Farewell Post

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Well, I’m wrapping things up here in Dillon, Montana and heading off to who knows where.  I have a couple job leads but nothing for certain yet.  Crossing my fingers about landing a term position job with the Fish and Wildlife in Texas. The work itself would be really cool, collecting native seeds and growing them out in a refugia, then using those seedlings to restore a river with several exotic and invasive species.  I love seed collecting and have been doing it now for three field seasons. But it would be nice to watch the seeds grow, and then plant them– the whole full circle thing.  Also, it’s a GS 5-7-9 term position, which means it’s not seasonal work and after a year as a GS-5 you can get moved to a GS-7 and so on.

And I must say, it would be comforting to settle into a little adobe for a while.  In the last year I moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Duluth, Minnesota to Las Vegas, Nevada and finally to Dillon, Montana–all in the name of field work.  I can’t even begin to process all I have learned, and with a gypsy-type spirit I love hopping around the country. That said, I am so ready to get a cat, a garden plot, and just maybe an actual bed.


Anyway, last night there was a hard frost here!  Winter is definitely approaching.  I am working a lot with the range staff to implement new studies in areas where cattle did a number on the streams.  The range staff will continue to monitor these areas, looking at the trends in these areas in hope for improvement.  Elk and Moose also can potentially rip up the stream banks and chew the willows down as well but (moo) cows come in vast numbers and can hugely impact a stream bank in a matter of days. That’s why sometimes we just build a big fence around the stream (riparian area) to let it heal for a while.  The water is the most valuable resource out west, and unlike where I’m from (the Great Lakes), there isn’t too much of it.

IMG_5369Here are some photos from studies we implemented in areas that are quite obviously hurting.  We always put the pictures in the most beat-up areas, since they have potential to show the most improvement. The exposed soil you see is not ideal because the stream needs plants to hold up the stream bank, and prevent sand and silt from entering the stream.


I feel fortunate to have worked with and met all the nice folk here in Montana.  The range staff shared a wealth of knowledge with me about cattle, range-land health, hunting, horses, rodeos, Montana Flora, the list goes on.  Although culturally we come from very different places and backgrounds, I think we developed a respect and understanding of each other and that maybe they, likewise, learned a lot from me.

I will miss Montana dearly if I end up landing a job in a far off land like Texas.  I will certainly be back though, to the land where truly ‘the dear and the antelope roam’.

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Montana Fall

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Fall in Montana is lovely.  Being from Michigan I didn’t think fall could get much better with our mixed-deciduous forest, but Montana is up there.  The air is crisp, the willows and aspens are turning, the bears are getting ready to sleep.

We wrapped up all the seed collections for Seeds of Success, and I have been working with the Range Staff.  We implement new studies in watershed areas where the streams have been impacted by cattle grazing.  This helps us make sure our management techniques are working.

photo 3This photo is from a day in the field. We had to walk past this person’s private land to get to our study area and I got this shot of these beautiful horses.

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Last week, my mentor and I spent a few days at the Special K Ranch in Columbus, Montana.  The ranch is a non-profit where 32 residents with disabilities live and they learn different skills such as how to care for horses, sheep, cows, plants, etc.  They have a massive hydroponic tomato hoop house and they sell the tomatoes to local grocery stores.  They also have a large garden of vegetables they sell at market.  Along with that, they have a contract with the BLM to grows out native seeds from our SOS Collections. We can then use those seeds for restoration and other purposes.  It was a real treat to go to the ranch and stay the night.  I got to see other fellow CLM Interns in the process and it was nice to talk about the summer.

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The residents of the ranch were all so warm and sweet to us.  Here is Andrew, their newest resident from California.  He liked showing us tricks where he’d dance around and throw his hat in the air and try to make it land on his head.  He, along with several others, helped us break the ground for a new plot of land where we will grow out plants of the seeds we collected to have a local source for coming years.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Montana. The experience of the Chicago Botanic Garden Internship has taught me so much I will bring with me to my coming experiences. I didn’t even know what a ‘Range Specialist’ was before coming here, and now I’m basically a ‘Range Technician’ myself.  The issue with cattle grazing and public lands is a very heated topic with environmentalist and ranchers often battling it out.  I’m grateful I got to work in a very prominent cattle ranching area to broaden my scope of how I see the issue.

