Wrapping up for good

Leaving sucks…

It seems my internship is ending again, for real this time. I have recently accepted a job back home as an Environmental Health and Safety Technician at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. My emotions drift back and forth over this, between excitement for a new, “real” job and twinges of regret that I have to leave here to get there. That’s the price of moving on, unfortunately; you just can’t have it both ways. It’s also a difficult thing to fathom, that I will at last have “permanent” job security with insurance, a rigid schedule, and more responsibility. The question remains: can I handle the new responsibility?

It’s amazing how many loose ends accumulate over time. I suppose this happens everywhere as priorities change and little things get set aside. On my list of things to do are to clean up some Environmental Assessment work in progress, update our GIS system with rare plant observations and fence type inventory data, officially label and glue all herbarium voucher specimens I’ve been collecting, get the truck (trusty ol’ Bernie) an oil change, ship out herbarium specimens from my seed collections to the Smithsonian and the Rocky Mountain National Herbarium, link reservoir photos and data to mapped locations, and of course clean out my cubicle and work truck. But the hardest part of wrapping up my internship (again), is saying goodbye to everyone (again). I’ve driven away from here before when I thought my time was done, and it was a very sad day. I imagine it won’t be any easier this time, especially knowing it is official.

But these things happen, I suppose. I’ve had a great experience here, and I’ve learned more than than I could begin to conceptualize. But alas, the nature of temporary work is to eventually move on and hope that we’ve learned enough to be more dangerous than we were yesterday. So here I go, fingers crossed.

Ah, summer…

Well, things are heating up out here, just in time for seed collecting. Plant work with the Seeds of Success program has consumed most of my days as practically all of the species on my target list began seeding at the same time. Somehow this always happens. It also means that office work tends to end up on the back burner as the trusty intern frantically scours the field office monitoring seed ripeness and gathering seed. Unfortunately, it behooves one to remember that the office aspects of field life are equally important, and when neglected can come back to bite one in the bum.

Case in point: I had been planning to collect one particular little plant for some time, and was waiting for a mature seed with which to key it out to the exact species. But as the days went by, in the field and far away from the computerized USDA plants database, even once I decided on what the plant was, I never quite got around to verifying its geographic origin. I remembered this little detail about one collection too late, so my helper and I spent a few hours happily collecting…a non-native weed. Check before you collect! Lessons learned.

Apart from this minor dumb error, my summer in Cody has proceeded rather nicely. The golden eagle chick I’ve been watching is probably only a week or 2 from fledging, though it’s been hard to squeeze in some good monitoring time. I’ve been able to participate in an educational tour with bentonite mining companies discussing reclamation and sage grouse, as well as a tour of the Bridger Plant Materials Center and discussion of seeding trials being implemented in reclaimed bentonite mines using previous Seeds of Success collections. It’s always nice to intersperse a long, busy work season with chances to learn from the work of others and to be reminded of the important applications of the fruits of our labor.


Well, there’s no two ways about it — it’s June already. I would stop to wonder at this surprising fact, but there’s too much to do! Seed collection preparations continue, with collecting plant specimens, scouting for sites, and identifying plants once they acquire all the physiological characteristics that allow them to be keyed out, such as seeds or flowers. We’re more than halfway through golden eagle nest monitoring now, with the little chicks being approximately 40 days old. I only have one little guy in my assigned nest, and right now it’s still fluffy and white but showing dark lines and spots on its wings where feathers are growing in to their sheaths. The chick will probably fledge at about 60 days old, give or take a few days.

Another project has been planting native silver buffaloberry shrubs at a habitat improvement project site. I feel bad for the place, having suffered severe takeover from Russian olive and saltcedar (nasty invasive species), then a wildfire, and now an invasion of knapweed. The BLM has worked hard on invasive species control in this area, cutting and spraying the olive and saltcedar every year for several years now. I myself participated in the spraying during the winter of 2011. It’s disheartening to know the knapweed has created another relative monoculture there, but hopefully our little shrubs will be able to get a toehold and outcompete some of the nasties. On planting day, we also investigated a great blue heron rookery (collection of nests in a single tree) nearby, which was very interesting. Four babies were in one nest at the time, being monitored by a watchful adult.

Other ongoing projects continue as well, including investigating unknown raptor nests for activity and species identification, acquiring GPS data about powerlines and fences, and checking stock tanks for wildlife escape ramps.

In summary: life is busy, but as usual, I can’t complain. Day by day I work toward crossing things off my ever-present to-do list, knowing one little intern can only do so much. At day’s end, you just have to realize that you did the best you could, you’ll try again tomorrow, and at least more is done today than was done yesterday.

