Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue

I’m beginning a new chapter in my life, and Tom Petty keeps floating through my head. The future really does feel wide open. After 16 months working with Carol Dawson and Peter Gordon at the BLM Colorado State Office in Denver, I’m selling my furniture and preparing to pack up my little RAV4 and move across the country. It’s similar to what I did a year and a bit ago, but more terrifying because I don’t have a job lined up for when I arrive.

I’m incredibly excited and ready for a change, but will also be very sad to leave Denver. The people I have met here and the experiences I have had have been wonderful. This internship has allowed me to learn so much about what the BLM does and how they do it, and as a result I have gained a lot of respect for the difficult decisions the Bureau makes. I have met passionate people who truly care about what they are doing, and have been able to participate in a variety of interesting projects. Whether I end up in federal service is still very much up in the air, but I have certainly gained a greater understanding of what such a career could entail.

Beyond the many things I learned about the botany of Colorado and how to effectively monitor a plant population, I also learned a great deal about myself during this internship. Initially, I learned that I could move to a new city and make a life for myself, in the process making wonderful friends and exploring a really fun and beautiful place. That first summer, to my surprise, I ended up living by myself. While terrifying at first, I rose to the occasion and ended up really enjoying the freedom that gave me. I learned about working an 8-4:30 job, waking up at the same time and getting myself to the same office every day. This became increasingly difficult during the winter when we didn’t have fieldwork to distract ourselves with, but I still managed, and I think I’m better for the experience. Finally, I learned about the transition to adulthood. While I still feel like a “freshman in real life,” it’s not so strange to me that I didn’t go back to school this fall.

Overall this has truly been a great experience for me, and I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity. I couldn’t have asked for a better team to work with (thanks Carol, Peter, and Darnisha!). And so, as I say goodbye to Colorado, to my friends, and to my coworkers – remember, I will miss you!

Sama Winder
BLM CO State Office


The quick and direct answer is the easiest to understand, but often the hardest to give. I find this to be especially true when discussing plant population trends. It’s extremely tempting to draw conclusions about what is happening in an area after collecting only a year or two of data, but this is dangerous! Populations undergo natural annual variation, something that is especially apparent in Colorado this year. We’ve been returning to many of our permanent monitoring plots around the state, checking out how different rare plant species have been reacting to the extraordinarily low moisture levels this summer. Generally, the plants, like many common species, have been struggling. If we looked only at the number of individuals in some of our plots last year (a very wet year) vs. this year, we might be tempted to conclude that the populations were declining dramatically. Luckily, we have more data than that for many of the species. Looking back at previous years’ data, it becomes clear that the number of individuals in a plot has tended to fluctuate up and down the entire time the team has been monitoring.


Phacelia formosula. Photo by Peter Gordon


I really noticed this distinction last week when we traveled to northern Colorado to monitor Phacelia formosula. At the first plot we visited, the plants looked great! It was the first plot of anything I’d seen this year that looked noticeably better than it did last year. There were many plants, and the majority of them were in flower. With excitement building, we moved on to our next plot. Alas, there were almost no plants here! The third and final plot seemed to take the middle road, with approximately the same number of plants we had seen the year before. Looking at these three plots it was obvious that populations fluctuate, and not always in the same way as their neighbors just a small distance away. We left with another year’s worth of data, secure in the knowledge that several years down the road we may be able to notice meaningful trends.

Sama Winder
BLM Colorado State Office



Colorado’s burning, and with good reason.  As we begin to really get into SOS scouting, it’s becoming abundantly apparent that the 35% of normal snowpack that we received this past winter was simply not enough. Areas we visited last year that had promising populations are fried. Flowers are shriveling up on the plants brave enough to attempt reproduction this year, often before there is even a hint of a fruit forming. Yesterday Darnisha and I (the interns) saw 3 deer – two adults and a fawn. We startled them, and they moved slowly away, clearly more concerned about conserving energy than they were about us. Dad stayed a little longer, watching us to make sure we didn’t go after his family, and I was able to see each of his ribs. It’s looking like it’ll be a tough season for everyone, though luckily fewer happy plant populations isn’t the life or death matter for us that it may be for the deer. We’re counting on the local shrubs to provide us with good collections, and after that we’ll be heading into the higher elevations where it hasn’t been quite so hot.

