Rare Plant Odyssey

The past month at the Alturas BLM field office has allowed me to delve into a variety of projects. These have included participating in pre-dawn marsh bird surveys at the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, setting up a new line point intersect transect, scouting for seed collection targets, rare plant surveys and trying to teach myself ArcMap. My fellow intern Jaycee and I have been familiarizing ourselves with the Alturas BLM land. Our mentor Mike will point to a place on a map and tell us to get a feel for the dirt roads and where they go, of course looking for plants along the way. Names like the Tablelands, West Side Allotment, Muck Valley, South Ash Valley, Hogback Ridge and Conrad Ranch all have meaning to me now.

Mainly we have been learning the BLM special status plants and searching for them. The main threat to them is the juniper tree cutting which this office is carrying out. These cuts have the goal of both improving rangeland health and wildlife habitat. Fire suppression has allowed junipers to become overly dense and to encroach into areas of sagebrush steppe that were previously much more open and unpopulated by trees. The large machinery used for these cuts causes significant disturbance and the scene afterwards is reminiscent of the Lorax– tracks everywhere, battered stumps, and gigantic piles of trees (old growth trees are spared). However, hopefully this disturbance will benefit the ecosystem in the long run. The sensitive plants are particularly susceptible to disturbance in this process due to the habitat in which they occur. Most of the plants we have been searching for grow in bare patches that at first glance appear to be nearly void of  life. Upon close inspection, these areas are full of strange, minature plants. Many of them have a showy flower larger than the plant itself. Somehow, in the brief window between snowmelt and the heat of summer, they manage to extract what they need from exposed volcanic gravel, and are able to grow, flower, and produce seeds. Unfortunately, these gravel patches are perfect natural parking lots. What better place to park vehicles and stage machinery?  Habitats like these that naturally appear lifeless are often the easiest to destroy as we “turn the desert into the wasteland that we think it is”, as Gary Paul Nabhan puts it.

In fact, I can say that I personally participated in this process. About a month ago I did an ATV training course, which was located in one of these seemingly bare areas . Yesterday I happened to go back to where it was because my mentor found a rare species of penstemon there. Sure enough, as we were surveying the population, I found several of them in the ruts that we made during the ATV course! I’m not sure what, if anything, will be done about this, but at the very least we will go back and flag off the area where the penstemon is growing.

We have also been developing a target seed collectiong list for the Seeds Of Success program. The late blooming plants are in full glory and we have been excitedly collecting herbarium specimens. Some of the earlier blooming plants are now forming fleshy, green fruits that we will have to closely monitor to determine when they are ready for collecting. We picked apart what will likely be our first collection, the grass Poa secunda (which I described in a previous blog post) and looked at it under a microscope. It is done flowering and the fruit is still forming,  but it should be ready soon. I’m grateful to have a such a dynamic job that puts me in close contact with natural processes!

A patch of volcanic gravel-- the last place I expected to find rare plants!

Penstemon janishae in ATV tracks


Dimeresia howellii, a rare plant not much larger that a quarter

Joe Broberg

Alturas BLM field office



A day In the Field


May 1st, 2012.