Mustangs, Raptors, Education

It’s been quite a spring so far. Sage-grouse lek counting season ends next week, along with mornings that require waking up at 4am. Golden eagle nest monitoring season has begun, although unfortunately the nest I was originally assigned to monitor turned out to be inactive. Luckily, the Bighorn Basin has the greatest concentration of golden eagles in the country, so there are plenty others that are available for watching. I’ve been out and about mending fence, recording a few new raptor nests, seeking out nests of unknown species, scouting for seed collection sites, digging up specimens of the few blooming forbs around that I plan to collect from, recording powerlines using GPS, helping with the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Adoption event, and planning and teaching a lesson on raptor ecology for the local middle school’s Natural History Days (NHD).

Participating in Natural History Days, in addition to the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption, was a new task for me this year. My first day teaching, with the help of the friendly BLM Geologist and fellow raptor volunteer at the museum, was a great success. Now, on to my next teaching day on Tuesday…solo…

The lesson centers around raptors, or birds of prey, and features 2 live birds from the Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience program at the the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The first day we had a red-tailed hawk and a peregrine falcon, and next time I will have the great-horned owl and the peregrine falcon, because the hawk has prior engagements on that day. Many species-species and species-environment interactions are discussed in order to convey a message of the interconnectedness of life on the planet, as well as the importance of biodiversity and wide-reaching impacts of humans on wildlife and the environment. The lesson ends with a game of tag, in which some kids play the role of mice while others play the role of predators like rattlesnakes, red-tailed hawks, and great-horned owls. From this they can experience the difficulty of a prey species surviving the pursuit of predators in order to acquire food and feed their young, and that of a predator trying to feed its young while itself being pursued by apex predators like the owl.

Tag is probably almost as fun to watch as it is to play. I was actually able to play a little when one of my “mice” got tired and I had to take her place. As the number of mice dwindles from being tagged or “killed,” the predators start getting awfully hungry and competing more for the remaining mice. When the “car” (played by the Geologist) runs along the highway and “kills” predators like the hawk while it is on a kill, or a rattlesnake while it is sunning. The abundance of mice making it past the remaining predators results in the mouse food supply running low due to their overpopulation. In this way the students can better understand the checks and balances that are necessary to maintaining a relative balance in nature, and how it gets affected when even one type of predator or prey species is removed.

It was a pretty fun time had by all, I would say, including me. And although I’m somewhat nervous about my solo act, I’m looking forward to doing it again.

Ramping up

Well, I asked for it.

Here I am again in Cody, staying busy in the early spring and prepping for the even busier late spring and early summer. The sage-grouse are dancing now in all their glory, so it’s time again to make the early morning drives to my assigned leks to count the romantic hopefuls enthusiastically displaying their prowess as top quality mates. Their dedication is impressive, and I chuckle to watch it increase all the more when the ladies arrive for a casual stroll through this year’s candidates.

Once the sun comes up, the sage-grouse tend to disperse and go about their day as I go about the rest of mine. It’s hard to generalize about what a typical day involves, but anywhere I go in the field office, there is always work to be done. Inventory of infrastructure, such as fences, powerlines, stock tanks, and roads, as well as natural resources like plants, rabbits,

raptor nests, and other wildlife, is a continuous project. I enjoy knowing that all this data collection can benefit wildlife and our understanding of human impact on nature. GPSing roads not previously mapped, for instance, can be included in the DDCT (Density and Disturbance Calculation Tool) analysis of potential impact on sage-grouse within their core habitat areas.

Another project I’ve begun working on is mending fence along an area that has previously undergone significant habitat restoration measures to take back the ecosystem from invasives like Russian olive and saltcedar. Soon we will be planting more native shrubs like silver buffaloberry as replacements, but first we want to make sure we can keep the cows grazing happily in their own pasture nearby, instead of trampling and browsing on all the juicy vegetation we put in. After all, good fences make good neighbors.

Other projects this year have included some drafting of an Environmental Assessment (EA) document, planning a lesson and activities for 6th graders at a Natural History Day event in May, putting the final touches on the wildlife section of the BLM Cody Field Office website and submitting it for approval by the State Office, and preparing all manner of supplies and plans for seed and herbarium specimen collecting. Busy, busy, busy. You just can’t help but be productive with all the things there are to do in the CYFO. Bring it on, field season.