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Here is another sweet photo of some horses I saw while working in Horse Prairie near the Lemhi Pass, Montana.


Leah Murray-  Dillon, Montana 2014


Cool Columbine


A cool thing happened a few weeks ago.  A forester from our BLM office here in Dillon told us that a crazy bloom of Western Columbine – Aquilegia formosa was happening in a recent timber harvest area. Western Columbine happens to be on the sensitive species list, but the bloom was massive.  We got special permission from our Montana State BLM Botanist and the Seeds of Success Coordinators to collect the columbine.  The seed-pods were sticky as glue and the location was gorgeous- near the continental divide at the Montana / Idaho border.

I like these special moments of the Internship.  Today I will go on the last hurrah of seed collecting, and then I will start to help the Range Staff with Watershed Assessments. Riparian Systems are some of my favorite, from desert washes to montane streams I love the species of plants that grow near water.

For the Watershed Assessments we walk the streams and assess the health of them. We mostly do this to protect the riparian areas, as water is vital to the west.  Most of the stream reaches we walk are in sage brush areas and are stablized by willows and sedges.  Cattle and Occasional Wildlife have potential to destroy the streams by chomping on the willow (hedging) and stomping on the sedges (destabilizing).  Roads can also be a major factor in stream destabilization.  By closely monitoring these variables, we can help protect the vitality of these life-giving water sources.

Collection of Geum triflorum, Old Man's Beard - Photo By K. Savage

Collection of Geum triflorum, Old Man’s Beard Photo By K. Savage


Delphinium occidentale, Larkspur                             Photo By K. Savage


Aquilegia formosa, Western Columbine     Photo By K. Savage


Aquilegia formosa                                             Photo By K. Savage

Well, fall sure is a coming, the antelope are already starting to form their harems. The thimble-berries, however, are just starting to ripen and I couldn’t be happier about this.


Sandy Hills and Moonworts

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Astragalus ceramicus at the Sandhills in Centennial Valley

Lots has been happening here in Dillon and the internship is going quite well.  My mentor and I have made eight collections for SOS already.  I love Montana and often find myself in awe of the immense amount of open spaces and wildlife Montana has to offer.  I even took to liking country music, mostly the old stuff like Dolly Parton.

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Cool mutation in this Aster — click on the photo & you’ll notice it’s conjoined twins.

Beside collecting for SOS I have been fortunate enough to participate in lots of different monitoring and projects.  Last week my mentor and I helped the Nature Conservancy folks monitor a very unique system of Sand hills in Montana’s Centennial Valley.  It’s one of these weird systems where disturbance, over-grazing and uprooting plants is a GOOD thing because it creates ‘blow-outs’.

Blow-outs are basically exposed hills of sand.  It’s best if there’s not a lot of grass stabilizing the blow-outs, because several sensitive plant species and insects thrive on the disturbance the moving sand creates.The BLM and Nature Conservancy are closely monitoring the sand hills using fire, over-grazing, and other techniques to keep the disturbance rate high.  When we were there we monitored the frequency of bunch grass, rhizomatous grass, and a scruff pea.  A Nature Conservancy fellow and myself got in a bit of a skirmish about the pronunciation of ‘rhizomatous’.  He said ‘rhizomanous’ and I said ‘rhizomatous’.  We eventually came to the conclusion ‘tomato’ ‘tomahto’ although according to google I am right. The endemic species in sand hill system were absolutely incredible.  Especially stunning was this type of Astragalus specialized to live in the sand hills called Astragalus ceramicus.


They look like little easter eggs hanging from stems with linear leaves– not your typical Astragalus.

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Wetland Plant training with the Heritage Foundation

The photo above is from a very helpful riparian plant training along the Beaverhead River with the Heritage Foundation.

Most recently I went to an amazing training on Moonworts.


Moonworts, also known as Botrychium, are plants from before the dinosaurs related to the ferns. The dust from their spores is said to have powers to make people invisible. The entire plant family of moonworts was largely forgotten until the 1980’s when University of Michigan biologists Herb and Florence Wagner dedicated roughly ten years to looking for them. They are mostly found in moist meadows of the Rocky Mountains. Their chloroplasts are like our appendix…. inactive. They get all the need from fungus and the entire plant is considered one leaf. The Forest Service had a training with Moonwort Specialist Steve Popovich and I was honored to participate.



