Wrapping Up the Season

This will be my last post for the 2013 season at the BLM Mother Lode field office. I may return next Spring if funding is in place. The government shutdown was an unexpected disruption in my work schedule but luckily most of our major projects such as seed collecting and rare plant monitoring were done before the shutdown took place. The seasonal shift is in full swing. The summer heat has all but dissipated and snow graces the high Sierra peaks. The patches of black oak at Pine Hill Preserve (PHP) have taken on beautiful fall colors.

Since the shutdown ended I have finished mounting and labeling all of the herbarium specimens collected in the spring and early summer, and added them to the PHP herbarium. Deciding on how to place the specimens on the herbarium paper is an artistic process, and care must be taken not to damage them as they are glued down. I enjoyed the slow, methodical pace of this task.

Yesterday I was able to attend a fascinating forum called the Ecology and Management of Medusahead and Barb Goatgrass on California Rangeland. This was at the University of California Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, a property replete with research projects on grazing, weeds, oak recruitment, and more. Medusahead and Barb Goatgrass are undesirable exotic grasses that have spread across California at an incredible rate, and both occur on Mother lode Field office land. This event had around 100 people, including professors and researchers, UC extension agents, NRCS range and soil scientists, restoration ecologists, and of course ranchers. A multitude of data was presented on using tools such as fire, herbicide, and high intensity grazing to manage these grasses.

The internship has been great and I have learned a lot. I have enjoyed working for my mentor Graciela. She has been kind, patient, extremely generous, and willing to answer all of my questions. It has been interesting to hear about her experiences of working in myriad locations such as Mexico, Colorado, and California. Since I have been working almost exclusively at PHP, I have gained insight into what goes into managing a small (for BLM standards) preserve with rare plant species, including federally endangered plant species. PHP is a partnership between many county, state, and federal agencies. Graciela is an expert at working with different agencies and understanding legal and bureaucratic intricacies. The Mother Lode field office is unique in that almost a third of its funding comes from outside sources (i.e. not the Department of the Interior). This funding is what runs special areas like PHP and Cosumnes River Preserve, and it comes from proactive action such as grant writing. In this time of budget cuts, Graciela and others at this office have convinced me that important conservation projects can still go forward.

Working here has also made me think a lot about plant monitoring. We have implemented various monitoring methods on the rare plants and fuel breaks at PHP. I have thought about the purpose of plant monitoring and how I would go about designing a plant monitoring project, if it were up to me. I have lots to learn in that regard but this summer has been a big step.

I enjoyed the opportunities to explore areas of this field office besides PHP, particularly seed collecting and raptor surveying at the Cosumnes River Preserve. Parts of CRP are riparian jungles full of birds and other wildlife that provide a picture of what the Central Valley may have looked like before the levees, farms, subdivisions and highways. I also enjoyed other opportunities such as leading native plant walks, going to workshops, and participating in river monitoring.

One of my favorite days was pulling yellow star thistle at the Red Hills in Tuolumne County. That is generally not a great job, especially in the middle of summer, but on that day Poor Man’s Gulch involved little star thistle. While slowly walking the riparian margin with eyes out for star thistle I couldn’t help but be blown away by the contrast between the parched, stunted vegetation of the serpentine uplands and the verdant, explosive greenness of the creek, not to mention the nearly complete lack of any signs of human activity. It’s days such as that that attract me to a job like this and… well… Edward Abbey put it better than me (I’ll leave out the obligatory vindictive end of his quote for the purposes of this blog):

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves…”

With that in mind I am soon going to the Dominican Republic to visit my brother who is doing the Peace Corps, before I make my next move.

Joe Broberg

An Early Fall

Leaf loss in the California floristic province is often dictated more by drought than temperature. This has been noticeable the past few months in the Sierra foothills, especially since the past two years have been exceptionally dry. The buckeyes were the first to shed their wide, almost tropical looking leaves. They prefer to wait out the Mediterranean summer without a fight, while other species keep their small waxy leaves in protest to the heat and drought. Next the abundant poison oak began to turn shades of yellow and red, and is now on its way to being completely leafless, with only its inconspicuous stems promising a rash. The California redbuds also turned various shades of autumn color as early as August. Twice a year redbuds exhibit a showiness that other chaparral shrubs shun in favor of toughness and practicability. In early spring the hills are alighted with thousands of bright pink blossoms on leafless stems, and in fall the leaves turn deep colors reminiscent of Eastern forests. Today I was able to collect redbud seed pods for the Seeds of Success program.

