On my last post, I talked a lot about one type of restoration project that can be found on old, mined lands within the Monongahela National Forest and in Appalachia, but not all restoration projects that take place on the Monongahela are like the one I described last time. A lot of restoration consists of smaller scale projects like invasive species removal in locations all around the forest, campsites, and roads including scenic highways. Removal of invasive species can include projects like hand pulling of herbaceous species like garlic mustard, using loppers to cut down larger woody shrubs, or spraying foliage and/or cut stump herbicide to get rid of other species. This removal is important to do regularly because it keeps invasive species from spreading throughout the forest and taking resources away from important native species.
A third restoration technique to help support the growth of native species in Appalachia is fire ecology. This is an interesting land management tool that can be used to rejuvenate certain ecosystems and allow the growth of healthy forests. Some ways to make the forests healthy is through reducing leaf litter and downed limbs to increase the habitats to promote the growth of native plant diversity. Specifically, fire can be used in Appalachia to help maintain the oak and pine forests to increase the openness of the forest understory, creating sunlight to the forest floor, and promoting seed germination. It can also help reduce the completion of survival of competitive species by limiting the growth of these competitive tree species like red maple, tulip popular, and white pine which tend to out compete some of the other species when there is an absence of fire. It can promote the native grasses and wildflowers, thin crowded forests which can help prevent disease and insect pest outbreaks and it also increases the food abundance for native wildlife like bears, deer, and birds. It had been seen through surveys that with a lack of fire implementation there has been diminished oak and pine regeneration, and lack of herbaceous groundcover from their historic range of variability.
When it comes to the National forests in Appalachia, fire ecology is used specifically to increase the native diversity. The past couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to help with the pre and post burn tasks and learn a lot about fire ecology in practice. For these tasks I helped with pre- and post-burn surveys of the fire plots. Using a GIS software, the survey location within the burn units was randomly selected and was given to the forestry tech to record the pre-burn survey. This survey includes recording the canopy cover frequency, ground cover frequency, woody shrub density, and the trees in the area. This is an important step in the prescribed burn process so that there can be a baseline of the vegetation within the burn unit to compare the post-burn surveys to in the future. The post-burn surveys typically happen in the growing season within six months after the burn, a full year after the burn during the same season as the pre-burn surveys took place, and then another survey five years after the first burn. These post-burn surveys are important to compare the vegetation growth within the burn units over the course of five years.
Assisting with both the pre- and post-burn surveys has been extremely interesting because it has given me the opportunity to look at another form of land management that is taking place in the Monongahela. Within the forest service, fire ecology has been a recently new technique to use for land management. The methods and research on prescribed burns continues to evolve and being able to help with the surveys allowed me to gain insight on how land management continues to improve over time with research and practice. I have been able to learn so much from working with the fire team and look forward to continuing to help them on their surveys and learn more about prescribed burns within the Monongahela!
I pressed down hard on the gas and held my breath. The truck strained as it inched forward centimeter by centimeter. Then, with a lurch, it fell back. The wheels spun rapidly, kicking up an impressive cascade of mud which rained down on the windshield in great, heavy globs. I sat back with a sigh. We were stuck.
Over the course of the summer, my co-intern Tessa and I have driven down all sorts of roads, winding dirt roads that lead to nowhere, broad gravel roads driven by thundering logging trucks, and roads covered in dense grass that bear only the faintest indication that they are roads at all.
On this day, the dirt road we were crossing was full of puddles. They started off small, nothing our trusty truck couldn’t handle. Soon though, the puddles got larger and we found ourselves taking great care to avoid the deepest spots. We got more confident as we switched into four wheel drive, but when we reached the top of a tall hill where the path below looked more like a pool of muddy water than a road, we knew it was time to seriously consider turning back. Still, we had made it this far, and we had only a bit further to go before getting back to pavement.
We drove down the hill. Slowly, as if we would anger the puddle by driving too fast, we inched our way across the mud. Then, “Squelch!” The truck stopped.
Last week, Tessa and I set out with our mentor, Ian, for Turtle Day 2.0. We would once again be improving habitat for native wood turtles. We were not alone though. Two trucks followed us as we headed north. One contained the Monitoring Crew and another the Great Lakes Climate Corps (GLCC). Though we had been introduced to Ottawa National Forest’s other teams of seasonal workers before, we’d rarely gotten a chance to work with them. Turtle day 2.0, however, required all hands on deck.
