My first time at the rodeo


It’s my last day here in Dillon, Montana. It really snuck up on me. My time here has taught me so much. I’ve learned way too many field skills and tips to list here, but my co-workers recently told me I am now officially a professional mud driver (no brakes, no problems) and fence fixer (respect the barbs). The flora here has grown on me and I really enjoyed learning so many new species. Working so closely with the range department, I picked up a lot of management techniques and interdisciplinary perspectives. Less practically, it was interesting to work in a less academic environment and see how a land management agency operates given the information on hand. Getting away from the ivory towers taught me a lot of very practical skills and standpoints.


Some of the stickiest lessons I’ve learned have nothing to do with botany. Working so closely with quite a few people forces one to be flexible and communicate carefully. The range technicians, who I worked with most regularly, come from very different backgrounds than me, socially, politically, and geographically. I did voice my opinion and experience on certain issues, but I felt it was more important for me to listen and really think about what they were saying and how their experiences led them there. I tried to do the same with the land owners I came into contact with. For someone who is interested in environmental policy, these are the people who will be affected the most and who have a lot of insight into the logistics of how different conservation strategies actually work. In fact, many ranchers are huge environmentalists, although perhaps they would choose another word. A city slicker like me should take note.IMG_1967

When I moved from Portland, Oregon to Dillon I did not adequately realize how big of a shift it would be or prepare for it. I mean, populated liberal utopia to rural rodeo town can’t be that different, right? Horses trotted Main Street, the one coffee shop in town is closed on weekends, the doors to my house did not have locks. I had discussions with people on institutional racism and president Obama’s nationality (at one point I called my mom to confirm that Obama was in fact American, not Kenyan, like the three rational, educated people I was talking to tried to convince me). I went to my first rodeo and country concert and was amused that the concession stand gave people a plastic bag to hold all the cans of Bud Light. I lived abroad for a year in college, but felt like more of a foreigner here than anywhere I’ve been.

So yes, it was very different than Portland. Still, I learned a lot here and met some very nice and thoughtful people. I saw some incredible mountain ranges, rivers, and wildlife. I never caught a fish, despite my best attempts.IMG_2018

I am very grateful to the awesome people at the Dillon Field Office. Thanks for all the hard work you do and for making me feel welcome. I owe a huge thank you to my mentor Kelly, who taught me so much about the land and life. Thank you Leah, Berett, Haleigh, Cari, and Melanie for being patient with me, and laughing at my dumb jokes and poor taste in gas station snacks. And of course, thank you Rebecca and Krissa for working so hard to make all this happen!

When I first moved here, I was reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. I highly recommend the book, especially to those working outside in the west, and wanted to share a final quote:

“…Not till we are completely lost, or turned round,–for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lies,–do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Thoreau is playing with the biblical question about what it profits a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul. Lose the whole world, get lost in it, and find your soul.”


Moving into Fall


Things are beginning to wind down here in Dillon, although I still have some weeks left. I just finished my last seed collection. It seems appropriate that it was Mountain Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentate subsp. vaseyana), considering the species has characterized most of the landscape in our watershed.

Other happenings in our office: our range staff recently attended a Montana Range Tour hosted by the Madison Conservation District in Ennis. It was interesting to see land management agencies, conservation groups, and ranchers interact as we moved from site to site. While everyone was very friendly, there were moments of disagreement, particularly concerning grazing rotation and biological controls. The tension seemed to stem from the potential contradiction between anecdotal evidence and scientific support; bias exists in both. Still, the tour was fun and informative. The incredibly beautiful Madison valley helped distract from the tumultuous weather.

This was cold.

This was cold.


The Madison mountain range in the background

The range techs and I have recently started doing juniper surveys on reaches that will be treated next winter. This involves establishing 1/10 acre circular plots and measuring the diameter of each juniper at the root crown. The first reach was challenging.  The brush was so thick that getting through the rose and ribes drew blood. By the second stream the procedure became rhythmic and much more enjoyable. The coffee stop we made along the highway undoubtedly helped.

In other news, I went to Yellowstone and was blown away. The park was amazing, as seen in the following unedited iphone photos.


Elk sparring!


Mammoth Hot Springs


Artist’s Point


The Painted Pots, my personal favorite


“We do it for the grouse.”