Redbud foliage

This pay period would have been the last for my internship, but I have been extended into early November. I now have a much more intimate understanding of the Pine Hill Preserve since I started working here five months ago. I have started calling the plants by their USDA plants code, which have been drilled into my head through repeated monitoring activities. For example, Salvia sonomensis, a ubiquitous sage that creeps underneath chaparral shrubs on long stolons, is known fondly as “SASO”. All eight of the Pine Hill Preserve rare plant species pop out at me, even late in the season when many of them have lost their above ground portions to the relentless heat. I have even been able to predict their presence a few times, when the gabbro soil turns a particularly otherworldly shade of red-brown and the chaparral becomes stunted due to the concoction of growth inhibiting chemicals in which the rare plants have undergone speciation. While seed collecting and monitoring I have army crawled through the silent, dusky under story of manzanita, and crashed through nearly impenetrable stands of unforgiving chamise. I often find that my pockets are full of chamise leaves at the end of the day. I can see why the Native Americans burned this ecosystem, if for nothing else just to be able to walk through it!

The rare Red Hills soaproot and gabbro soil

Last week I was given a respite from this difficult to navigate ecosystem. A cadre of field work hungry biologists and I were able to assist some guys from a lab at Utah State University who are working on a project to collect data on watersheds throughout BLM lands. It was extremely refreshing to be able to help collect data while half immersed in the clear, cold water of the North fork of the American river. We also ran into some interesting folks who were camping and gold mining along the river, proving there are remnants of the old West in California, once you get off the main highways.

Perhaps a bit too much sun

As the heat and drought persist, I find myself waiting, perhaps less patiently than the chaparral, for the earth to tilt away from the sun and for the Alaskan low pressure system to reassert its dominance over the Hawaiian high. Hopefully this will bring a cool, wet winter, and the Pine Hill Preserve plants can uncurl their crispy foliage, green up, and produce sprigs of fresh growth.

Joe Broberg

BLM Mother Lode field office

Rare Plant Projects

Here at Pine Hill Preserve my mentor Graciela has been keeping me busy on a variety of projects. These have mainly centered around two of the rare Gabbro soil plants, El Dorado bedstraw, Gallium californicum subsp. sierrae and Bisbee peak rush rose, Crocanthemum suffrutescens. I also spent several days helping the engineering technician survey some dry ponds at the Cosumnes River Preserve for a topographic map.

El Dorado bedstraw is a diminutive plant that grows in the shady under story of oaks and sometimes chaparral shrubs. The reproductive biology of El Dorado bedstraw is not well known. In the spring we examined the flowers of one population and flagged them with labels of male, female, or hermaphrodite. The literature says that El Dorado bedstraw is dioecious, meaning separate male and female plants, but these plants had not read the books, as many had both male and female parts. We returned to look at their fruits. We found that many plants had no fruits, some had small fruits, and some had much larger fruits. However, upon dissection it appeared that the small fruits did not have anything resembling a viable seed. If only the large fruits contain a viable seed, then this species barely produces any seeds at all, and perhaps primarily propagates itself vegetatively. Later we crawled through chaparral to a North facing slope with a good population of El Dorado bedstraw growing under black oaks and Toyon, and we collected some seeds. Graciela will take these to a local nursery to see if they can be propagated. She has also taken vegetative cuttings to this nursery, and it will be helpful to know which method is more successful if future disturbance requires mitigation and restoration of this species.

El Dorado Bedstraw with fruit

The small number of mature seeds also raises some questions. What pollinates this plant? Is there a lack of pollination? Is there herbivory of the seeds? Graciela recently attended a native bees workshop and is very excited about bees and other pollinators. She sent me back to the bedstraw to search for insects that might be associated with it. However it is now extremely dry and there was very little insect activity, and none of it seemed to be associated with the bedstraw, so this may need to be done again next spring or early summer. Graciela has also proposed that we come up with a grant proposal for a pollinator study for all of the Pine Hill Preserve rare plants. This project that will allow me to learn a lot about pollination biology, as well as how to acquire funding for projects, which I am realizing is probably the most important aspect of this field.