With shovels and mattocks on our shoulders and pruners and saws in our pockets, we hiked through the woods to reach remote riverside beaches. These beaches are known to be the favorite nesting spots of endangered wood turtles. Many of the beaches, though, have become overgrown with dense brush which makes it hard for the turtles to find ideal places to bury their eggs. This leaves the eggs vulnerable to being dug up by predators.
Our job for the day was Extreme Makeover: Turtle Beach Edition. With suggestions from herpetologists in hand, we went about digging up willow, spraying tansy, and pulling mullen, until the beaches were once again full of sandy spots that any turtle would be proud to call home. The work was strenuous, but with so many hands, the day passed quickly. At lunch time, it rained, and we sheltered in the trees swapping stories of a summer of adventures.
After realizing we were stuck, there were a few things Tessa and I tried. We put the truck in reverse and attempted to back out of the mud-filled pool. Earth-brown frogs hopped to and fro as the tires settled further and refused to budge.
Next, Tessa suggested that we could lay a path of sticks in front of the truck to give it some much needed traction. I thought this was a brilliant idea. Stepping out of the truck, I quickly realized that the opaque surface of the puddle hid a rut that was less on the scale of a few inches deep and more on the scale of a few feet deep. In places, the water came up to my knees. We gathered great arm-fulls of sticks, but when we tried to set them in place, they floated away.
On a feeble hope, we put the truck in neutral and tried to push it. It didn’t move. Deep down, I knew we would be fine, but as we strained to push the big white truck I couldn’t help but feel cold sweat on my palms and a tightness in my chest. The forest suddenly felt very big and I felt very small.
After another few minutes racking our brains, we realized it was time to accept it, we would need to call for help.
First, we glanced at our cell phones. No service. Next, we turned to the radio, but all of the channels looked unfamiliar. Thankfully, we had a SPOT device with us, which can send a location along with limited messages from almost anywhere in the Ottawa. The best message for our situation, “We need help, but it isn’t urgent” seemed a great deal better than nothing, yet frustratingly vague. Tessa suggested we climb the nearby hill to see if there might be cell service there.
Success! A feeble bar showed up at the top of Tessa’s phone. It was enough to get a phone call out to our mentor Ian. He’d head back to the office and grab supplies, he told us, and be there as soon as he could.
This month, Tessa and I have been tackling purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Purple loosestrife is, simply put, a gorgeous plant. It bears numerous showy purple blooms, which stand out strikingly against the greens of the forest. The flower loves any place where water transitions to land, be it a lake, river, or roadside ditch. Its dense roots cling to the mud while its tall stems reach for sunlight. Unfortunately, when left unchecked, this invasive flower can completely take over, crowding the coastline until there is only purple.
Tessa and I have been tasked with following the plant wherever it grows (within the forest), mapping it along highways as cars rush by, wading along lake shores to cut the tall, square stems, and paddling down rivers to pull the plant up by the roots.
That was our objective early on a Friday morning, as Tessa and I loaded the canoe onto the truck, or, I should say, attempted to load the canoe on to the truck. The back of the boat extended a good seven feet past the end of the truck bed. We sent a photo to Ian who agreed we should head out without the canoe. He would reach out to the partner organizations we would be working with that morning to see if it would be possible to find some alternative floatation.
We were the first ones to arrive at the boat launch. We got into our waders and ate wild raspberries while we waited for more people to arrive. After a few minutes a car pulled up, loaded with canoes and kayaks. We introduced ourselves and were greeted warmly. Before we knew it, they were showing us how to identify a reed grass called phragmites which is often invasive. They pointed out the length of the little tuft that most grasses have where the leaf meets the blade and the color and texture of the stem. These were all indicators, they explained, that could help distinguish the native phragmites from the invasive. No doubt about it, we had found our people.
A few minutes later and more partner organizations had arrived. Some were familiar faces we had worked with before and some were new. When all was said and done, we had a crew of nine people. Upon hearing about our canoe conundrum, they had brought extra kayaks for Tessa and I. Loaded with dry bags, sunscreen, and shovels, we were ready to hit the water.