I’m astounded by the number of wildfires that Colorado has already had this year, especially since it’s not even July yet. We started in March, with the Lower North Fork Fire, which burned 25 homes and killed three people. Even coming from Idaho, where I’m used to wildfires, I was completely unprepared for a serious wildfire so early in the season. Now we have somewhere around 9 fires burning across the states, some of them quite serious. The High Park Fire by Fort Collins has burned 257 homes, 87,000 acres, and is now at 65% containment. This past weekend a new fire started just outside of Colorado Springs, and has forced the evacuation of 32,000 people. While the fires themselves have not affected our field work yet, they’ve begun to affect my weekend plans – it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a location to go backpacking that is comfortably far from all the wildfires currently burning, not to mention any patches of forest that may burst into flame from a lightning strike or a hot bullet that falls into some dry grass in the next few days.

Fires burning in Colorado as of 6/27. Doesn't include a fire near Boulder that started last night. Image from InciWeb.org


It’s interesting for me to imagine what Colorado will look like 20 years from now. The high frequency, high intensity fires that the state is experiencing are a combination of a number of factors. Primarily, as is true throughout the West, fires have been unnaturally suppressed for the last hundred years or so. Only recently has fire been accepted as a natural and necessary part of many ecosystems. However, due to this suppression, fuels have been building up for the last hundred years, and now forests tend to burn hotter than they did traditionally. Secondly, pine bark beetles are decimating the pine populations throughout the state. Large swaths of forest are dead. These areas might as well be a forest made of matchsticks, their flammability index is so high. Thirdly, weather patterns are completely out of whack. Thirty-five percent snowpack (35! The year before was a record high snow year), combined with warm temperatures beginning in March, has led to a particularly dry state. The strange weather patterns and pine bark infestations can be blamed pretty neatly on climate change. As it looks unlikely that climate change will be reversing itself any time soon, I suspect that Colorado will be experiencing a lot of these bad fire years in the future.

The biologist in me is thrilled to see the succession that takes place after the burns go through (I’m predicting lots of aspen), but the naturalist is sad to think of so many beautiful forests gone. Whatever happens, the landscape will survive, and Colorado will continue to be beautiful in its own way. For this year, we’ll keep looking for those lucky plant populations that are hardy enough to reproduce, and hope for some good collections!

Sama Winder
BLM CO State Office

Back in the field

Midway through June it’s finally beginning to feel like summer is truly here, especially now that I’ve managed to have several full field days. Last month I put on my environmental educator hat and helped out with a few projects outside of the botany realm I normally work in – first by leading a group of Junior High students through a series of activities to monitor water quality, and then a few weeks later by helping to prepare a poster and presentation about sage-grouse for a Migratory Bird Day walk. It was fun to work on something different, and great to introduce some young(er) people to how much fun field work can be.

Greater Sage-grouse Tail. Photo by Dan Dzurisin, Licensed through Creative Commons 3.0


After these interesting non-botany projects, I also got to start in on the 2012 field season plant work. We put in a few new plots and read old plots to monitor Astragalus debequaeus, Penstemon grahamii, Physaria obcordata, and Physaria congesta. It’s been a dry year in Colorado, so the Astragalus debequaeus especially seems to be struggling, but we’re hopeful that they’ll bounce back next year. That monitoring was particularly interesting, because A. debequaeus is a new species for me. The others were fun, in familiar scenery and with some familiar faces that I met during the monitoring trips last year.

Finally, Darnisha, the new CLM intern in our office, arrived this week. This means that we have a great excuse to begin SOS, and have been out scouting. We’ve identified several nice looking populations, and are hopeful that this will be a good collection year.

Hooray summer!

