Signing off from the cockpit of the pilot office

Anya Tyson
Buffalo, WY

Buffalo has been good to me—an office full of friendly, helpful coworkers, a backdrop of Bighorn majesty, and a job that’s provided me with a myriad of skills. I have had hands-on experience with radio telemetry, rangeland health monitoring, 4WD, GIS, seed collection, office decoration, a cave survey, aquatic sampling, and I’m sure the list could stumble on. Because my time here has been pleasant I sometimes forget that other aspects of what I have learned at this office have been less comfortable. The Powder River Basin has tremendous natural gas and other energy resources, and the Buffalo Field Office has been charged with stream-lining the permitting of such development. My friendly coworkers are asked to permit development plans at slippery rate, face-off with industry reps., and generally make tough decisions on a daily basis. I do not like what is happening to the landscape of the Powder River Basin- thousands of miles of new roads are quietly, almost benignly fragmenting an expansive landscape to pieces. Not enough people care, or have seen, the cumulative effects of this development, and so it continues quickly and thoroughly from east to west across this basin. When I was conducting range monitoring, I noticed that much of this country can boast of a robust native grasses, forbs, and big sagebrush, that is, when one steps slightly away from the weedy corridor that almost inevitably surrounds every road and disturbance corridor. I am concerned that the prospect of reclamation of these lands, once disturbed by increasing amounts of infrastructure, is not as neat and assured as it is written down on paper and told to land owners. I am concerned that sage-grouse may face local extirpation in this area that bridges important population centers for the bird in central Wyoming to Montana and South Dakota. Wyoming’s ratio of people to antelope (the latter outnumber the former) is one of the reasons I am in love with the state. It may also be a reason, in my opinion, why places like the PRB are being sacrificed for national benefit; there are not enough backyards out there to defend. Domestic energy development has to happen somewhere, and economically speaking, may often need to happen at a good clip. This position has challenged me to understand how politics and biology interact and prescribe land management. The introduction to these realities will be invaluable as I continue to pursue conservation, land management, and science. Thanks again Krissa and Marian for placing me in a beautiful state, in a position where I have gained many new skills, and in this office that has provided so much food for thought.

Sage-grousin’ in the Mountains

Anya Tyson
Buffalo, Wyoming

September has up and gone, but at the moment, summer lingers on. Last week, I worked in the southern Bighorn mountains as the seasons mingled and the aspens turned golden. This region, at around 8,000 ft. is an interesting transition between the rangelands and the montane. The headwaters of the Powder River slither through canyons and firs, and the surrounding country is sage-brushed and expansive. This summer, I did all of my work for the BLM here in Buffalo out on the range, and nearly all of my play in the Bighorns; now I was paid to enjoy myself silly with an important task where both landscapes coalesced. Miriam and I used radio telemetry by day to locate sage-grouse and radio collars of deceased sage-grouse, and stayed in a mountain cabin by night. I loved radio telemetry! I already enjoy map and compass work, but even more exciting—we then got to turn topo lines into actual hills and draws beneath our feet in a biologically significant treasure hunt. We saw 41 grouse in 5 days, far more than we have seen all summer in perhaps more typical (though disturbed) grouse habitat down in the basin. The radio-collared grouse are addressing the question of whether habitat in the area is used by grouse from the different basins separated by the spine of the Bighorns. Distinct populations of grouse in the Bighorn, Powder River basins, and possibly North Platte drainage, may blur at the edges and intermingle here—which may be exceedingly important from a conservation standpoint. This small-scale BLM project is drawing to a close, and I look forward to working with and learning from the produced geospatial data.

Land Management and the Act of Monitoring: Ideals and Realities

Anya Tyson
Range and Wildlife Biology BLM Intern

August in Buffalo, Wyoming: the weather has heated up as my duties as a range intern are winding down. The once uncharacteristically green range has finally cured into shades of yellow and toast. I am now “on wildlife time” here at the office, and I will soon see what the biologists have in store for me.