We spent the day paddling our way along a river, pulling the purple loosestrife that had made a home there. The loosestrife in this area had never been treated before, so pulling up each loosestrife proved a wrestling match. Still, with so many people, the work passed quickly. At the end of the day, we left with half a dozen garbage bags full of loosestrife, a sense of deep satisfaction, and some new friends.
With Ian on his way, there was nothing to do but wait. I sat on the truck bed and watched the frogs dive beneath the water. Tessa sat with me and we talked about small things. She read me a letter from a friend back home, and I read her a few poems from a book I carry in my backpack. Sitting there with someone else, the knot in my chest seemed to unwind just a little.
Slowly, the time passed. We ate lunch, and then, decided to climb the hill again to see if Ian had sent any messages. As we crested the hill, we could just see a Forest Service vehicle carefully making its way across the puddles. Ian had arrived!
In the minutes that followed, Ian reviewed best practices to avoid getting stuck and taught us how to use a winch. The device is essentially a giant lever attached to a reel of cable. One end of the winch is attached to a stuck vehicle and the other a suitable sturdy tree. As the lever is pumped, the cable gets shorter. In the end, either the car moves or the tree does.
On a bright, sunny day, Tessa and I drove to Wisconsin. We were headed to an invasive plant management workshop hosted by a local university, a weed management cooperative, and an assortment of pesticide businesses. Arriving at the address, we found ourselves next to lake Superior. We filled out name tags and grabbed muffins from the refreshment table as dozens of people who had the distinct look of folks who spend a lot of time outdoors filled in.
One by one, the attendees introduced themselves. People had come from all sectors to attend the conference. Some were local government workers, some were federal government workers, some came from nonprofits, and some came simply because they wanted to learn more about weed management. There were seasoned veterans and interns like us, all chatting, comparing notes, and catching up.
To start the day, we all piled into a school bus. After a bumpy ride, we arrived at a stretch of out-of-the-way roadside. The conference’s experts took us through the different weed treatments that had been applied to various sections of the road. They were happy to answer questions on everything from the right time of year to apply pesticides to how to target weeds effectively while leaving native plants minimally disturbed.
After heading back to the conference venue, we watched a presentation on local invasive species identification and management. Then a scientist and weed management expert answered questions from the audience. Sitting in the crowd gave me a chance to appreciate the deep symbiosis between research and management. He shared the latest findings on effective weed control with the room and listened with interest to the questions and observations of the weed managers. At the end of the conference, all of the experts invited the attendees to reach out to them with questions big or small.
Some of my favorite moments of the conference were the unstructured times, those moments in between the lectures and presentations when the attendees and experts got to chat informally, ask questions, swap stories, and build relationships. Listening to the conversation, it was clear that everyone at the conference was united by some common goals: control the spread of harmful invasive species, limit their damage to the manmade and natural world, and educate the public about the invasive species in their area so that management work can been done in collaboration with the community.
Most days, Tessa and I are alone. We can spend all day in the forest without ever seeing another person. Attending the conference reminded me of the larger network of people that are working all over to continuously ask new questions, tackle new projects, and promote conservation and stewardship in cooperation.
This is essential because managing invasive species is a massive task. A map of invasive plant sites in Ottawa National Forest quickly begins to look like a map of stars in the sky, with thousands of infestations scattered all over. Thankfully, though we’re not managing these sites alone. Other forest employees, numerous partner organizations and volunteers, and every person who washes their boat between lakes or wipes off their shoes after a hike is managing invasive species right alongside us.
From Turtle Day to our loosestrife paddle, all the biggest projects we took on this month we took on with other people. We’ve had the opportunity to learn from so many wonderful land managers who are generous with their time and insights. In so many ways, this summer has been a continual process of offering help to others and finding in turn that, when we need it, help is never far away.
Bit by bit, the truck began to move. Still, as Tessa pressed the gas, the tires spun. Finally, with a great heave, the tires began to roll. Not spin. Not splutter. Roll. We had traction. We were unstuck at last.