Sama Winder
BLM CO State Office

Spring transitions

Several months after I began to study the native pollinators of Colorado rare plants, I have completed the “thesis I never wrote.” Last week I submitted my final draft to my mentor, the Colorado State Botanist. Upon her approval, it was sent along to the Fish and Wildlife Service Botanist, as well as to several botanists at various BLM field offices. The ultimate purpose of my research was to make recommendations about the best way to conserve native pollinators (generally bees) when protecting rare plants. At this point, I am confident that I made a very reasonable recommendation, and am very hopeful that it will be implemented statewide. It’s exciting to have worked on something that is potentially so far reaching, and I’m very happy that my mentor trusted me with this project. In the process I’ve really learned a lot about what goes into applied conservation.

Of course, sending off my lengthy persuasive document is only the first step, albeit a large one. I am looking forward to the feedback it receives, and to defending various parts of my argument if need be. At first glance, some of my recommendations appear to offer less protection than recommendations that FWS has already presented. While I know that my suggestions are backed up by a good deal of research, and I am hopeful that this research is summarized succinctly enough to convince anyone reading my paper of its truthfulness, I recognize that inherently the FWS wishes to err on the side of more protection (as they are mandated). On the other hand, some of the field offices may feel that my recommendations are too stringent, and will create more work for the diverse interests that lease our land than is warranted. While I recognized these competing interests during the creation of my recommendations and worked to maintain a balance between the two, my main purpose was to remain objective and simply report what was warranted by the available research. Thus, I feel ready to defend my recommendations from either side.

This document represents the culmination of my winter project, and the reason that my internship was originally extended. The timing seems perfect, as our first field work of the 2012 season is scheduled for next week. I couldn’t be more excited to get out of the office and get my hands dirty again! Desk work is fine, and obviously important, but simply can’t compare to the field season when we get to spend nearly every day outside. Next week we will be collecting data to continue long-term monitoring of Astragalus debequaeuson the western slope of the Rockies. I’m particularly excited because this is a new species for me, since last year I arrived after my mentors had already done this monitoring.

A. debequaeus. Picture by P. Gordon


So there we have it: finishing up my winter work, starting the summer work, and always grateful that my mentor has seen fit to extend my internship through this field season.


Sama Winder
BLM CO State Office

Humble Bees

“Time is honey”
Bernd Heinrich (1996)

Amazing how quickly the time passes, even while doing office work. Since my last entry I’ve been really focusing in on bumblebees (once known as humble bees), learning as much as I can about their foraging patterns and habits. The overarching conclusion I’ve come to is that they can fly really far! For such a small animal, it is incredible to learn that some individuals will fly upwards of a kilometer each time they leave the nest in order to reach some really delicious nectar.

I read a cool study that quantified bumblebee foraging patterns by attaching tiny radio transponders to their backs. Check out the pictures! Osborne et al. (1999) set up a giant satellite dish in the middle of a field, and used harmonic radar to see where the bumblebees went. They ran into a few problems though, because the signal was only strong enough if the bees stayed within 700 m and were in sight of the satellite dish. This is only one way that researchers have tried to determine how far bumblebees fly between their nests and their forage, though it may be the most interesting and innovative!


If you are interested in learning more about bumblebees, I would highly recommend Bumblebees: Behaviour, Ecology, and Conservation by Dave Goulson.

Sama Winder, BLM CO State Office

Bees, Bees, Bees

It’s been a couple months since my last post (I got my last alert while I was on Christmas vacation) and work is progressing smoothly in the state office. I am still absorbed in my native pollinator project, though the exact project goals and findings are starting to solidify. For those of you who haven’t been keeping track, I’ve been conducting an in-depth literature review trying to determine what is known about pollinators in Colorado, specifically how far they can fly and how far they are likely to fly between their nests and the plants they forage at. The reason I’m doing this relates back to rare and endangered plants. When protecting a plant population, it is imperative that you take this plant’s pollinators into account. If you only protect the plants themselves, and bulldoze everything around them, it’s unlikely that enough bees will survive to keep pollinating the plants and maintaining the population. This is pretty intuitive. What’s not so obvious is how much habitat you should protect around the plant population, which is where my research fits in.