A beetle visiting the rare plant Stebbins’ morning glory

I have also been trying to work out the mystery of the Crocanthemum (formerly Helianthemum). Graciela and I have been assuming that all of the plants at Pine Hill Preserve are the rare plant Crocanthemum suffrutescens, Bisbee peak rush rose. However, the more keys and descriptions I look at, the more convinced I am that we have Crocanthemum scoparium, which is common, although the keys can be ambiguous and we may have both or even hybrids. The California Native Plant Society is working on re-listing suffrutescens because it has recently been revived as its own species. I have sent specimens from PHP to the author of a new Flora of North America, who is mainly responsible for bringing back suffrutescens as a seperate species, and hopefully by the time I write my next blog post I will be able to say which species is at PHP. This whole process has made me realize that taxonomy is a dynamic science and that it is hard to clearly define species, subspecies, varieties, etc. Considering to the uniqueness of the Gabbro soil community, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a plant that is quite different from other described variations of this genus.

Crocanthemum suffrutescens or scoparium?

Examining Crocanthemum pubescence

Joe Broberg

BLM Mother Lode Field Office


Continuiing projects at Pine Hill Preserve

The weather has been getting progressively hotter here in California’s Central Valley and Sierra foothills. The triple digit temperatures this week make it hard for me to believe that last week it rained and I was craving hot soup, while helping with a trash clean up day.

Julie and I have reached our Seeds of Success seed collection goal for this season, and we may collect a few more if there is a good opportunity. We have also wrapped up the first stage of our fuel break burn pile monitoring. We examined each of several hundred burn piles and noted dominant species and whether or not any of the Pine Hill Preserve rare plants have germinated. Although this was tedious, it gave me a lot of practice with seedling identification. Seedlings often look quite different than their mature counterparts and by looking at them over and over again I was able to deduce what many of them were. This ended up being significant because towards the end I realized that two types of seedlings that were fairly abundant were in fact rare plants!

Ceanothus roderickii

Ceanothus roderickii seedling, a federally listed species, sprouting in a burn pile

One of them, Crocanthemum suffretescens, appeared by the hundreds in the charcoal of the burn piles. This species has been the focus of another project. It is recognized by the California Native Plant Society as rare, but is not even recognized as being a distinct species in the new Jepson manual. A new version of A Flora of North America is being written in which this plant is recognized, but El Dorado County has not been included the description. All of this raises some questions for us at Pine Hill Preserve. What plant do we have? Does it fit established keys? Is it rare? etc. We have taken samples from several locations, made measurements, taken photos, and compared them to the key in A Flora of North America. We are fairly certain we have suffretescens but there is enough variability to raise some doubt. It might seem like a small issue but there are practical ramifications. If a plant is listed as rare, it completely changes what can legally be done to its habitat, including development.

Crocanthemum suffretescens

Measuring Crocanthemum suffretescens petals

In any case, rare or not, many plants have responded well to the fuel break construction and burning. My mentor, Graciela, often talks about implementing larger scale prescribed burns over entire parcels of the preserve. I couldn’t agree more when I look at the contrast between the mature chaparral and the fuel break. The chaparral appears overly dense, senescent, and loaded with fuel waiting to burn. A thick layer of manzanita leaves has inhibited the growth of other plants, including all of the rare plants. The fuel break and burn piles, on the other hand, are full of a high diversity of herbaceous forbs, grasses, and rare plants. However, looking the opposite direction to the other side of the wildland-urban interface, I see houses. These houses are upslope of what is essentially a huge tinderbox, especially during a year as dry as this one. As my own home burned down in a wildfire several years ago, I would understand any anxiety from these homeowners about a prescribed burn so close to them. Either way, ultimately the chaparral is highly adapted to fire and will most likely burn at some point. The controlled conditions of a prescribed burn are no doubt safer, and I hope Graciela is able to approve them.