The last few times I checked in I got to share about all manner of interesting things I was doing, namely botany camping trips, native plant conferences, and bat surveys. Now I’m checking in with an update that is a little bit more in line with my job description! In late July, my supervisor Sierra got the chance to go work on the Tamarack fire south of Lake Tahoe as a Resource Advisor, and I got to start Seeds of Success collecting pretty independently. It was a little intimidating starting out but I got comfortable with the protocol after a few seed collections! There is a list of priority species that are desired for collection in the Great Basin, but with the heat and dryness that the area is experiencing, finding any plant population with enough seeds to collect is a win, and opportunistic collections of any native species we can find are also fair game. So far I’ve gotten seeds from Helianthella uniflora, Stipa thurberiana, Pseudoroegneria spicata, Phacelia hastata, Eriogonum heracleoides, and Arnica sororia––a fun mix of native forbs and grasses. It’s been great getting familiar with some new species and figuring out identification for ones I don’t know!
So far, all my seed collections have been in the Santa Rosas north of Winnemucca, and I’ve gotten to see a lot of new country up in that area, including Buttermilk Meadows, Holloway Meadows, Solid Silver, and Buckskin. Those names won’t mean much to anyone not familiar with the area, but in case any northern Nevadans are reading this! I kept hoping to do some work over by Elko, NV, but thunderstorms and then subsequent landslides have kept me away from the area so far. I’m hopeful that next week the forest roads will be safe enough again to head over and see what seeds are left there!
Besides native plants, I’ve seen many cool rock formations and animals the past few weeks. I saw 11 antelope in a group just between the town of Paradise Valley and the foot of the Santa Rosas, which was surprising to me––I’d never seen a group together like that before, just one or two! I’ve also seen lots of chukars, grouse, and quail with their new families that have hatched over the summer, plus some lizards and a few praying mantises. Still no snakes though.
My family also visited from Minnesota the past week so I got to see my parents and sister and show them around for a few days. It was pretty smoky but they loved seeing Hinkey Summit in the Santa Rosas and swimming in Lake Tahoe! We even saw three bighorn sheep on Hinkey which was a first for me; I’m glad they were there for it.
Until next time here’s hoping we all, if not stay cool, at least enjoy the cooler evenings and late summer sunsets 🙂
For this week’s blog post, I just want to start by saying I can’t believe that it has already been two months since the start of my CLM journey. These past two months have been so much fun, and I am so grateful to have been able to meet and work alongside my co-intern Katie. Unfortunately, Katie has left me this past weekend to go onto bigger and better things like getting a master’s degree at Montana State. However, I am so excited to see everything she will accomplish in the coming years, and I am forever grateful to have such a caring, kind-hearted, and hardworking friend. Thankfully, she has agreed to that we would keep in touch with all our future adventures, and I hope to visit her in Montana in the coming year!
To catch up on our previous blog posts, some of the stuff Katie and I have been doing the past couple of weeks has been the repeating tasks like botany surveys, treating for invasive species along the scenic highway, and finishing up the salamander surveys for the summer season. However, the past couple of weeks we have also been assisting with the ecological restoration projects that are taking place on the Monongahela.
For these projects, we have been working very closely with the Reforestation Coordinator, Anna Branduzzi, from the Nonprofit organization Green Forest Work in preparing, monitoring, and restoring mined lands on the Monongahela. Working alongside Anna on this project gave us the opportunity to see all different parts of the ecological restoration process in Appalachia. A restoration project like this includes many steps to jumpstart the natural succession process through activities like preparing the site through clearing or ‘ripping’ the non-native vegetation on the old, mined lands, selecting native species to plant in the previously ‘ripped’ sites, working with conservation crews and volunteers to plant and seed native species, and then continual monitoring of older sites to make sure the vegetation and habitats continuing to survive in these locations.
During our time working with Anna, Katie and I assisted with the preparation of the sites through locating wetland ecosystems in the future restoration locations so they can be avoided in the ‘ripping’ process. Second, we helped plant and seed the native plants in this year’s restoration site. Lastly, we helped monitor some of the older restoration sites by locating the wetlands for future monitoring and possibly to bring an excavator to enhance these wetlands in the future. I really enjoyed participating in all these steps for restoring Appalachia and being able to see all the older restoration sites giving me a perspective on just how fast this restoration can help the secession process on the old, mined lands.