When it comes down to it, these “buffer” distances are also affected by politics. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission is to “conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats,” (mission statement on their website) which means that they are in charge of listing species under the ESA and then protecting them as well as they can. In turn, it is in their best interest to leave lots and lots of space around plant populations for pollinator habitat. Their estimates are based on science, but when there is not very much information available, it is best for the FWS to err on the side of more protection, and thus bigger buffer distances. The BLM, on the other hand, has a multi-use mandate. While it is important to (and required of) the Bureau to adequately protect endangered and threatened species, it is also part of our job to lease land to energy development and grazing interests. When large buffers are placed around plant populations, it significantly increases the amount of work that these interests must do in the form of surveys and protective measures, a fact that they’re not always happy about. So, it comes back to balance. We need to protect these species, but we don’t want to regulate these development companies out of business. Not only do they provide domestic energy and jobs, they also pay the government a lot of money for this privilege, helping to make the BLM a profitable government agency year after year.

My job in all this is to ferret out the data that matters. Rather than reading the key reviews and drawing conclusions from them, erring on the side of protection when the data doesn’t apply directly, I’m digging in deep to try to really figure out what kind of protection is needed and warranted by the literature. Throughout this process it’s important to remember that I’m not trying to necessarily do what’s best for the development interests, but rather really just trying to find the facts. The project is interesting, and with hundreds of papers available that don’t ask my questions directly but rather offer glancing insights, I have my work cut out for me. I’ll keep you all updated as I draw closer to a conclusion.

Astragalus osterhoutii (endangered) with one of its pollinators

Sama Winder
BLM Colorado State Office


As the days keep getting shorter (where did my evening sun go?) I’m beginning to accept that the transition from the field into the office is real. We’ve been managing to sneak in a few late season seed collections (prickly pear, rabbit brush, a few sages), after each one saying “this is our last collection.” But the weather, in its seemingly typical bipolar fashion, has been swinging back and forth between windy, cold, snowy days and beautiful, sunny, 60 degree respites. On these days we’ve grabbed our plant press and dashed into the field, for “one last collection.” We’ve made it to 34 collections, and all I wanted to do was get one more, for a nice round 35. On Wednesday we attempted what would have truly been our last collection. After a beautiful drive into the mountains we discovered that sadly, the sages we’d come to collect had already dropped their seed for the winter. The trip was still useful though, because we discovered a great new site for potential collections next year! I’m sad to see the end of the field season, but happy with the collections we did make, and happy to have participated in SOS this year.

In the office, my winter project is to conduct a literature review of native pollinators. I’m looking at it as the thesis I never wrote, and am glad for the opportunity to conduct a lot of research and prepare a document that reflects that. My mentor’s ultimate goal is to use my recommendations in writing a state-wide policy regarding the width of the buffers that need to be placed around rare and endangered Colorado endemics, so I’m also excited that my work could be part of something so far-reaching. To date, the results of my research are a 15 page bibliography-style document of references that I think will be worthwhile to read, and a large spreadsheet where I am compiling information about all documented pollinators of the 15 rare, endangered, or threatened plant species that I am focusing on. I’ve recently found a new program that I think will be extremely helpful to me as I read and take notes on all of these sources, so I’m in the process of learning how to use Scrivener, a powerful note-taking, organization, and writing program. There’s an incredible amount of data and research to sift through, so the project seems overwhelming at times, but I’m confident that I will be able to come out of it with a meaningful understanding of the issues that play into buffer distances and hopefully be able to make realistic and knowledgeable recommendations for future policies.

One of our late-season collection sites (Photo by Jeffrey Flory)

One of the little guys I'm studying...

Smallest bee on the eye of the biggest bee (found this pic on the internet)

Sama Winder
BLM State Office, CO


Reading everyone’s blogs from the last couple weeks makes me want to write about what this internship has meant to me. My personal difference is that I have been lucky enough to get an extension, so I’m not going to be leaving Denver until February. All the same, the field season is coming to an end, and I feel justified reflecting on my last 4.5 months as a CLM Intern.