T minus 1 week

I’ve always had a fear of getting stuck in a permanent job, especially one I didn’t like. But since I’ve been working in Cody for just over a year and a half, I feel like I have been working a “real” job, not just an internship. I know the field office, I know the projects, the people, the wildlife, the plants, the tools, how to keep myself busy and prioritize tasks… In short, I know the job. I suppose this is what a “real” job feels like, and it’s not that scary. Granted, my internship has been extended in 5-month chunks, based on funding, which probably eased my phobia of permanency. Nevertheless, if I can approach a new grown-up job with the same confidence that I have when I sit down to my computer in the morning here, turn the key in the ignition of a government-owned vehicle, drive miles out to a remote work site, and accomplish the task I prioritized for myself for the day, I will have no problem taking on a “real” job. New jobs never start out that way, but I know I will get there. I know this because I’ve done it, piece by piece. I have acquired more skills and absorbed more knowledge than I probably even realize, and by putting it all into practice day by day at a job like this, knowing the work is valuable, I have finally acquired the confidence to go with it. I work hard. I am responsible. I can learn new things. I get stuff done. I am employable. These facts will not guarantee me a job, but knowing them does dispel the feelings of inadequacy that usually accompany the thought of getting one.

So now I am facing the last week left of my favorite job, in the coolest place I’ve lived, partaking in some of my favorite activities. It’s sad, but I feel accomplished all the same. It’s going to injure my pride a little if I cry when I leave, but I would bet my breakfast I’m going to do it anyway.

Some of the projects to be wrapped up in order to finish out my internship are: writing up the wildlife section of the Cody Field Office website, gluing and labeling herbarium vouchers, explaining all the GPS points I’ve been collecting and how they go together, and helping my mentor refine the first draft of a paper involving statistical analyses of sage-grouse lek attendance related to vegetation treatments. Guess this next week will be a busy one. I hope that will keep my mind off leaving.

I still remember my first real work day (the one after the introductory meet-the-office day), on May 13, 2011. We left the office sometime during the 4 o’clock hour in the morning to head out to Chapman Bench and count sage-grouse, right at the end of the lekking season. I had never used a spotting scope, seen sage-grouse or smelled sagebrush, and I couldn’t figure out why everything smelled minty when I rolled down the window until I asked my mentor about it. The alpine glow on the Beartooth Mountains was lovely, and I kept taking pictures. Then my mentor drove us up this rather steep, bumpy little two-track onto Polecat Bench, talking casually all the while as I glanced (with mild anxiety) out the back window of the truck. At the GROUND. I am from Nebraska, and had never been in any vehicle traversing this sort of topography. I believed he knew what he was doing, but Phew. This was new.

Sometimes when I encounter situations or environmental conditions that seem a little iffy I think to myself, “what would my mentor do?” Sometimes it’s not worth it to proceed. Sometimes it isn’t as bad as it looked initially, after some cautious evaluation. I appreciate my mentor, he’s a great boss and Wildlife Biologist. Good bosses always make jobs better, and I certainly can’t complain. I also appreciate my “alternate intern keeper,” one of the resident Geologists. And the other friends I’ve made… I will miss them, but I will be back. I couldn’t stay away now. But alas, just for now, it is time to do a little more life stretching. So here goes.


It is just now October, and already there is snow in the forecast. I am glad the BLM gives us rugged vehicles with 4 wheel drive to get around in, so that field work will still be possible in almost all but the most inclement weather. Within reason, of course. Vehicle reports were due today, and I took good ole “Silvy” the Silverado to get her tires aired up before more field work begins this week. I have spent quite a bit of time in the office lately, filling out seed collection data forms, organizing photos, downloading GPS data, and packing up herbarium vouchers, tying up any loose ends I can find. Soon I will get back to surveys, surveys, surveys. Next week a Montana Conservation Corps crew will be here to help us collect sagebrush seed and remove netwire for the sake of the pronghorn. It’s nice to have some extra hands around to make work like fencing and collecting seeds the size of grains of sand more efficient. On Friday I was removing barbed wire over a half mile stretch of fence by myself, and it ended up taking me the whole day just to detach the bottom strand from the fence and rip it out of all the sagebrush growing into the fence! It was a bear of a project, one I had not counted on being so difficult, but I feel better for having finally made progress. Still, the more sets of hands around to help, the merrier.

I am not sure yet how long I will stay. Part of me wants to get a permanent job closer to home and start working towards grad school, and the other part of me just wants to stay here in Cody and extend the internship again. If anyone were to ask me what kind of work I like to do, it would be this. When I think of all the things I like about this job, I wonder who in their right mind would give it up for anything else! I can’t do it forever, I suppose. But… is it time to move on? The job market isn’t offering a lot right now anyway, would I just be settling if I left? The opportunity cost is high in my mind, and I am not even close to reaching a decision about the whole thing. However, for the moment there is still time to ponder… I hope, anyway.

Disappearing Summer in Cody, WY

It has been another whirlwind summer. It seems that whenever the busiest part of field season finally winds down sometime in July, there’s not much time left before fall. I can’t believe it’s September already! My summer started out with golden eagle nest monitoring and lots of seed collecting, and now it has come down to more seed collecting, sage grouse data analysis, and a variety of surveys: powerline and fence surveys in sage grouse core areas, rare plant surveys in the wild horse management area and elsewhere, and surveys of stock tanks to determine the presence or absence of bird escape ramps. No powerline survey has yet been done in the field office, save for just a couple of lines, so it’s always nice to be a part of a new project that is valuable to the BLM here.