Another part of this restoration process that Katie and I have enjoyed helping with has been the research that is being accomplished in the Monongahela from the surrounding Universities. Some of this research includes the monitoring of ecosystems through looking at animal and plant populations. Recently Katie and I have assisted with a master’s student research project that looks at bat foraging on restored mined land in West Virginia. Her research consists of monitoring bat foraging through bat audio recordings, bug collections, and surveying wetlands on the restored mined lands and old growth forests. She will be able to use this data collected to see how the foraging might be different between the two different locations. It was exciting to be able to assist in this process of collecting data and to see the different ways these restored mined lands can be monitored and continue to improve habitat for native species in both the Monongahela National Forest and Appalachia.
Ecological restoration and the research being accomplished on the Monongahela, specifically old mined lands, is an important part of maintaining the biodiversity within Appalachia. I am excited to continue working alongside Anna, Green Forest Work, other non-profit organizations, and researchers from surrounding Universities to continue the amazing work being accomplished on the Monongahela National Forest.
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” ~Seneca
As my time as a CLM intern comes to a close, it has me thinking back to when it all began three months ago. It simultaneously feels so long ago and like it was just yesterday. I had so many worries coming into the program: Would I get along with my co-intern? Would I make friends or have anyone to hang out with outside of work? Would I physically be able to keep up with my coworkers? Would I like the work? Was it worth moving 16 hours east of my hometown just to turn around and travel back 23 hours west of my home? I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and with grad school looming ever closer I was tempted to just take the summer off. I am so glad that I decided to accept the CLM position and would highly recommend the program to anyone interested. On that note, I would like to use this final blog post to answer some of my own personal initial worries for anyone who might be considering applying to the CLM program.
One of my main concerns was honestly that I would not have anything to do outside of work and would feel lonely and isolated from the outside world, forgotten in rural West Virginia. Marlinton is a small town with, at first glance, seemingly little to do and a small pool of people to befriend. Since being here, however, I have found that concern to be entirely invalid. Having a co-intern is like having a built-in friend. I honestly cannot believe how close Megan and I have become in just the few months that we have known each other – she feels more like a sister than a coworker. We have come to a point where we do almost everything together, from working and living together, to hiking, backpacking, game nights, and even just going out to get coffee. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her once I get to Montana.
Megan and I have also discovered that there is a strong community within the coworkers at the ranger station. I couldn’t have imagined a more welcoming and kind group of people and I have made genuine friendships that I will forever be grateful for.
Another major concern was that I would not be able to physically keep up with my fellow coworkers. I am a reasonably small female who spent the last year and a half sitting in front of a computer working remotely, so the concern was embarrassingly valid. It has definitely been a growing process – growing not only in the sense of my muscle mass but also confidence in my own abilities. Even after getting here and finding that I am able to keep up with my peers, there was still the lurking concern that I might get passed up for future career opportunities because of my size and gender since conservation and land management often involves manual labor. During this internship though, I have gotten to work with a number of successful women who have been nothing less than inspiring. My mentor, Amy Lovell, is someone I especially look up to and has been endlessly encouraging to me. She is living proof that it is possible to have an established career and also be a wife and mother, all while still having personal hobbies and interests. I am truly grateful that I had the opportunity to work under Amy’s leadership.
Even with all my other worries, my biggest question coming into this internship was whether or not it would be worth it – was it worth moving, the transition period, the anxiety, etc? The answer to that is an easy and immediate yes. This experience allowed me to grow both professionally and personally and learned so much along the way. I have witnessed first-hand the complexity of restoration projects, the intricate relationship between research and practice, the plethora of roles that the USFS fills, and the wide array of projects that it is able to accomplish. I have made valuable connections and invaluable relationships. To top it all off, I got to learn about plants all summer and it has honestly been the best summer I’ve had in a long time.
This isn’t to say there were no bad days. Here in West Virginia, if the stinging nettle doesn’t get you, the bees, hornets, and wasps will. But the bad days for me were honestly the most valuable of all and I’ll tell you why: There is one particular day that stands out as possibly the roughest day I have yet to have out in the field. My mom called me that evening and I recounted the long list of mishaps to her. She started telling me how sorry she was that I had such a bad day, but to my surprise I found that, even with everything that had gone wrong, I didn’t actually consider it a bad day. It was a long day for sure, but not a bad day. It was in that moment that I knew I had chosen the correct profession. That peace of mind alone makes the whole internship worth it and I highly recommend the CLM program to anyone and everyone who might be interested.