The Pine Hill Preserve wildland urban interface

The Pine Hill Preserve wildland urban interface

This week has been too hot for field work except in the early morning, so I have been working on projects inside. Hopefully the delta breeze will return and it will cool down soon!

Joe Broberg

Pine Hill Preserve

BLM Mother Lode Field Office

El Dorado Hills, CA

Golden Foothills and Grasses

June has arrived in the Sierra foothills, and after a few periods of cooler temperatures and even a bit of rain in May, temperatures are rising. Its common knowledge that California’s Central Valley gets blazing hot, but this year seems to be exceptionally hot, with temperatures already starting to get into the 90’s and even over 100 degrees. Most of the grasses are completely dry and light brown, although some are stubbornly hanging on to a fringe of green color and herbaceous pliability. Most of the wildflowers are done, except for a few late bloomers, such as the harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans), which are in full swing. Seeds are maturing and dispersing rapidly, and seed collection has occupied most of fellow intern, Julie’s and  my time. So far we have about 9 or 10 collections completed or soon to be completed.

A few weeks ago I was able to attend a grass ID class at CSU Chico. This class was extremely useful, especially since we are trying to concentrate on grass seed collections this season. The class was specifically devoted to springtime grasses of the central valley and sierra nevada foothills, which made it even more relevant. The class consisted of sitting for eight hours in a classroom, bent over a microscope and the Jepson manual, until my eyes couldn’t focus and my brain stopped functioning. The teacher systematically went through the Poaceae (grass family) key, and showed us many samples of local grasses. Since the class, my desk has been strewn with pieces of dissected grasses; lemmas, glumes, paleas, awns, ligules… and of course a hand lens and the Jepson manual open to the Poaceae key.  My confidence with grasses, a plant group I often ignore due to the difficulty to ID them, has increased.

Grass ID

As with learning about any layer of natural history, delving into grass ID has changed the lens through which I view the natural world during my excursions into the field. Most of the  formerly lush green grass at our Kanaka Valley parcel is the exotic annual barbed goat grass (Aegilops triuncialis), which seems to be creating a near monoculture of dense thatch. On the other hand, I am more attuned to patches of native perennial bunch grasses persisting in rocky outcrops or the shade of oak trees.

Elymus glauca, blue wild rye

I was also able to visit an interesting area of the Mother Lode Field Office, the Red Hills. This ACEC (Area of Critical Environmental Concern) is about a two hour drive south of our office. The botanist, former botanist, wildlife biologist, fellow CLM intern and I left highway 50 and all trace of Sacramento as we headed to Calaveras county.  After driving through many small foothill towns of 200, or even as few as 50 people, and then driving down a labyrinth of rough dirt roads, I felt reassured that I am working for the BLM. The Red Hills is a sparsely vegetated belt of serpentine soil that is reminiscent of a desert, although it gets the same precipitation as the surrounding oak woodland and chaparral, meaning the magnesium and iron rich soil must inhibit normal growth patterns. Ceanothus cunatus, which is almost the only shrub, is spaced widely with large gaps of soil filled with forbs. Thousands of white tarweeds, a late bloomer, waved in the breeze as we searched for yellow star thistle populations, that the former office botanist has spent years removing by hand. We didn’t find any, except at a site adjacent to a constant seed source, proving that persistence and early detection can stop aggressive weeds.

The Red Hills, with the snowcapped Sierra in the background

Joe Broberg

Mother Lode Field Office

El Dorado Hills, CA


First impressions of Pine Hill Preserve

I am settling in to my CLM internship with the BLM Mother Lode field office, located in the Sierra foothills East of Sacramento. This is my second CLM internship, and it is very different from my first CLM internship. Last year I worked with the BLM in Alturas, California. Alturas is situated in the remote Northeastern corner of the state, with very few people and vast landscapes. The Mother Lode field office is based in El Dorado Hills, an affluent suburb of Sacramento. Botanically, it is very familiar to me, the oak woodland and chaparral are reminiscent of the mountains of my hometown, Santa Barbara. My internship is specifically concerned with the Pine Hill Preserve (PHP), a nature preserve managed by the BLM. PHP consists of just over 4,700 acres and was created primarily to protect eight species of rare plants. The unique Gabbro soil formation found on the preserve and surrounding areas hosts a unique assembly of plants. 740 plant species have been found here, which is ten percent of Californias total flora, meaning this small portion of the state is incredibly diverse. Of the eight rare plant species found at PHP, five are federally endangered and three occur nowhere else in the world. One species, Pine Hill Flannelbush (Fremontodendron decumbens), has only about 120 surviving individuals. 