Like many of the other interns, this has been my first real job after graduation. This means that similarly, I feel that I have learned a lot about working an 8-4 job, 5 days a week. It hardly feels like a real job though, since few people are lucky enough to spend their workweek exploring beautiful places and learning about interesting native (and sometimes rare) plants. I have appreciated the opportunity to really get to know Colorado, and to observe how I deal with working in a professional environment. The variety of my job has kept me interested throughout, even through the twinges that came when the summer ended and school started back up without me.

Unlike many of the other interns, I’m from the West. As a result, a lot of my experiences here have had familiar overtones. I grew up in the mountains, driving on bad dirt roads, living around people who like to hunt and shoot guns for fun. If anything, this internship proved to be the opposite experience – from growing up in a tiny town, to going to school in a small town, to suddenly living in a city of 2.5 million people. Perhaps because of this, I can’t say that my internship has been life changing. I already knew that I wanted to end up living and working in the West, preferably outside. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life any more specifically than that, though I think that my next step is going to be continuing to look for temporary jobs with many different biological foci. Despite that fact that I haven’t found a new direction for my life, I have learned a great deal about Colorado, about the flora, about working for the government, and about myself. Personally, I am now able to comfortably be self-sufficient. This has been the first time I’ve had to buy groceries and feed myself seven days a week, pay rent, and manage my own time. Due to a number of circumstances, I have also been living alone for about half of my internship thus far, something I never dreamed I would be able to do. I’m so happy to know that I can take care of myself, be comfortable with making my own decisions, and make meaningful friendships in a new place. These are skills that I will certainly take with me when I leave, thanks to CLM.

For now though, I feel extremely lucky that I’m staying. I will continue living and working in Colorado for the winter, switching over to a new project as the temperature outside keeps dropping. I’ll be essentially conducting an in-depth literature review of native pollinators, something that the nerd in me is very excited for. Look out for updates and interesting things that I’ve learned about pollinators in the next couple months!

Sama Winder, BLM Colorado State Office

Parachute Beardtongue

Three and a half months in and the focus of the internship has been shifting. In the past month it seems like all of the local flora has fruited, and we have been busily working as some of the most efficient seed dispersers possible, gathering as much as we can to be shipped to Bend and hopefully then on to similar habitats where it can flourish. As we worked through this month Jeffrey (my fellow intern) and I took on more and more responsibility, until seed collecting is now almost entirely our project. We choose where to go and when, and while our mentors will come along occasionally to help collect we seem to be in charge. This is refreshing, and helps me to feel like a more valuable member of the team, rather than merely an intern doing what I’m told.

While I’m enjoying collecting seed, it’s making me realize how varied and interesting the rare plant monitoring portion of this internship has been. Earlier this week we traveled to an oil shale cliff outside of West Rifle, CO for what will probably be our last monitoring trip. The scenery was beautiful, and after winding up a few switchbacks on the side of a mountain we decided that walking seemed like the better option to get up the final climb. The mountain was actively taking back the road, depositing large piles of loose shale where it wasn’t being held back by giant warped steel beams.

Steel beams attempting to hold up the mountain


At the very top of this road we ran tapes to add another year’s worth of data to the books about Penstemon debilis, the Parachute Beardtongue, a small plant that only occurs on five oil shale slopes on the Roan Plateau of Colorado. The BLM has been monitoring this species since 2004, but the data has recently taken on new importance, as the species was just given “threatened” status last month. The oil and gas company that owns the land where 90% of the P. debilis populations occur has begun making a few proposals. While they are under no legal obligation to protect their populations (Penstemon is, after all, a plant, not some kind of cute fuzzy animal that would enjoy federal protection wherever it wandered), the company is still interested in maintaining viable populations of the Penstemon. So, their current plan is to collect seed from these plants, grow it in greenhouses, and then plop the baby plants back into the shale to create new populations. In this way they hope to create a greater number of healthy populations, potentially taking some of the pressure off of the species if they wish to develop land where it currently occurs in the future. While this may not be the ideal solution for environmentalists, this is one of the issues of conflicting interests that I find fascinating about this job. I love learning about the different opinions and facts that have to be juggled when making management decisions, and I really feel that I have a much better idea of what goes on behind the scenes related to our public lands today than when I started my internship in June.

Monitoring site

Sama Winder, BLM CO State Office