to fund a new program, Community Science in the Springs. It would focus on Sonoma Creek and hopefully involve people of all ages from the underprivileged community.
I love the Springs community. My three children have all been in the dual immersion program at Flowery School. Unfortunately, we were exempted from buying a house there. After a year of research, we had to settle for buying in Santa Rosa.
What does the Community Science Coordinator do? Several things. I led naturalists and community volunteers to document all species at the Sonoma Development Center and Sugarloaf. We photographed, identified and uploaded to iNaturalist more than 1,200 plants, animals, and fungi at SDC and 1,827 at Sugarloaf.
Education. I’m a teacher and I missed it. I had a series of adult classes at Sugarloaf in field zoology, climate management, and, with Tony Passantino, a course to certify California naturalists. Upcoming is a two-day Sonoma Valley Ed Foundation funded course in fire resistance. We will have 14 teachers from all grade levels teaching these topics in their classrooms. And I have a passion for science and nature writing, so I have an upcoming course on nature writing for conservation.
What do you do as the volunteer coordinator at Sugarloaf? We have 211 active volunteers, and they do everything from staffing the visitor center to prepping trails to hiking. That’s why the park is so well maintained, even the bathrooms are clean. They set up and monitor the over 40 creature cameras we have throughout the park. I designed and carried out their teaching and training.
What wildlife have you captured on the creature cameras?
We have tens of thousands of videos. The cameras caught several bears – including a mom with cubs – and mountain lions, lots of deer, turkeys. And we found otters, mink and a badger at Mayacamas Creek. There is a fascinating video of a great horned owl crushing a California giant salamander nearly a foot long. The owl didn’t know it was a protected species, so we can’t blame him.
What do you do with the data? We share it with organizations such as North Bay Bear Collaborative and North Bay Lion Conservation Project. We post a lot of videos on social media.
What are you studying now? The science and how access to nature affects longevity. I am really interested in expanding access to nature for disadvantaged people. We have distributed many Sugarloaf day passes at food banks and elsewhere. I know this doesn’t eliminate all the obstacles, but maybe it helps. Our Senderos program at Sugarloaf offers free hiking and camping experiences throughout Spanish. When I was recovering from a spinal injury in 2018, I saw firsthand how experiences in nature help healing.
In a letter to the editor of The Sun, you identify the city of Sonoma as a “NORC” – a naturally occurring retirement community. Have city officials shared your suggestions with you? So far, no one.
As a biologist, how did you come to quantitative demographic research? My thesis at UC Berkeley was on the evolution of post-reproductive survival. I did post-doctoral work at the Max Planck Institute in Germany to find a meaningful measure of post-reproductive survival across species. People live an average of 40% of their lives in the post-reproductive years. The average for all other species is 2-5%.
Tell me about your family.
My wife Iris is a grant writer for an environmental engineering company that cleans up polluted sites in socio-economically disadvantaged communities. We have three young children, born in Germany, Denmark and Wisconsin. And we have a Ukrainian family living with us, a mother and her young son who we brought here under the Biden administration’s refugee program. Friends helped us raise the money for the plane ticket.