I arrive at the Alturas field office at 6:30 in the morning. The sky, except for a few puffs of white cumulus clouds, is clear. The sun is rising over the Warner mountain crest. Soon my mentor Mike Dolan and I get our things together and head West to some BLM land near Fall River Mills, in Shasta county.
We pull up on the side of a dirt road and I slurp down the last of my tea. With a handlens and a Trimble GPS unit dangling from my neck and clutching a field journal, I follow Mike as he hastily walks off the roadside into the adjacent grazing allotment. My head tilted down, at first I think nothing is blooming. Then specks of pink, yellow, blue, and white catch my eye. My mind leaves the realm of roads, signs, and distant scenery and a tiny world appears before me. I practically fall down as I get on my knees and elbows, putting my face an inch away from a flower less than a centimeter wide. I whip out my handlens, through which the minute blip of color becomes a detailed scene of texture and structure that my eyes normally fail to see. My mind races, dredging up strands of botanical knowledge that are mixed in with every other random thing I have crammed into my brain over the years. Polemonaceae? A Gillia, A Phlox? Mike soon confirms or corrects my guesses. I hurriedly scrawl down unfamiliar syllables, trying to keep up as he rattles off Latin like its his first language. A seasoned botanist who has worked in this area for decades, he seems to know every plant even if it isn’t flowering, including the many grasses.
One grass in particular is the reason we have stopped at this exact spot. Mike explains that the Poa secunda growing in the low sagebrush habitat here is about 20 centimeters tall and sets seed in June. Up the slope, amidst the ponderosa and grey pine, is another type, which grows 1 meter tall and sets seed in July. He throws his hands up as he exclaims that “they” have listed these grasses as the same species. He is of course talking about plant geneticists, and one project he will have me working on is a garden study. We will collect seed from these and other varieties of Poa secunda. They will be grown out in the same soils under the same conditions. If in this controlled setting they still exhibit the same drastic phenotypic variation, then they surely must be different species. If they all look the same, then we will know that they are all one species that varies considerably under different conditions. The motivation for this project is much more practical than just spiting the geneticists. Say for example a hot fire rages through some low sagebrush habitat. Mike decides to seed the area with Poa secunda in order to give the perennial native bunch grasses a fighting chance against the encroachment of exotic annual grasses like cheat grass and medusa head in the ensuing battle of succession. He orders Poa secunda seed. The seed happened to be collected from the variety that grows in pine habitat, but mike has no way of knowing this because all Poa secunda seed is labeled the same. This much larger, taller variety is unfit for survival in the shallow soil and harsh exposure of the low sagebrush habitat, so the seeding fails. This raises an interesting question for me: what should dictate the names that we choose for plants? In a case like this where it is no doubt a close call, should our priority be genetic accuracy or practical needs? Either way, it is exciting to be on the front lines of plant taxonomy.
This and many other questions regarding fire ecology, grazing, noxious weeds, succession, and our role in it all swirl in my mind as we drive to other sites. I forget them as soon as we arrive at our lunch spot. We sit on a cliff of black volcanic rock with red larkspurs and psychedelic lichens nestled in it, surrounded by a panorama of snowcapped mountains including Lassen and Shasta. I start thinking that field botany might be a good career for me.

Joe Broberg

Alturas BLM


The Modoc Plateau

Just over two weeks ago I began work at the Alturas BLM field office, which is located on the Modoc Plateau in the extreme North East of California. The Alturas region is North of the Sierra Nevada, East of the Cascades, and West of the Warner mountains which form a border with the Great Basin Desert. It is an incredibly remote and rugged landscape that is a world apart from the coastal California that I know.

At over 4,000 feet, Winter has lingered longer here. Most trees are still leafless, and during my first week here it was raining and snowing off and on. This made it hard to get in the field at all, but I was able to orient myself to the office and get a better idea of what I will be doing out here. My main project so far has been updating the office herbarium. There were recently many changes in the names of plants listed in The Jepson Manual (a flora of California), and I have been going through the old specimens and updating families, genuses, and species names. This has been good for me to get an idea of what plants grow out here, which is more than just junipers and sagebrush, believe it or not.

Yesterday I got a picture of how diverse the area truly is. The Alturas office also administers an area about a 90 minute drive to the West. This area is much greener and ringed by high mountains, including the impressive Mount Shasta. I accompanied the “weed crew” because my mentor Mike is gone for the week. We went to a BLM managed camping area on the Pit river and I learned how to use the Trimble unit to inventory noxious weeds. Majestic white oaks, black oaks, oregon ash, ponderosa pines, redbuds, and characteristic chapparal plants line the Pit River canyon. The landscape is entirely comprised of black volcanic rock which starkly contrasts the vegetation and river. We drove up above the river canyon to an area where I will be collecting voucher specimens and seed. A pair of Canadian geese and sandhill cranes waded near vernal pools at this stunning site, and I am excited to go back when more plants are in bloom. We also searched for a rare species of mint, but were unable to find any at this time.

Joe Broberg

Alturas BLM field office