About emmavautour

Emma graduated from Messiah College class of '14, with a BS in environmental science. She has spent the last year traveling and volunteering in various places in the western states. She has a strong interest in native landscapes and ecological landscaping. She's looking forward to spending the season in Lander, WY working with range management staff.

Are You a Horse or a Cow? : End of the Season Relections


Much of our late field season was spent searching for wild horses through our binoculars

Much of the later part of our  field season was spent searching for wild horses through our binoculars


This season in Lander, WY has been an irreplaceable experience for me in so many ways. From the skills that I’ve gained through being a part of so many different projects, to the wonderful people I’ve met here in Lander, each part of this season will shape my seasons to come and have left me so very grateful.

When I first pictured coming to the Lander BLM field office I expected to focus on two projects this season: SOS seed collections and a greater sage grouse habitat assessment report. Looking back now, I can see how different the experience was compared to this. Yes, we worked on SOS this season and it was a highly rewarding project that did take a large portion of our time. Instead of focusing the rest of our time solely on sage grouse habitat monitoring, though, we were enveloped under the whole umbrella of the rangeland management staff projects, which lead to a wonderfully wide array of responsibilities. I didn’t know the first thing about rangeland health before I came to this internship. While I still may not be an expert, I understand the complexities and controversies involved and I’m richer for that understanding. In July we completed this year’s data sampling for an ongoing rangeland production study. Throughout the season we visited key riparian areas collecting data about the utilization of those sites. I was able to help with rangeland health assessments and finally started to get a good sense of judging some of the important indicators of degradation. September through November we spent most of our time driving the horse management areas (HMAs) of our field office monitoring wild horse populations. And as though that wasn’t enough to keep us busy, our season was peppered with excursions to various field sites to help with forestry, archaeology, sage grouse conservation and restoration projects!

Highlights of the season:

  • Identifying our first SOS seed collection populations. I was so excited to be contributing to such an important project as the National Seed Strategy, and hope some day to see the positive contribution of the SOS program in changing the protocols and expectations for large scale restoration and reclamation.


  • It was equally satisfying to package up our seed, seeing it in all its individual bags with neatly printed labels and to ship it off to the Bend Seed Extractory in Bend, OR.


  • Wild horse monitoring. Never had I ever expected this job to be to hiking out to bands of wild horses to photograph them! As time went on and we spent more time near the horses and developed a sense for interacting with them, the more I loved going out and trying to get close to them. Of course with so much territory to cover, much of that time was spent peering through our binoculars at far off shapes, asking under our breathe, “is that a horse or a cow?”. Sometimes from a strange angle or by the trickery of the land we would make ourselves laugh at how close we could get before realizing what we thought was a horse was in fact just a lazy cow. Our ability to distinguish the two from great distance has improved dramatically in the last three months, a skill I was not expecting to have mastered before I came here 🙂

    Of course with so much territory to cover, much of that time was spent peering through our binoculars at far off shapes, asking under our breathe, “is that a horse or a cow?”.


  • Learning how to capture and collar Greater Sage Grouse in the middle of the night, while simultaneously learning to ride an ATV with one hand. With one hand steering, and one hand holding a giant spot light, we rode around for hours, jumping off and racing toward the grouse with an enormous net each time we spotted one. That was quite a unique experience!


  • Spending hours upon hours hiking, driving, and seed collecting in this beautiful country. Our work has brought us all over our 2.5 million acre field office and I’ve gotten to know it well. Erin and I aren’t exactly sure how many miles we’ve put on our vehicle this season, but we’re ball parking it somewhere around 25,000. And those many miles have brought us to some truly amazing places that we may not have otherwise seen in our lifetime.

Thank you Chicago Botanic Gardens and BLM for this unforgettable treasure of an experience.

Fall Field Season in Lander


We have begun the count down into our last month here at the Lander BLM field office, but that doesn’t mean our workload has slowed down! We should have about 13 Seeds of Success collections by the end of our season, with currently two more late collections to still make. A good chunk of our remaining time will be spent organizing and sending off data and seed collections, something I know Erin and I are both looking forward to immensely. We are both the type of people who appreciate having a well-organized finished product and after all the work that has gone into making our seed collections this summer, I think it will be a rewarding product.