This month has been a great combination of honing research skills and gaining new experiences. In regard to skills, I have counted tens of thousands of seeds, created graphs and statistical analyses with Python, and, of course, spent plenty of time in the field. My two new major work experiences go hand in hand: overnight trips and live animal trapping. So far, I have spent the night out in the desert either for logistical reasons –too far to drive there and back in one day– or for trapping. It’s actually quite nice to work in the late evening; the sun is setting, so everything has a nice sunset hue, the temperatures are lower, and the desert itself is a little more active. Some of the more energetic evening wildlife I’ve seen are the bats in Utah, and the desert stink beetles (Eleodes sp.) all over the Mojave. These funny invertebrates walk around with their thoraxes in the air, ready to spray potential harassers. For sleep, I have elected both sleep inside our work truck, when it looked a little too cloudy for comfort, and under stars on clear nights. For those clear nights, I was taught to spread my tarp on flat even ground, without any rodent holes. The reason for this being that if you cover their holes accidentally, you will spend your night listening to the sound of constant escape attempts from these little critters. Speaking of little critters, these subterranean mammals can also be the bane of a research garden.
Over the past month, I have both trapped alongside regular plant assessments, as well as on trips with the sole purpose of removing rodents. These critters, kangaroo rats and pocket mice specifically (in the Heteromyidae family), can really tear up our precious plant specimens. They can chew off leaf tips, or even uproot entire plants. Despite our perimeter fence that surrounds the entire garden and even continues fairly deeply below the surface, sometimes these cuddly pests sneak inside. Luckily, we can deal with them humanely. At night we set rectangular traps with openings that shut when passed through by hungry rodents. We bait these boxes with birdseed, and in the morning we collect them, releasing any intruders far away from the garden. The “k-rats” and pocket mice are very cute, and hop away after release with surprising speed.
In terms of just living out here in Vegas, I have continued to see a lot of amazing scenery and wildlife! There’s plenty of amazing sights within the city at wetland parks, and out in recreational areas like Red Rock and the Spring Mountains. Below are some of the neat stuff I’ve been lucky enough to see!
Next month, beyond continuing field work, we begin our effort to plant even more Joshua Trees for research, so I plan to have a lot to talk about with that! Thanks for reading, see ya next month.
After a brief period of pretty warm weather, it’s started to cool down here in the Lincoln NF! It’s definitely crazy to think that we’re over halfway through the season- I’ve already learned so much more about botany down here in the southwest, and can’t wait to put my experiences to use in the future! Meanwhile, we’ve been assisting several different projects along with our plant surveys, the latest being some monitoring of known populations of Goodding’s Onion (Allium gooddingii), one of our listed rare species. In the Lincoln, these are persisting on the floor of spruce-fir and mixed conifer forest, generally around 9,000-10,000ft of elevation. This is in our Smokey Bear district, among the Sierra Blanca mountain range, which contain some of the highest points in the forest and makes for some pretty sweet (and literally breathtaking) views! We did a couple days of monitoring in this area, along with the state botanist and her assistant, Missy, who was the best hiker among us!
This particular area was home to significant recent fires, including the Little Bear fire in 2012 and the Three Rivers fire just this past spring. Part of our monitoring efforts were to compare these disturbance areas. This species is disturbance-dependent, and debris left by felling does cause issues in terms of space for populations and not harming existing populations during debris removal. Several populations were pretty vigorous!
Another project we helped out with was constructing some beaver dam analogs, to slow down water flow in stream/riparian areas and prevent further erosion. This included some post-pounding and lopping of willow branches, which is what we used to weave through the posts and create a woody barrier through the stream. It definitely was reminiscent of my fencing and trail work days! Helping out with such projects always provide a nice variety of tasks throughout these weeks, and provide even more experience in different functions of the Forest Service.
Besides these projects, we’re also continuing our plant surveys and making progress on the amount of area we’ve covered. No unknown populations have popped up yet, but we still have several weeks more of surveying!