This week, the range techs and I worked with Jeff Mosley at MSU Extension conducting Daubenmire surveys in greater sage-grouse habitat. The study focused on plant species composition and insect populations (via pitfall traps and vacuuming) around pellet sites in a known summer ground. Over the course of three years, the project will compare grouse frequencies and food sources available at ungrazed and grazed sites. Jeff thinks that grazing and sage-grouse conservation are compatible, but wants to support this with further data. The team was great to work with and we quickly completed the transects with time to spare.

Horse Prairie. Can you spot the sage-grouse?

Horse Prairie. Can you spot the sage-grouse?

Prior to helping Dr. Mosely, I did a little research on grouse. I’ve spent the summer working at the BLM, who prioritizes the protection of grouse and its habitat over, well, most things. Many times I heard the phrase “sage-grouse preferred” used as justification for management decisions, including which species I chose to focus on for seed collections. Still, it was not clear to me why this species in particular warranted such attention.

The internet is a vast place. A quick google search of “greater sage-grouse” will yield a slew of articles and agency pages. Recently, the USDA released a plan to invest $211 million in sage grouse conservation over the next three years. With the goal of habitat conservation, a large portion of the money will go towards conservation easements, conifer removal, reducing wildfire and invasive grass threat, and protecting habitat from human disturbance and development, according to the USDA website.

Responses to this plan have been mixed, as one would expect. I am especially fond of reading the comments on articles and those on the Fox write-up delivered. Most commenters were outraged that such an enormous sum would be spent on birds, while others shared their land-grab theories, connected it to abortion legislation, and even left a recipe using sage-grouse. Emotions ran high due to the large amount of money involved.

The Pew Charitable Trust has an informative article that summarizes the decline of sage-grouse and its importance as an indicator species. There are ample articles circulating the web weighing in on the validity of listing grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The upcoming decision will have huge implications for the BLM because it manages about half of grouse habitat. Even if they are listed, however, they may still go extinct, as restoration attempts thus far have been mostly unsuccessful.

Dr. Mosely’s work is important to support evidence-based management decisions concerning greater sage grouse outside of special interest groups. Hopefully this type of information can be applied to policy in the context of what the overall end goal is: are we trying to bolster these populations back into the millions or merely delay their extinction? Is the first option even feasible?

Some relevant articles:

The USDA press release on the conservation strategy (Aug. 27, 2015)

“Feds plan to spend more than $200M to help protect sage grouse” (Aug. 28,2015) *check out the comments section*

“Press Release: Sage-Grouse report Points to Need for Balanced Land Management”  The Pew Charitable Trusts (April 24, 2015)

“Can Sage-Grouse Be Saved Without Shutting Down the West?”  Isabelle Groc, National Geographic (May 19, 2015)

Don’t feed Cheetos to Babies

        The following conversation has little to do with the CLM internship, I just think it is quite funny.

I was visiting a friend out in Miles City when I ran to the grocery store to grab supplies for our barbecue. As I was passing a bag of Cheetos to the cashier, the woman in line behind me squawks, “Don’t feed Cheetos to babies!”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, something about the cheese they use upsets their stomachs. I used to get stomach aches, but after I cut Cheetos out of my diet: nothing.” She drew a line with her hand to illustrate her lack of digestive distress. I stood there, unsure of the correct response to a woman whose cart was full of Oreo’s and potato chips. She kept talking.

“I’m just waiting for the American people to wake up and sue the FDA for the chemicals they are allowing in our food. Or, really what we should all do is stop paying our federal taxes.”

She was talking to three BLM employees, paid by the federal government.

“When the government shuts down, then we’ll see what happens,” she was nodding sagely at me, taking my shocked silence as agreement. My friends had already turned their back on her. “When China tries to invade, we’ll meet them at the border. If you know what I mean.” She cocked an imaginary shotgun.

Oh boy.

Stormy afternoon in Sage Creek. Beware of mud.

Stormy afternoon in Sage Creek. Beware of mud.

Eastern Montana aside, things in Dillon have become more familiar now. I know what I’m going to do any given day, the squeaking sink in the office no longer makes me think the fire alarm is going off, and parking the long box truck in the overcrowded lot does not gives me anxiety anymore. In a typical week I spend about half my time collecting seeds or scouting populations by myself and the other half conducting various riparian surveys and upland studies with the range techs. When my family and friends ask what I actually do, I tell them I mostly hike around and look at plants. It is a nice balance, and although I’m still learning constantly, the deer-in-the-headlights-am-I-doing-this-right feelings have mostly subsided.