Antelope Bitterbrush seed waiting to be shipped off to Bend, OR

Antelope Bitterbrush seed waiting to be shipped off to Bend, OR

Another item on our list of duties includes field monitoring as long as weather allows. We have been collecting rounds of stubble height data from key species in riparian areas in conjunction with some compliance monitoring to making sure the cattle are moved out of pastures during the appropriate time. In addition to compliance, stubble height standards for healthy riparian areas need to be met (and the sedges/grasses near springs should not being overgrazed to the point of being lost) to be able to allow future grazing. We have about eight sites we visit, all at various springs, spread out over a large allotment in the southern part of our field office.


A group of about 35 wild horses charged me in the field.

A group of about 35 wild horses charged me in the field.

We will also be continuing monitoring wild horse populations, concentrating on our next priority Horse Management Area (HMA) over the next few weeks. Since September, we have been monitoring horses in the northern HMA complex and for the next month will focus mostly on the largest southern HMA. This mostly entails driving out the HMA and scouting groups of horses. When we can, we try to get close enough to the herd for good quality photos and to collect accurate observation data. Horse monitoring has been an awesome experience over the last two months… literally filled with moments of awe. There are a few groups of horses we’ve been able to see more than once and really interact with. One day I went out in the field on my own to do some monitoring and came across a group of about 35 that we had seen on previous days. I parked my truck and skirted around the edge of a hill on foot, walking into the wind. I popped up on top of the slope about 200 yards from where they were grazing in a small basin. Unlike the other times we’d snuck up on a herd, when horses had taken off in the opposite direction, within about 30 seconds all the horses were running straight towards me. I stood there, letting it happen before I could really even think about what was happening and then they veered off to my right and came level on the hill with me. After I few moments of taking in the threat of me they took off again down the other side of the hill. It was wild.

In addition to monitoring and SOS data/seed collecting we also have various projects ranging from riparian restoration to fencing and flagging projects to making interpretive signs for a historic cultural site. Today we spent the day restoring a riparian area within an infamously controversial allotment within our field office. The allotment has been seriously overgrazed leading to all kinds of degradation, but today we had the chance to hopefully repair a small piece of that land. There are sections within the drainages of this allotment that have lost so much vegetation that erosion has become a big problem. Bare soil is eroding quickly creating head cuts in the riparian areas that are moving up the drainage with every big rain. We reseeded these and laid down matting over the head cut areas, which should allow vegetation to re-establish and stabilize the currently bare soil. And we expect there will be other projects like this that our co-workers in range department ask for our help with and that add great variety to our work weeks!

Chasing Wild Horses

As with many life experiences, I’m sure it will take some time to recognize all the learning that has taken place over the last few months, but there are a few things that I can point to now, knowing that they are significantly changed from when I arrived in Wyoming. For one thing, I have a much fuller understanding of what it means to manage land period, let alone manage it for multiple uses. Land management has always seemed an abstraction discussed in college courses or job descriptions, but now I have a close up picture and have hours spent fulfilling various duties required to manage land. First, it entails knowing what is present on the land – vegetation, soil, livestock, wildlife, abiotic and biotic processes. This, when you’re talking about a field office of 2.5 million acres, requires lots of driving and gathering of data – and still there are places that won’t see a soul for years. Then, after the data gathering, comes decision making and consequential implementation of those decisions. From my observations of this process, decision making has appeared formal at times and yet less formal than I imagined when working for the federal government. Meetings in the field for example are often relaxed without a huge sense of urgency or debate. Many times evaluations are subjective and the outcome rests on a casual conversation about the state of things and possibilities for the future. In our field office the decisions being made affect the content of permits given to ranchers for grazing cattle, the fate of wild horses from year to year, the prescribed treatment plan for dwindling stands of aspen.

Monitoring: Erin measuring stubble height in a riparian area.

Monitoring: Erin measuring stubble height in a riparian area.

