College grad trades in books for coyotes

Submitted+photo.

Submitted photo.

Lindsy Neer

Sarah Stankavich gets out of the truck into the pouring rain, lugging a radio antenna half her height. She puts on heavy-duty headphones and circles a parking lot next to Kraft Foods in Streetsboro, waiting to hear the steady beep of coyote 195.

Sarah is a 22-year-old natural resource intern at Metro Parks, Serving Summit County, a park district that spans Summit County, encompassing more than 10,500 acres of land and 14 developed parks. She is essentially in charge of gathering research for the Metro Parks’ coyote project, which she has been a part of for more than a year.

Coyote 195 (identified by his radio frequency) is one of about a dozen coyotes Sarah manually tracks each week. She became involved with the program almost nine months before she graduated from the University of Akron with a degree in biology. Originally attending college to focus on DNA research (she sports a tattoo of a DNA strand on her wrist), she has since found her niche with wildlife.

Sarah is one of six people working on the project, driving more than half an hour to the Akron office five days a week to track her brood of coyotes. She says she does the research to help raise awareness about the animals. While most people cringe at the thought of a coyote roaming through their town, Sarah isn’t fazed.

“People see coyotes and they’re fearful,” she says, “So we’re just trying to reduce that and help people learn more about coyotes so they aren’t afraid of them.”

While she might be nonchalant about the shock value that seems to come with coyote tracking, her parents, Amy and Dan Stankavich, see it a little differently. Sarah is their youngest child — the son her dad jokes he never had (even though she has a brother).

“I was worried about her!” Amy says. “I don’t like her being out all night by herself.”

Sarah grew up in Rootstown, where she still resides with her parents. After graduating valedictorian from Rootstown High School in 2007, she moved on to the University of Akron.

Sarah began working on the coyote project as a volunteer in March 2010 through tiered mentoring at the University of Akron. The mentoring program paired her with professor Gregory Smith, who worked on the project and introduced her to it.

She was hired as a seasonal worker after her volunteer work, and before graduating in December 2010, Sarah was hired as an intern.

“We hired her specifically to work on the coyote project,” says Marlo Perdicas, Metro Parks, Serving Summit County’s park biologist. “It takes a very adaptable personality to work on the project, and she is exactly that.”

Sarah’s adaptability and dedication means she sometimes tracks until the wee hours of the morning, returns home to Rootstown to sleep a few hours and then drives back to the office. If it’s a cold day, she’s probably wearing her dark green Metro Parks, Serving Summit County sweatshirt.

Sarah does the day tracking alone roughly two days a week. Coyote 195 lives about 25 minutes away from the office, and after the first stop to try and triangulate his position, Sarah starts to worry when she doesn’t hear his beep. He should be here, she says, he’s always here. Hopefully it’s just the weather pushing him somewhere else, not poachers, who hunt coyotes for their fur, Sarah says, and likely got the last Metro Parks coyote, which was found shot in the side.

He was found on a farm, where coyotes have been known to cause trouble. They are labeled as a nuisance because they oftentimes hunt farm animals when they run out of resources. To combat the problem, people have been taking matters into their own hands and killing coyotes roaming their land. Although the coyote population isn’t quite in danger yet, Sarah feels a duty to protect them and other animals from humans.

“I plan to work on reducing extinction rates in some way (wherever she ends up settling down),” she says. “Humans are currently causing species to go extinct at an incredibly high rate, and I want to work to conserve the rare species.”

“I don’t think I remember her ever wanting to be anything else, but it did surprise me,” Amy says about her initial reaction to Sarah’s choice to major in biology. “I never knew she was that into it (biology.) She doesn’t seem like the type that would be willing to go out and get dirty!”

Sarah started at University of Akron with a focus in forensics, which would have kept her in a lab all day. Although her major stayed biology, she switched the focus to wildlife biology, giving her a balance of working indoors and outdoors.

“I’m not the typical biologist,” Sarah says, regarding the fact that she didn’t love the outdoors as a child. “I don’t know how I kind of just fell into this. Maybe it was because I was inside so much as a kid that I like to be outside now.”

The coyote project and working for the Metro Parks gives Sarah the diversity she craves. She will be extending her wildlife research when she begins working with small mammals at the Metro Parks, Serving Summit County’s new location in Springfield this summer. She’ll be trapping small animals to learn what other types of wildlife live in the area.

With large mammals, she doesn’t get the type of interaction she will with small animals. She’ll still be tracking coyotes, but she says the small animal trapping will be a welcomed change from the constant tracking.

The coyote project is scheduled to end in 2014, but Sarah doesn’t plan on sticking around that long. She plans to move on from the Metro Parks, Serving Summit County and go to graduate school. Right now, she hopes to go to Washington to study wildlife biology.

“I really like it (the job),” Sarah says. “I’ve kind of had enough with tracking. The day-time stuff isn’t too bad, but the nights — I just can’t take them anymore.”

Whether her time at the Metro Parks ends tomorrow or next year, Sarah still counts it as a valuable experience toward reaching her ultimate goal of researching and saving rare species at a national park like Yellowstone. At the end of the day, she’s just a kid at heart who wants to give coyotes a chance to survive.

Contact Lindsy Neer at [email protected] kent.edu.