Buzzing. A common cacophony throughout the Ottawa National Forest. From the low hum of happy bumblebees, to the erratic zipping of deer flies around my head, to the roar of angry ground wasps, buzzing seems to be all around me. It took a bit to get used to just how many insects were here on the Ottawa, but I will take the buzzing flies any day over the clouds of mosquitoes that plagued us in June. My mentor, Ian Shackleford, gave us fly patches for the backs of our hardhats to combat against the flies. While these patches are not a necessity all of the time, one day in particular there were a few sites that felt like I was under attack, so I decided to give one of the patches a try. The result? After a little less than ten minutes, twelve or so flies had buzzed themselves stuck to the back of my head.
The buzz of bumblebees is my favorite one, and with so many wildflowers blooming, I get to hear it often. I got the opportunity to work closely with the bees when I joined up with our wildlife technicians for bee monitoring. The technicians are working on part of a study of eDNA, or environmental DNA, to detect what kind of pollen bees may be carrying. We went out and did the traditional collection of bees, which involves netting for 30 minutes, but then we meticulously set out bee bowls (colored bowls with soapy water) in a crosshair pattern. This water (and the insects that unfortunately for them slipped in throughout the previous day and night) was collected the next day and then run through a filter to collect the tiny pollen grains that insects carried into the water. This filter and the insects from the bowls will then be sent to the lab to run PCR to amplify the DNA of the pollen that the water contained. The idea behind the study is to compare the surrounding environment to what is actually caught in the water and what the bees we netted were carrying. One of the most important things I learned from tagging along these days was how challenging field research can be, especially when the study might not have been designed with the specific location in mind and the difference between theory and practice of data collection. For example, the wildlife technicians have had trouble with slugs climbing into the bowls overnight, which creates a thick slime that cannot be filtered. Additionally, it seemed that the detergent they used also created a problem for filtering the full amount of water, but they had limited supplies and could not use more than one filter. These are all problems that will need troubleshooting in the coming years to make eDNA studies more feasible and valid.
I also get to hear the buzzing of bees when I am working on my primary task of invasive plant management. Ian had my co-intern Emily and I help him with the biomonitoring of two weevil species he worked to get approval to release, Larinus obtusus and Cyphocleonus achates. Larinus obtusus, the more abundant of the weevils we found at each site, eat the seedhead of the spotted knapweed, reducing the seed production and seedbank of the plant. This is vital for reducing numbers of a plant that can have viable seeds in the seedbank for at least 8+ years. Cyphocleonus achates is the root boring weevil of spotted knapweed, and much larger than the other weevil we monitored, yet much more elusive. We only found two individuals in our entire day of monitoring, but this still means that they are present at at least some of our sites, a good indicator that they are surviving (at least at some level) the cold winters here.
In the past decade, the weevils have become more widespread, and I spend a few seconds looking for Larinus obtusus whenever I see a large patch of knapweed. I have had pretty good luck of finding them, even when I am not on forest land. However, it is still unclear if they are actually reducing the knapweed populations. At two of our sites, it seemed humans were the reason for much of the knapweed decline, well, more specifically the vehicles of humans. However, at the last site it seemed that native grasses have started to form denser patches again. This could be because of reduced knapweed populations, intentional native replanting, a combination of the two, or completely unrelated. This ambiguity is what intrigues me about ecology and keeps pulling me back in for more… though it does make it challenging for people like Ian to know if his weevils are working.
As a grand finale for our day of weevil monitoring, we went to a nearby site of a rare plant, the dwarf bilberry. These plants resemble blueberries, but as the name suggests, they are considerably smaller. They are low to the ground, inconspicuous, and the berries themselves could fit under my fingernail. Sue Trull, the botanist who focuses on native plant restoration, had planted these bilberries, and they have been thriving at the site, so much so that there was a bounty of them (by rare plant measures) to be harvested to send to Toumey Nursery to grow into new plants that could be planted to help bolster the population of bilberries on the forest. While picking some of these bilberries, making sure some remain to expand the site’s population for next year, we decided to update Sue on the bilberries. She replied with elation about their success at the site and offered that Emily and I could try one if we liked. We both felt a little bit important, getting to eat a whole berry of a rare plant (which each contain three to five individual seeds), and we jumped at the chance. I had low expectations for the flavor of these berries based on their appearance (see picture below). I imagined the fruits must be quite dry and have just a little flavor based on their small, wrinkled form, but the experience of trying something so unusual was not something I was willing to pass up. To my surprise, and overall delight, I had underestimated the dwarf bilberry. The teeny tiny berry packed so much flavor, and while it was reminiscent of a blueberry, it was not the same flavor entirely. It almost seemed to be a sweeter, more concentrated blueberry flavor, like the filling of a blueberry pie after it has been cooked down, but without being cooked at all. It seems every day that the forest teaches me something new, provides me with a new flavor of life, or straight up tells me I was wrong before. I am looking forward to all the surprises to come, and all of the growing that remains between now and November, both from the plants and from myself.