Recently, Erin and I had the opportunity to observe a bit of interagency collaboration between Wyoming Game & Fish, the Forest Service, and the BLM. Decisions had already been made about how to manage the areas of land that included both national forest and BLM by the time Erin and I entered the picture, but it was still very interesting to finally see how collaboration between agencies works and who is involved. We had a team of four wildlife biologists (including one from each agency) as well as several ecologists on hand to look at old growth aspens stands that were being encroached upon by more competitive conifers. The Game and Fish department had mapped sections of the aspen stands for us to flag the perimeter of for easy visibility by contractors when they come in next year to cut the conifers.

Another land management issue that Erin and I have been working on is the hot topic of wild horse management. We’ve spent the majority of our time lately chasing down wild horses within the northern “horse management areas” (HMAs) in our field office. Despite many hours spent in the truck, this has been a rewarding endeavor. The horses are enchanting. Many times, when we get close enough and the horses have adjusted to our presence, Erin and I will spend our lunch break just sitting and watching them from a short distance. We’ve begun to pick up on key elements of their behavior and look for trends in when and where they are spending their time.

Wild Horse Monitoring

Some herds are less concerned with human presence than others.

A lone paint stud - one of my favorites

A lone paint stud, healthy and strong

There are close to 50,000 horses currently on BLM land in the western US and a comparable number in holding. The Appropriate Management Level (AML) as stated by the BLM is ~26,000. Controversy on the topic lies in management of public land for multiple uses. While environmentalists advocate for the horses’ rights to life, health and freedom, the ranching community would like their numbers to be kept much lower for preservation of rangeland health for their cattle. Erin and I monitor the horses by visual counts, recording location, behavior, and health and taking photographs. Monitoring should allow BLM staff to make more accurate estimates of horse numbers and track their behavior in certain areas to make decisions about when to round up horses and remove them from the HMAs.

We've learned how to earn the horses trust and what will make them run.

We’ve learned how to earn the horses’ trust and what will make them run.

Our SOS season is winding down quickly. There are still a few collections left to be made, but it is no longer taking the majority of our time. We are waiting for four species of sagebrush seed to be ready to collect, as well as a population of winterfat. All of this, including the processing of all of our SOS data, should take us right up until the end of our season in two months!

Sage Grouse and Sweetwater

Sometimes Erin and I don’t need a map to get where we’re going anymore… that’s how I know we’ve been here a while, though the summer has seemed to pass so quickly. People in our office sometimes ask us how the summer is progressing and our answer is mostly the same; we are grateful for the variety of tasks this internship has offered over the last few months. Although the majority of our time is spent monitoring for the rangeland department, we have also juggled in some SOS collections, wildlife projects and will be monitoring wild horse populations starting at the end of the week.

Because our SOS collections were concentrated on sage grouse important forbs, most of our seed collections, presently totally seven, were squeezed into July. August has been spent waiting on sagebrush to begin flowering and keeping an eye on a couple late-blooming forbs. We are hoping we will end the season with a few more collections including green rabbitbrush, several types of sagebrush and Bigelow’s tansyaster. Also in the next few weeks our attention will turn towards boxing up our seed and shipping it away for official record and cleaning.

Erin & I collecting common yarrow seed for SOS

Erin & I collecting common yarrow seed for SOS

Machaeranthera bigelovii - one SOS species left to collect

Machaeranthera bigelovii – one SOS species left to collect

One exciting project we helped with this month was greater sage grouse collaring, which requires working late into the night. This was my first time riding an ATV, but it also happened to mean riding it with only one hand and in the dark until 2 am. I could only use one hand to steer the ATV because the other was occupied by a spotlight to spot the sage grouse and keep them still until we could launch a net over them to keep them down. All this didn’t prove to be as enormously difficult as it sounded to me at first and turned out to be a bizarre, but fun first experience. Unfortunately our luck ran out after the first hour, during which we had collared only one female hen and we didn’t see many more after that. The project, which is run by a grad student from the University of Wyoming, is aimed at studying sage grouse habitat preference under manipulated habitat conditions. The GPS collars are important for tracking the female’s choices for nesting habitat and movement year round. He reportedly had much more success later in the week finding hens in a different area.