Since my arrival last month, I have been learning about the management practices and conservation issues at PHP. The two main threats to the rare plants and their associated ecosystem are development and lack of fire, which go hand in hand. Much of the habitat for the Gabbro soil plants has been converted into roads, houses, and other development, which makes conservation ecology seem all the more relevant. Whereas last year, I would drive down rough dirt roads for miles to access field sites, at PHP it involves practically parking in peoples’ driveways. The ecosystem is fire adapted, and the rare plants require fire to be successful, whether for seed germination or simply the disturbance of the chaparral which creates more light and space to grow. Fire suppression threatens to eliminate the niche these plants have been evolved for. Due to the proximity to houses, broadcast prescribed burns are difficult at PHP; although my mentor Graciela Hinshaw is working on approving one. Instead of burns, fuel breaks are created with mechanical thinning, and the vegetation is burnt in small piles, as shown in the picture from 2011. One project I have been working on is monitoring some piles that were burnt last Fall to see which plants are coming back, and if any rare plants have germinated. The good news is that the rare plants respond well to mechanical thinning and burn piles. This gives the nearby houses fuelbreaks, which protect them from fire, and the rare plants are provided with a suitable habitat– a win-win, which can be hard to find in the conservation world.

Burn Piles (2011)

I was also able to work at the BLM state office last week. The BLM California botanist, Christina Lund, is gone on a long term project, and Graciela has been taking on many projects for her. Graciela had me come to the state office to help with a literature search on several desert plants. Currently there are many renewable energy projects planned for BLM land in the California deserts. The main plant I researched was creosote bush, a ubiquitous shrub in that region. Lots of creosote will likely be bulldozed to build solar plants. Although the shrub isn’t much to look at, it has a fascinating natural history. It forms clonal rings of genetically identical “satellite plants” that grow radially at an extremely slow rate. The largest known ring, the “King Clone”, is 22 meters wide at its longest axis, and is estimated to be 11,700 years old! This may mean that that plant was one of the first to colonize the new land that opened up when glaciers receded and the Mojave desert formed, and has been growing there ever since. Anyway, Christina and others are working on establishing a minimum ring size to designate as protected. I was able to find some information and scientific articles, but it is a difficult question, since a creosote ring just one meter in diameter is already several times older than an old growth conifer. In any case it was interesting to do research for a project in the desert and learn about the ancient ecosystems there.

Creosote bush

I have also been able to participate in some outreach events. This included guiding a botany class that visited a stunning parcel called Kanaka Valley , which is exploding with wildflowers. Graciela told me that before being aquired by the BLM, Kanaka Valley was slated to be developed into a golf course… something I am grateful did not happen!

Kanaka Valley lupines

Its been a busy first few weeks, and I anticipate many interesting projects to come!

Joe Broberg

Pine Hill Preserve intern

BLM MOLO Field Office

El Dorado Hills, CA

Reflections on the Modoc

November has come, and it is time to end my internship here at the Alturas BLM Field Office. With an extension, I worked here as a botany intern for a total of seven months. The first snow has fallen, the trees are losing their leaves, and the landscape looks similar to when I first arrived in early April.