August brought us cooler temperatures and smokey skies. The extended drought and hot weather brought about the early seeding of our target species for seed collection. This forced us to go higher in elevation where it’s cooler and essentially turn back the phenotypic clock. We got to go up to the Sawtooth Mountains and the Salmon-Challis Forest to look for the early seeding Diethera canescens and chaenactis douglasii.These species love to grow in disturbed rocky soils, which manifests in the form of steep roadsides. We traversed loose rocky soil and grabbed seed from these plants while sliding past them downslope. In Stanley, we got to experience one of many Idaho’s famous hot springs. Sunbeam hot springs was right en route to our campsite for the night! There were several pools of water that varied in temperature, ranging from burning hot to icy river water. It was perfect for hopping in and out of hot and cold water, like a free outdoor spa for our sore bodies. Up in Salmon, we got to harvest golden currants at our campsite. After being out in the desert for the first few months, it was great to see greenery like trees and come at the right time to harvest berries!
We also began cleaning and germinating seed back in the lab. This consists of weighing the raw material and then separating out the roughage from the viable seeds by testing if each one breaks upon application of slight pressure. We had collected 200 heads of seed for every population we visited. It is a tedious process, but a little company and music makes it go by fast! We then set up petri dishes for experimental germination treatments. Seeds were carefully laid out in grids on 5×5 on each petri dish and different temperature stratification methods were used to germinate the seeds. This would determine the differences in germination strategies between populations of the same species due to climate variability.
Each week keeps us on our toes! The best part about field work is the variability in week to week or even day to day tasks. Can’t wait to see what the rest of August brings!
During the month of July, my time at Klamath Falls shifted to a new task and a rude-awakening to the wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest. On July 6th, the Bootleg Fire began burning roughly 30 miles from Klamath Falls. It is the largest fire to burn this year so far, currently staying around 414,000 acres, and is fortunately 84% contained! The smoke can get pretty dense and can feel very apocalyptic. Being from the Midwest, I have only ever experienced the travelling smoke from the west, but when you travel to California and you get evacuation texts, it’s very surreal. Hearing residents and coworkers talk about how the smoke season and fires are earlier than normal, it definitely puts climate change into perspective. Speaking of, this region is also experiencing a drought, putting tension between federal agencies and farmers, and forcing residents to conserve their water. Having said that, I have really been thinking about climate change and the importance of immediate action and how valuable this position is becoming for me. I am learning from experts in their fields, who dedicate time building bridges between private landowners to adopt conservation/restoration practices. These conversations are crucial in a bigger picture sense, as well. The information I’m learning on top of the first-hand climate disasters, I feel as though I am building on my ability to have those conversations with people close to me and strangers.
On a lighter note, we got to switch our tasks from electrofishing to helping with mussel surveys. Specifically looking for any native and listed Western Ridged, Western Pearlshell or Winged Floaters in the Sprague, Williamson, and Wood rivers. All of which are freezing cold, but on a hot day, feel great. Our days would consist of kayaking down stretches of these rivers looking through an aquascope to detect presence or absence of any of these mussels. I feel very lucky to be able to kayak all day while also contributing to necessary conservation tasks. Now, we are back to electrofishing and starting to help in Brook trout removals. In the coming weeks, we get to backpack into a field site for a few days to do more trout surveys. I really hope to be able to see a Bull trout!
For most of my weekends, I am out camping and seeing something new if I can. My partner and I love finding rivers to swim in and new hikes to explore. I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to learn so much, grow as an environmentalist and see the beauty of the PNW.