After collaring female sage grouse hen

After collaring female sage grouse hen

The end of July corresponded with the end of data collection for a large on-going vegetation study Erin and I were doing for the range dept, which made up the majority of our field time. With this field work behind us, we have returned to sequentially monitoring riparian areas in grazing allotments for overgrazing. On Monday we were given the feat of monitoring a pasture encompassing an 8 mile canyon called Sweetwater Canyon. It’s considered a hidden gem in the field office because it’s difficult to get to and it harbors the beautifully cool Sweetwater River and its surrounding lush vegetation. Our job was to photograph the key areas along the bank for data about the utilization and to look for any cattle that may have been left behind in there before the fall/winter. Through hiking was made easier by a patchwork of cattle and game trails along side the river, but was still convoluted and slow-going in the steepest parts of the canyon. Despite the added shade it was still a hot day, but very rewarding by the end.

Showing the height of riparian species in Sweetwater Canyon

Showing the height of riparian species in Sweetwater Canyon

Weekends here have been spent zipping from one adventure to the next, from the Wind River range here in Lander to the Tetons and to Yellowstone. Although I’m looking forward to the fresh coolness of fall, my friends and I here are scrambling to get in the last weekend adventures before the end of summer, with its long days and the absence of snow.

A Steady Rhythm of Collecting

The month of July has been a very full month! My partner, Erin, and I have been splitting our time between collecting data for an on-going vegetation production study and SOS collections, both of which are time sensitive projects.

Our SOS collections have been focused primarily on key pollinator and sage grouse forbs, as well as a couple grasses and antelope bitterbrush. Even though we started with 16 vouchers of specimens that we had the potential to collect seed from, the reality will be that the final number of seed collections we make this season will be much smaller. I’ve learned this month how unpredictable and time-consuming the process of locating and monitoring a potential collection can be. I don’t mean these adjectives in a particularly negative sense, but I’ve had my eyes opened to some of the basic hurdles a seed collection program such as SOS must face. As we’ve monitored species, trying to predict the dates of prime seed readiness, many of the seed populations have gotten swept away or chomped to dust by wind and insects. Managing our time for two projects also meant that some of our seed was ready for us before we had the time to snatch it up.

Lander Field Office Monitoring SOS Species

In light of this, we are proud and excited to have completed our first few collections this month with the help of the Montana Conservation Corps crew that came to assist us from the Wind River Reservation. We were fortunate enough to have their help for two days collecting seed just outside of the Red Canyon Wildlife Management Area. We are hoping August will bring several more successful collections!

Production Study IMG_1122

When we are not busy collecting SOS seed, our other task has been to gather data about the annual vegetative production of rangeland across the field office and make comparisons between grazed and ungrazed rangeland. Each study site we visit has an exclosure that has been preventing cattle from grazing these small sections of land for many years now, which allows the grass and other plants to proliferate (hypothetically) as the rest of the land would if cattle were not present. Our job is to collect data about the cover by species and production by species weight for plots placed inside and outside the exclosure. Part of this process is clipping small circular plots, dividing and bagging species separately and then weighing them. Today we finished our tenth and final study location and are excited to see what new projects August will bring!



Wildflowers and Matching Muck Boots

Wild horses within the Lander BLM Field Office

Wild horses within the Lander BLM Field Office

Just two weeks ago we were arriving in Chicago for our week of training at the CBG. The training, as well as the symposium that was held at the end of the week, served as a great opportunity to grab hold of the cause that we are working for during this internship. It’s always helpful to widen your perspective to a bigger picture of the conservation goals at stake and to identify your role in making those become reality. It’s great to continue on into the season with this vision – knowing that some of our days may be long, hot and tiring, but also knowing that we’re making a contribution toward the progress of largescale native plant restoration and to the science that will keep these western ecosystems healthy.

Despite the fun we had exploring the city and the botanical gardens during our week of training, I was relieved to arrive back in Lander, WY and breathe in the fresh air of the wide open spaces! The season seems to be progressing quickly already too, augmented by the fact that each time we go out in the field, the grasses have lifted a few feet (it’s been a heavy year for rain), and are a constant kaleidoscope of color as they change from green to gold and red with the sun and heat.