Arrival in Modoc County was nothing short of a shock for me. I am from the opposite end of California, the benign coastal town of Santa Barbara. Although located in the same state, Santa Barbara is extremely different from Alturas, in almost every sense. As I made my motorized transect across the state last April, I knew I was in for an interesting summer. Once I passed over the Sierras, I came upon the high desert scenery of Northeastern California, namely sagebrush, junipers, and volcanic rocks. I made it to the town of Likely, population 200, and waited across from the old fashioned general store and saloon for my mentor to show me to the BLM fire station where I would be staying. We drove past pastures and cows, up into the junipers, to the fire station. I was soon by myself. I felt like Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, the lone steward of thousands of acres of desert. I found out that Modoc County’s motto of “Where the West still lives” could not be more accurate. I learned that the local Verizon wireless retailer also sells guns and ammo. Conversations in the office seemed to primarily be about hunting, and a local pastime is shooting squirrels. I was amazed by some of the towns in the area, for example Ravendale (population 26). I realized that Modoc County has a population of less than 10,000 and many of the towns are remnants of the homesteading era that have undoubtedly changed, but changed much less than anywhere I have ever seen. During my first week of work it was snowing and raining, and I spent some long days in the office going through the herbarium, and, to be completely honest, questioning what on Earth I was doing out here. But then my coworker Jaycee arrived, as well as other seasonals, and field season began.

As summer unfolded, I began to realize that despite the isolation and different culture here, I was in for a truly great experience. The uniqueness of working in this area was not lost on me. I would do things like startle coyotes, pronghorn antelope, and wild horses at a watering hole down the road from an old Basque sheepherder’s bunkhouse. Or drive for two hours down gravel and dirt roads to a dried up reservoir where a man driving an ATV and wearing a cowboy hat, boots with spurs, and an old fashioned six shooter holstered to his hip greeted us. I was also getting paid to do what I absolutely love. It was easy to forget that I was “working” when I was driving and hiking around all day collecting bouquets of wildflowers and scheming to collect their seeds. I don’t think I have ever been so excited during a job. I was rarely bored as the tasks were so varied, including rare plant surveys, seed collecting, transects, creating maps with ArcMAP, pressing and mounting herbarium specimens, and more. The locations were varied as well, and after driving down countless 4-wheel drive roads and looking at maps, I have come to know the land that this office manages far better than the natural areas surrounding my hometown.

Working for the BLM has given me valuable insight into what working for a multi-use government land management agency is like. I have learned about myriad facets of natural resource management such as rare plant clearances, juniper encroachment, wildfires, endangered species, rangeland management, etc. I have learned over and over that no issue is black and white. As my mentor put it, sciences like rangeland management are applied ecology, and every case is different, based on a multitude of factors. This dynamism is what makes these fields so interesting to me. I have also realized that being an intern is different than being an actual BLM employee. Although it concerns me that the ecosystemic processes that I find so fascinating are often bogged down in paperwork, I also know that this is how things are done in the world of land management in this day and age. Agencies like the BLM have incredible pressure from environmentalists, ranchers, politicians, and everyone in between. The BLM straddles a line between these groups, a line that I don’t always agree with, but also one that I have gained a lot more respect for. Perhaps most important of all I have seen is that there is a place in agencies like the BLM for those concerned with conservation, and that this seems to be a growing trend.

Well, I guess it’s time for the next adventure. In just over a month I will be traveling to New Zealand to work on farms, hike, and learn a completely new flora. After that, I imagine I will continue working for a land management agency and in the next few years I want to go to grad school, and this internship will be instrumental for these plans. I’ll miss the wide unobstructed views, the unpeopled landscapes, the stunning clouds, the smell of freshly crushed sagebrush, and never needing to worry about finding a parking place. Some pictures:


The Warner mountains after the first fall snow.



A finished herbarium specimen, one of several we were able to add to the office herbarium.




 11/1/12Joe Broberg Alturas BLM Field Office 


My internship has been extended, and I have  just about finished the first of two extra months working for the BLM in Alturas, California. Fall has arrived. Although the days are still getting surprisingly hot, the nights are getting cold, with the first frost predicted for tonight. The hay has been baled, the cows are back on their home ranges, and thousands of ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes are passing through on their way South.