I started acquiring this information for my mentor, the wildlife biologist, for analysis of human infrastructure impact on sage grouse, who don’t like lekking near powerlines. The information can also be used for the benefit of raptors. While I roam the “office,” I record whether the particular powerlines and poles I’m surveying fit the standards of the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee, which create and disseminate guidelines on how to protect raptors from electrocution. There are many things that power companies can do to modify poles that pose hazards to raptors. By knowing what kind of pole and what modifications (or lack therof) are present, the field office will now be able to pinpoint hotspots of unsafe powerlines and can correlate this with raptor observations to judge which areas will be most likely to have unfortunate interactions between raptors and powerlines. Although the modifications cost money to install, raptor deaths also cost money under enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Companies whose infrastructure causes eagle deaths can be charged up to $250,000 per eagle, so it behooves them to employ methods of protecting the raptors. I am glad that I am involved with this project, which will hopefully benefit raptors and at least help to make a more accurate assessment of the impact on sage grouse. It can be easy to lose sight of the purpose behind some projects, but it’s important to hold on to the underlying purpose – like wildlife protection- because this will motivate you to do a more thorough and diligent job, and makes it worth every day’s effort.


The past few weeks have mostly been consumed by making collections for the Seeds of Success (SOS) program. Collected species include woolly plantain, scarlet globemallow, purple threeawn, kingspike fescue, tanseyleaf tansyaster, caespitose four-nerve daisy, alkali bluegrass, field chickweed, stemless mock goldenweed, and bluebunch wheatgrass. Some of these species may be used in garden trials for restoration or seed increase evaluations, whereas others that are not bound for long term storage may be used in reseeding disturbed areas in the Cody Field Office.

Now that frantic spring seed collecting is over (other other collections will be made later in the summer), I have finally been able to venture out into the wild horse management area to search reservoirs for the rare plant Rorippa calycina. The oil company working in the area will not be releasing their produced water into Dry Creek anymore, which the wild horses had depended on for water for a long time. Since Dry Creek will in fact be dry, they must now depend on the reservoirs spaced throughout the herd area, many or most of which are silted in or somehow in need of repair or maintenance. So the situation with Rorippa calycina is a catch-22: they need the reservoirs to grow, so we must maintain the reservoirs. But to do that, many of them will need to be dug out, so this repair process may destroy the rare plant populations around existing reservoirs. It’s a touchy subject, and I will be interested to see how it all pans out. Most likely there will have to be some compromises and careful planning, but for now all I need to worry about is completing a baseline survey of which reservoirs have this plant.

Adult golden eagle scanning the nest area cautiously before paying a visit to the chick

The golden eagle chicks are growing up fast, and are probably only a few weeks from fledging (leaving the nest to be on the ground for a while as they learn to fly). They are no longer white because most of their dark brown feathers have grown in, although their bellies and heads are still mostly white and down covered. They are between 50 and 60 days old at this point, and mostly feed themselves from what their parents bring them. I hope they survive their fledging, and it would be even better if I am able to witness it!


Back in Busy-ness

It’s been a BUSY several weeks here in Cody, Wyoming. I have been scouring the field office in search of plants to collect later this year for the Seeds of Success program, taking specimens for herbarium vouchers, and documenting locations. Along the way, I inspect reservoirs for the plant Rorippa calycina (persistent sepal yellowcress), which BLM classifies as rare in Wyoming, as well as any amphibians and reptiles. In the midst of all this searching, I have also been visiting known sage grouse lek locations to collect feathers for a genetic study, although I won’t pretend to understand the specifics at this point! I look forward to learning the results of this study, but that will be some time in coming.

Last week I was assigned to begin one of my favorite tasks: monitoring two golden eagle nests. The chicks are very young still, between 10 and 25 days old. They are fluffy and white, and very clumsy at getting around in the nests. Although it can be challenging to manage 6 hours of monitoring a week per nest on top of everything else, it’s definitely worth it. We are working on finding a way to multi-task while I sit at the nests with binoculars and spotting scopes, mostly by transferring work projects to my personal laptop so that I can accomplish more while I’m out there, such as analyzing sage grouse count data in relation to vegetation treatments. It’s cool to be a part of firsts here: looking at sage grouse trends specific to the BLM’s Cody field office and its management strategies, helping to conduct the first bat survey ever done in the field office, and even setting up a real herbarium in which to store plant specimens that until now have been stored in a cardboard box on top of a shelf. I am again realizing how spoiled I am getting to have such an amazing job where I can be useful, busy, and blissfully outdoors practically every day. I wish I could keep this job forever!