As an appropriate transition between range and wildlife work, my fellow intern and I spent a fair amount of time designing and implementing a riparian vegetation monitoring effort on BLM land on the Tongue River. Currently, much of length of the river in the parcel is leased for grazing and calving in winter months, but the area is also a BLM recreation site and home to a decent density of breeding birds. In the future, grazing practices will likely change in hopes that riparian vegetation will respond favorably (reduction of non-natives, increased recruitment of woody species, increased vertical structure) and wildlife habitat will be improved. In the planning phases of our monitoring efforts, Miriam, my fellow intern, even had a phone conversation with John Willoughby from the Grand Canyon. Monitoring does seem to be somewhat of an experiment; it is difficult to know just how appropriate and representative the data you choose to collect will be. (John Willoughby recommended at least two years of pilot data, which unfortunately, in this case, is just not that useful for pertinent management objectives).

This project was trying at times (i.e. try driving ~50 t-posts into the ground as both sweat and mosquitoes saturate the air closest to your body!), but extremely worthwhile. In my office, a Scarlet Tanager and a Vermillion Flycatcher, both seriously pretty birds, are centered on a poster that proclaims “Riparian Areas: Nature’s Lifelines.” Though the backdrop of the poster is the San Pedro river in southeastern Arizona in this case, I know that the Tongue River, even states away to the north, must look remarkably similar from a bird’s eye view: a ribbon of green, a crucial highway to the mountains. Earlier this summer, before my internship began, I rafted Desolation and Gray canyons on the Green River in Utah. I had just taken Ornithology as my last course at college, and I was ecstatic to see Lazuli Buntings, Bullock’s Orioles, Western Tanagers and many other birds both nesting and cruising up the waterway. It turns out I desperately love rivers and birds; I truly hope that this monitoring program and its effects on management play even a small part in increasing the numbers of neotropical migrants and breeding birds that utilize habitat on the Tongue River.

Where the deer and the antelope play…

Anya Tyson
Buffalo, WY
BLM, Range Management and Wildlife Biology Intern

In the upland sites of the Powder River Breaks, my eyes wander past the delicate seed heads of needle-and-thread grass west to the stately spread of the Big Horn Mountains. I am not quite at home on the range yet, but I am getting close, and I am excited about the prospect of going solo to do some vegetation monitoring with Miriam, another CLM intern, this week.

I have learned while working with the range folks here in Buffalo that this particular BLM monitoring effort does not primarily concern itself with diligently listing every plant and IDing it to the last taxonomic level. Instead, I have been learning to understand a language of sorts, in which the genera of grasses present can effectively communicate the soil type and other ecological characteristics of a given site. Fundamental to science is the act of making observations over time, and government agencies have the resources to do just that, although they might not be rigorously publishing their data in Science. Hopefully, our monitoring work and the work of many others before and after us will be applied to land management decisions in the future.

Though the botanic work of range management has been engaging, I am excited that my internship will also allow me to work with the wildlife biology folks. Alas, the sage grouse leks are over, but there may still be opportunities to work with this focal species.

Beyond my title as a Range and Wildlife Biology intern, I am also gleaning a great deal of information about energy development, hydrology and the relationship of the BLM to the larger public in northern Wyoming. Coal Bed Methane development is a major force shaping the Powder River Basin and the activities of the BLM’s Buffalo Field office in particular. Though natural gas development might not be as innately appealing to me as learning about plants and animals, I can’t ignore that much of the energy we use in our country must take its toll on land somewhere, and it is important to know about the process and consequences of some of these undertakings.

I have only just begun my second week as an intern, but I am learning the landscape and starting to recognize many of the plants and some of the birds as old friends. As is often the case, the accumulation of this sort of knowledge has got me asking more questions about the place in which I now live. I am excited to continue to work and learn in the mountains, the foothills, and the range- possibly the best theater of cloud and sky I have yet experienced.