My field partner Jaycee and I have shifted our focus from seed collecting to other projects. The biggest of these is a mapping project on the Likely Tablelands, a piece of BLM land about 45,000 acres large  just Southeast of Alturas. It is a flat volcanic plateau that has been carved by the Pit river and other creeks from the Warner mountains watershed. We are mapping lines around areas of a species of sagebrush called Wyoming Big Sage, Artemesia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis. These lines, or  “greenstrips”,  will be installed around patches of sagebrush, and seeded with fire resistant plants. The purpose of this is to protect the sagebrush from burning, and from being converted to Medusahead, Taeniatherum caput-meduasae (an exotic annual grass), which is what most of the rest of the Tablelands is composed of. Medusahead is particularly good at coming back after fires, and it outcompetes the native bunch grasses. Wyoming big sage is of special concern because it takes as long as 100 years to fully recover after a fire whereas other species of sagebrush take about 20 years.

The Likely Tablelands. A volcanic plateau surrounded by a highway, agricultural fields, creeks and a mountain range.

At first this project seemed incredibly daunting. Mapping sagebrush in the high desert sounded like mapping grains of sand at the beach. It was first introduced to me in early May and I had no idea where to start and quickly abandoned it in favor of more interesting, accesible projects. It is a sign of how much I have learned about navigation, map reading, and ArcGIS that this project is even possible for me to work on . It is still quite a challenge figuring out how to best solve the spatial problem of representing sagebrush and medusahead. It is a lot easier than it sounds because the majority of the Tablelands is extensive, contiguous medusahead monoculture, which means fewer lines need to be mapped than I initially thought. I’m not sure how relieved I am by that.

Another component of the mapping is finding out where different types of sagebrush grow. Besides visual ID, there is a really cool way to tell them apart. You take a few leaves, crush them, and put them in some water in a glass. Then you shine a blacklight on it (our office has a blacklight kit for this purpose that is probably protected under the antiquities act) and depending on the species they will flouresce different shades of blue or not flouresce at all. This is due to a chemical compound that some produce and some don’t.


All this mapping and seeing so much medusahead has me wondering why it is there in the first place. The tablelands were grazed by sheep up until the 1960’s, when medusahead first showed up, and overgrazing may have dealt the first blow to the sagebrush and bunch grasses. Past fires have also spread it around. It is no doubt ultimately due to the productive capacity of the land being compromised in some way, leaving medusahead and other weedy forbs as the only plants that can grow.  This greenbelt project is interesting, but is inherently a defensive act that will not reverse this process. I am curious as to what methods could be employed to restore the land in a lasting way that would promote more desirable species for use by wildlife and humans.

Joe Broberg

Botany Intern

Alturas BLM Field Office

Collecting the Harvest Unsown

On the sagebrush steppe or the Eastern Cascade foothills. Past the old farmhouse, near the spring, in the burned area, or on an ancient basalt flow. Seed collecting. I drive slow, both because the BLM road I am on seems to have more rocks in it than around it, and because I am intently focused on finding seeds to collect. Something catches my eye and I step on the brakes. I jump out of the truck and examine a plant, or remnant of a plant. Perhaps it is something I scouted out months before when it was in flower, before the landscape dried into shades of brown. A dehisced skeleton of a plant, but still offering a seedhead. I eagerly grab it, and use my fingernails or a knife to break open the seed head, capsule, silique, achene, spikelet, follicle, schizocarp or pod. I assess whether the seeds are ready. Too green and soft means its not ready yet. Some fruits may have a small hole in them and a worm rather than a seed, in which case I need to cut open more seeds to determine if they are all like that. If the seeds are dry and hard, they are ready. Then I look up at the population. Are there enough plants to collect from? If so, have they produced enough fruits? I once observed, on a quiet lunch break, a chipmunk running around grabbing lupine stalks with its tiny hands and bending the pods into its mouth, which likely expains why we haven’t been able to find many lupine pods despite its abundant flowers. How many seeds are in each seed head or fruit? Simple math equations run through my head as I keep in mind that our collection target is at least 10,000 seeds and only twenty percent of a population can be taken. If everything looks good, I get a bag and start collecting. If there are 100 seeds per seed head, it may take a matter of minutes, but sometimes there are only several seeds per fruit and it takes hours.

Despite the drought, my field partner and I have been able to make over twenty collections thus far. We have sought out the higher elevations and wetter areas of our field office. Plants also have staggered blooming and fruiting times, meaning that in one trip we may collect seed from an early flowering species and collect an herbarium specimen from a later flowering one. As we get into late August I can tell that the collections will get more and more sparse.

