End of another year in the Mojave

And so ends my second year with the CLM internship program. Having been through once before, I feel that this year’s internship built on what I gained from last year, as well as added some new, unique experiences.

Some of the most memorable times were the excursions to some of the remoter areas of the Ridgecest district. In particular, the time I, my mentor Shelley, and my supervisor Glenn did an overnight backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail to examine some of our rarest plant populations, which up until this year, was known to contain only a single individual. This proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, because when we reached the site, we discovered not only the original plant, but 13 new ones, including seedlings and one which was in fruit. Beyond the exhilaration of the rare plant find, I got to spend some time with my mentor and supervisor, and really got to pick their brains. Not only that, but the scenery up on the mountains was simply marvelous. I’m not exaggerating when I  say that the views were breathtaking, because when I was up there, I got to see some landscapes that I had only ever viewed at eye level. Being able to see the whole of the valley basin from so high up was an experience that I would not give for the world. On the practical side of things, it gave me something of considerable value: experience in backpacking. While I have done my fair share of camping, this was my first time really backpacking. Having true firsthand experience with that mode of camping was a real treat, and stressed to me the importance of knowing what I was going to need. After all, unlike most of the camping I’ve done, I didn’t have the option of getting into the car, and driving for supplies when I needed them. Having to really be prepared made me appreciate just how much we take for granted.

At the office, I was thoroughly introduced (read: thrust into) the world of GIS for the latter part of my internship by performing effectiveness monitoring on restored OHV trails. Though infuriatingly tedious and more than a little obnoxious at times, the experience was valuable. It also stressed to me some of the difficulties of the federal computer system. Case and point, after I completed the effectiveness monitoring, I couldn’t actually off load the data I had gathered, due to permission issues on the system. Thus, I had to find a way to circumvent the system. Though it eventually worked out, there was a significant amount of frustration to be had.

Overall, I felt that the year was a good one, and that I’ve not only learned many new things, but that I’ve found out a lot more about my personal limits and strengths. It makes me feel good that I have completed yet another year, and that I’m going away from it with valuable experience, and new prospects for the future.

Western Mojave Rare Plant Watch

For a rare plant enthusiast, the Ridgecrest Field Office in the Western Mojave desert is a dream come true. In our district, we have 33 different rare and endemic species, which constitutes about 5% of our flora. There are two kinds of rare plants we in the district; ones that are found in only one location, and those with a wider distribution. For the former, there are cases where we can go and count the exact number of individuals in the known population.

Astragalus ertterae

Such is the case with Astragalus ertterae,for which the whole known population is found on a single hillside, and is composed of roughly 14 plants. The other end of the spectrum falls onto Cymopteris deserticola, which has a large distribution over many miles, but is limited to very specific habitats within that distribution. One of our most extreme cases of this is Astragalus geyeri var. geyeri, which is on our list, despite being found across 9 of the western states. Again, what makes it rare is that it is found only in small, isolated pocket populations, which are disjunct from each other by a significant distance and physical impediments, much like being on small islands in the ocean. Yes, they are widely distributed, and yes, they are the same species, but they are still very limited in their distribution.

When monitoring these plants, we make extensive use of GPS/GIS technology. Our standard sampling method is to travel to the site in question, usually one with a historic record of the species. When we begin the inventory or monitoring, we set up the tracker on the unit, which will trace our path as we search.

Cymopteris deserticola

When we locate a rare plant, we mark one waypoint for each plant found. After returning from the field, the data is projected onto a GIS system, with ARCmap being the default. The purpose of this method is to not only provide a detailed inventory of the species, but allows us to monitor not only where the plants are found, but where they are not found, which can be just as valuable for interpreting where the species is tied to. By using satellite photos of sites, we can project the known occurrences, and extrapolate where other populations might be found.

Among our rare plants, there a some where the differences between the rare and common species are easily discernible, while in others they are not so easy. One of my jobs has been to help assess the status of a plant, and whether or not it is one of the rare ones. It can be a difficult job, but it is ultimately very rewarding.

There are days…

…when I’m absolutely atwitter about being out here, and there are days when I want to scream.

In regards to the latter, I’m sure that many of you out there are going through the Seeds of Success program. I’m going to posit that this thing is both one of the most enjoyable and most infuriating things I’m doing out here in Ridgecrest. I started back in March, so I had a long time to spend in the office before I was made aware of the SOS program, let alone that I was essentially in charge of it. Now, I deeply enjoy the actual process of going out to collect. What I don’t enjoy is trying to pound the square peg of harsh biological reality into the star shaped hole of the protocol. Out here, a lot of our species are either very


One stage of the climb up Surprise Canyon

widely dispersed over vast areas, or form little island pockets. In the latter case, getting the prescribed 10,000+ seeds from a single population of over 50 plants can be nearly impossible. I’ve had days where I’ve been out all day long, and scoured the population of over 100 individuals for barely more than 1,000 seeds. Thats the harsh truth about the Mojave. When it blooms, it blooms like crazy, but for the most part, things are not doing a whole heck of a lot. Often, your timing has to be just right to get anything out of these plants.

Case and point. One of my favorite places to collect is one of our canyons known as Surprise canyon, in Panamint Valley.Its one of our few perennially wet canyons, and it boasts a glorious plant assemblage, including some very spectacular special status species, and some endemics to the Death Valley region, to  which Panamint Valley is adjacent. From cliff growing cacti and phacelias to the gigantic Panamint daisies (the flower heads are about 5-7 inches

My mentor next to a Panamint daisy. She's about 5'9".

My mentor next to a Panamint daisy. She's about 5'6".

across), Surprise is one of my favorite locals. And you never know what you’ll find. Case and point, when I was out in lower Surprise, collecting capsules from Eucnide urens, (my gloves did nothing to stop the sting) I found a plant that completely baffled me. It took me a few days to figure it out, and what it turned out to be was Anulocaulis annulatus, an endemic to the area. As I was observing the plant, I saw something on the flowers that I thought was so interesting that I needed to photograph it.

Guess what's happening.

Guess what's happening.

Instead of trying to explain what I saw, I’ll show you (left), and see if you can tell what’s going on. If you can, I’ll be very impressed, because thus far, nobody I’ve shown this to (including several biologists at the office) have figured it out without me giving hints. Let’s see what those young brains’ve got!

Now, I’d love to collect this plant, but seeing as the only population I’ve found has only 10 plants, and they aren’t pumping out seeds like an orchid, its just not going to happen. Its the conundrum of this place. Can’t collect many of the species, because the populations are just not big enough, or they’re special status. We’ve got over 700 species of plant out here, including 32 special status ones, but most of them can’t be collected, because they’re so spread out that they don’t fit the criteria for a continuous population, or they just don’t make enough seeds. But, what’cha `gona do?

Forrest Fruend, BLM Ridgecrest, CA