Montana Adventures


I feel very fortunate to be here in Montana. Even on days like today, where we went out to do some monitoring in a place called ‘Big Sheep Creek’ and there was an all-out blizzard. Strange to feel that winter feeling in the middle of June, especially when the previous weeks have been gorgeous. All this precipitation is wonderful for our area, but we sure are itching to get back in the field!


The Dillon Field Office where I work is really collaborative.  The photos above are from ‘Bear Trap Spray Day’, a joint effort to spray noxious weeds from the first designated wilderness area of the BLM along the Madison River.  Since it is designated ‘wilderness’,  no vehicles are aloud on the lands so we carried backpacks of weed spray into the forest.

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I also recently helped the BLM foresters re-plant white bark pine, Pinus albicaulis in an area that was burned in 2012.  Several factors are threatening the pine including blister rust, japanese beetle, habitat loss and climate change.  Its seeds have a high fat content making it valuable food for birds and mammals such as grizzly bears.  Foresters and horticulturists have been growing out plugs of the pine and plant them in the burned area near Pony, Montana.


Here is a photo of a sensitive plant known as Alkali PrimrosePrimula alkalina.  It’s a regional endemic growing only in east-central Idaho and south-west Montana.  It is found on salty, wet soil that is actively grazed, so we have been monitoring it very closely to measure the effects grazing has on the primrose.

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For the next few weeks I will be monitoring riparian areas on cattle allotments to assess stream health.  The photos above are from our training week where we went out and learned the ins and outs of all the different methods we will use to assess stream health. This helps the BLM decide which cattle allotments can safely be grazed.  Earlier this week we monitored a stream called Alkali stream, salt covering the ground so densely it looked like snow and then the next day it really did snow!


Leah Murray
Dillon, Montana
Summer 2014

*All photos from the Dillon, Montana BLM Field Office


Out on the Range


photo 4 (1) photo 2 (1)Greetings from Southwest Montana!

I recently moved to Montana from Las Vegas and began my internship at the Dillon Field Office.  Lots of land, cattle and ranches were some of the first things at task to deal with. Working with Range Technicians, I have been driving two different expansive creeks to check on the status of cattle allotments, springs, fences, cattle troughs, cattle guards and survey the plants in the cattle ranges.  All of these factors can tell us things about the health of the range.  For example certain plants, like Broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), can be indicators for over-grazing or disturbance.  All of this is new to me as I have never lived in “Cow Country”.

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Typical example of a cattle-guard.

Before arriving in Dillon, I worked with the BLM in the Mojave Desert – not the most ideal conditions for raising cattle.  Because of that, I had no idea just how invested the BLM is with cattle and range management.  It is sort of a whole new world I’m being exposed to here, and I am finding it very interesting.  I’m learning so much from the other range technicians as they are all very knowledgable.  From how to fix a fence, to the flora, to the fauna, they have taught me so much. Another plus are all the other animals we see while out on the range. Since being here I have seen several elk herds, antelope herds, moose, badger, and coyotes.

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View from the range near Kidd, MT

A very funny thing happened the first day in the field.  One of the range technicians was explaining how every year she goes out and shoots a cow, and how everyone in Montana can shoot one cow.  I was very confused and probably even said “You shoot a cow?!” After a couple of hours of bewilderment and confusion, I asked how ranchers feel about them shooting cows. She laughed and explained that a female elk is called a cow and that they call cattle ‘moo cows’.


View of the burned area we sprayed for weeds

Besides assessing range health, we spent a day spraying noxious weeds in a designated wilderness area.  It was an inter-agency effort and we all wore backpacks of herbicide to hike to our target area along a beautiful river. The area we sprayed was burned over ten years ago and after the burn some nasty weeds took over.  The BLM has been very persistent about managing the weeds and their efforts here are a big success.

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The crew hiking along the river with back-packs of herbicide.

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School bus driving by while checking cattleguard

Overall my experience here has been one to remember.  Once more plants start popping up and we are done checking on cattle allotments we will start our surveys of the flora along streams and creeks.  I will also start working with my mentor on sensitive plant surveys and Seeds of Success collections. I am excited for all to come and feel very fortunate to be here representing the Chicago Botanical Gardens.

Until next time,