I often think about where the seed that we collect will go. Collection is the beginning of a long process. After being cleaned and sorted, it may end up in a seed bank. Or it may be grown out in fields, producing thousands more. Lately it has been over 90 degrees every day, and large fires are raging all around Alturas, blanketing the area in thick smoke. There will likely be a huge demand for seed in the coming years to stabilize slopes and out compete weeds in the vast areas of the West that have burned this season. 

The Pit River canyon. Many of our collections have been from this area of our field office.



We startled some wild horses on a seed collecting trip.



Collecting a sedge at a spring at Yankee Jim ranch.

Joe Broberg

BLM Botany Intern

Alturas, CA



The Importance of Phlox

During the past month out here at the Alturas BLM field office I have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit. My field partner Jaycee and I headed up to Lava Beds National Monument in early June for a work week. We stayed at the research station there because it is much closer to some BLM land near the Oregon border, and we were able to save several hours of driving each day. We were also able to participate with some Park Service projects. This included attending a plant phenology and climate change class. Some folks out of UC Santa Barbara have set up a plant phenology monitoring network for California and they want the National Park Service to get on board. This mainly involves training citizen scientists to go out and make observations about plants throughout the year. The date of major phonological stages such as bud break, flowering, and fruit maturation are recorded on a website. This data is taken from a wide geographic range, the goal being to determine if these phenological stages are occurring sooner due to changing climate. We were also able help out with some fire effects monitoring with NPS employees. We ran transects in an area where they had done a prescribed burn nine years previously. In a five by thirty meter area we found thirty two species of plants, which seems like pretty good evidence that fire is necessary for biodiversity. After that we climbed Mount Dome, a very steep cinder cone, in search of a rare species of rice grass. We thought we found it, but later learned we were mistaken, proving that the desire to find what we are looking for often clouds our better judgment. Or maybe we were distracted by the view and falcons circling us.

The next week was the workshop at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This was a whirlwind of long days of learning about myriad topics related to what we are doing. It was great to get a better picture of what the Conservation and Land Management program is all about, as well as to meet interns who are working all around the country. I guess I’m not the only one sticking out like a sore thumb in some remote Western cowboy town that nobody has ever heard of.

Lately we started collecting our first seed. We successfully collected seeds of two species of grass. We had also previously identified a phlox and a lily as good targets due to their abundance, but the phlox had already set seed and the lily seemed to have been scorched off the face of the planet since the weather heated up. This goes to show that seed collection requires vigilant observation, or else the seeding window can be missed. This was, to be honest, somewhat of a relief. Spring was nothing but excitement as we tromped around, making note of all the pretty flowers that would be cool to collect later. It didn’t even occur to us how immense a task collecting 10,000 phlox seeds would be, given that each phlox flower only produces one seed, a proper collection only takes 20% of the available seed of a population, and phlox can be painfully spiny.

Speaking of phlox, we also went to the Modoc Gulch to survey for a rare species, Phlox muscoides. We looked both in areas where juniper cuts are going to take place, and in areas where it was previously found and pretty much didn’t find it in either. It was good that we didn’t find any of this phlox in the juniper cut areas, as this means it won’t be disturbed. As for the sites where it is already known to occur, it was frustrating to drive several hours to and from these sites and not even find it. However, today I was able to do a little detective work which helped me feel significantly less useless. I filled out data forms for what we had found, or not found, for the California Natural Diversity Database (run by California Department of Fish and Game). I found the phlox entry that we had looked for, and learned that the last time it was documented was probably at least fifteen years ago. In that light it is not surprising at all that we didn’t find it, as the juniper and mountain mahogany trees have no doubt grown and shaded out many plants in that amount of time. Other factors could be at play here, such as overgrazing by wild horses (there is ample evidence of them at Modoc Gulch). I realized that it is monitoring like this that is necessary to determine changes in biodiversity, as well as the efficacy of actions that the BLM takes, such as juniper and wild horse removal. How will the ecosystem change after they are removed? Are we unnecessarily altering a natural ebb and flow of plant communities, or are we improving biodiversity?

Joe Broberg

Alturas BLM Field Office