Knapweed hunting

Knapweed hunting

Occasionally, I mix up the routine and go out with the wildlife techs. I’ve gone out on ferruginous hawk surveys several times, but have yet to see a ferruginous hawk. Another day I participated in the office spray day in the Bear Trap. Armed with our spray packs (Ghostbusters?), about 30 of us set out to exterminate that pesky knapweed. Unfortunately, I encountered my first rattlesnake (right by my foot!), forgot to stay calm, and ran away yelling profanities in front of the renewable resources manager. Pat understood, although she still teases me about it.


Living in Montana has been awesome. Initially it took some adjustments: many restaurants close at 8 pm, driving an hour is “close,” and there is no recycling (the Portlander in me dies a little bit every time I throw away a piece of paper in the office, although I’ve set up my own efforts at home). Besides this, the mountains are incredible and the people are friendly. I hiked the Sphinx outside of Ennis and could see 14 mountain ranges from the 10,800 ft peak. I had a dress altered and the seamstress invited me in for gumbo and we talked for hours about skiing. People say the pace is different than city life, but I’ve found that really it’s a whole new walk.

View of the Madison range from the top of the Sphinx

View of the Madison range from the top of the Sphinx

Top of the Sphinx, as seen from the saddle

Top of the Sphinx, as seen from the saddle


Herds, birds, and words

I’ve been in Dillon, Montana for several weeks now, working at the BLM field office there. My mentor, Kelly Savage, is primarily a range specialist, but is also the plant specialist of the office. Kelly has taught me a lot about everything, from range land management to edible native plants to Native American cairns. I’ve also been out with range technicians doing different vegetation and stream surveys; one day I went out with a wildlife technician, Melanie, and looked for Goshawks on a timber sale allotment. The variety has been fun and I am looking forward to collecting seed this week.

As someone who does not come from a ranching background or even from the region, I quickly learned a lot about how life and work go out here. Several words and phrases have taken on new meanings for me since moving from Portland, Oregon to Dillon.

Looking out on Sage Creek

Looking out on Sage Creek

Land- On the first day my mentor and I drove around the grazing allotment she manages and discussed just about everything. Something that struck me though was her use of the word land. “Really, everything I am doing is to improve the health of the Land. If we manage it well, the Land can continue to give and teach us for many years.” I capitalize Land because when talked about in this sense, the word loses its stale meaning of a portion of the upper crust of the earth and becomes something that is a dynamic unit. “Land” means the dirt, rock, and debris (DAUBENMEIER) that hold up the flora, fauna, fungus wrapped into an inseparable package, interdependent and specific.
Land is also tied to ownership, which, depending who you ask, can mean responsible for or control over. Even the idea of “owning” land comes with controversy and implications of capitalism, exploitation, and inequality. (Tangent: some academics have claimed that the privatization of land coincided with the spread of written language, thus a shift to right brain values. I digress.) It is strange to think that while doing a seed collection if I walk ten steps to my right I could cross the imaginary boundary into “private land,” where the plants are now loyal to only the name on the title. However, proprietorship also allows for care for the designated plot of earth. It avoids the tragedy of the commons and ties a sense of commitment to its future. My job this summer will hopefully provide the data and tools to make informed and sustainable decisions concerning the use of the Land.

Binos- Rhymes with “dinos.” I spent a day with wildlife and had to bring my binos to do Goshawk surveying. I’ve never seen a goshawk, but after listening to the call box all day I will recognize its call until the day I die.

A bull and cow

A bull and cow

Cow/Bull- Before my first day at the BLM, cows and bulls were cattle. Now one must distinguish between cow cows, cow bulls and cow elk, bull elk. I’ve seen plenty of cattle cows and bulls, but also a handful of elk. My co-worker Berett found three elk shed this week and let me keep one! It makes me feel like a real Montanan.

Big Country in Medicine Lodge

Big Country in Medicine Lodge

Big Country- In contrast to Land, country cannot be owned, despite the fences designating plots and borders. When driving on Old Bannack Road towards Big Sheep Creek, the sky, hills, and plains expand before me. Big Country is not only a geographically large area, it is space you can see. The nothing between the mountains becomes something, and that something is enormous compared to anything humans could build.

A visitor at a potential collection: Northern Sweet Vetch (Hedysarum boreale) A visitor at a potential collection: Northern Sweet Vetch (Hedysarum boreale)