Collecting the height of key species to monitor rangeland health

Collecting the height of key species to monitor rangeland health

Now armed with our matching muck boots, we’ve begun collecting rangeland monitoring data, measuring the stubble height of key species in riparian areas to determine if grazing has been too heavy in an area. Eventually Erin and I will be on a monitoring rotation, visiting the same sites every couple of weeks. The riparian sites we’re collecting data from are where cattle particularly love to spend their time mowing the grass to the ground, but which are also some of the most important sites ecologically. Other than grazing the grass down too short, the cattle also have the potential to cause something called hummocking, which is severe small-scale mounding of the ground (see photo). Since the soil in riparian areas is so wet, the cattle’s hooves cause depressions where they walk, leaving mounds around the areas where they have not stepped. Over time these will worsen and water loss can become a problem. Less water is held in the soil and protected from evaporation or simply flowing down stream, which changes the function of the ecosystem on an essential level.

Monitoring rare Astragalus sp. in Dubois , WY

Monitoring rare Astragalus sp. in Dubois , WY

This past week we went out in the field for the first time with Tanya, the botanist in our office. She took us to Dubois, WY in the northern part of our field office to monitor a rare Astragalus sp. which is endemic to the area. Finding this particular species requires walking out on the crumbling red and gray slopes of the badland hills, overlooking a mess stripes and color and mountains beyond. I had so many questions for Tanya because it was exciting to be involved in this new and unfamiliar process, let alone get to explore such a beautiful piece of country. We found our species surprisingly quickly, took our samples and data and tried to get a good estimate of the population size. All in all it made for a pretty successful day.

Finding Home in Lander, WY

After spending the last year not staying in the same place for more than a few months at a time it feels wonderful to come to rest in Lander WY, looking forward to a season spent surrounded by the smell of sage and an open sky. Already in the two weeks I’ve been here I’ve started to feel quite at home. Truthfully, this isn’t hard to do in such a small, welcoming community. I think I’ve found my kindred of spirit, who will delight in backpacking, rock climbing, and weekend yard sales as much as I do. There are familiar faces, or at the very least friendly ones at every turn.

Our first week at the Lander Field Office led into Lander’s second week of straight of rain, which has been relentless since we arrived. We’ve been told this is highly unusual even for the rainy season here, but is none the less a great delight to ranchers (and their prospective BLM permitters). It has also made an initial tour of the field office, which contains approximately 6.6 million acres, a little more difficult. Rain here means that many of the dirt roads, made up of various types of expansive clays, turn into a slippery, sink-able mess and therefore are impassable. It will be an added challenge for Erin and I to navigate and problem solve around as we venture more out into the field this week!

Popo Agie River, Lander, WY

Popo Agie River, Lander, WY

Our New Office

Our New Office

Wyoming (Indian) Paintbrush

Wyoming (Indian) Paintbrush

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

The rain also means though, that EVERYTHING, including the WILDFLOWERS, are going to go CRAZY this year. Lander hasn’t seen this much rain in a long time. One quick drive to Government Draw proved the impact the rain will have on the fields, which are already bursting with color. Wyoming paintbrush was exploding through the tufts of grass and sage like tiny fireworks of orange and pink and red. We walked around “oo-ing” and “ah-ing” at every other plant and how bright the colors were. In Sinks Canyon, just 15 minutes from where we live, the hillsides are beaming with arrowleaf balsamroot, phlox and blue-bells. I’m looking forward to watching this place evolve and transform like a seasonal kaleidoscope over the coming months.

Erin and I had our first crash course in plant ID last week, which for me has included my first true experience with identifying grasses. Already notoriously tricky, it’s made a little more difficult that the grasses are in an early stage and show much variation even within a single species. We are practicing picking out species like Sandberg bluegrass, mutton bluegrass, prairie junegrass, various wheatgrasses, blue bunchgrass and indian rice grass. We’ll also be differentiating soon between the many types of sage and small annual forbes – something I look forward to very much!