Month one in Prineville

I have now been living in Oregon for just over one month, and I’ve had some great experiences.  I found housing in a small ranch style house on a 5 acre property in Redmond, about 35 minutes from the BLM office in Prineville.  This may seem like a hassle, but the drive is gorgeous; a great way to enjoy the morning or unwind after work while listening to music or a podcast.  I am one of 3 interns on the Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring (AIM) crew at the Prineville District Office (PDO) this season, but have yet to complete a single AIM plot.  The reason being that we only completed the AIM training last week, and only received our assigned plots today!  Hopefully this means we can begin next week, following at least one planning day.

Although we have been unable to begin our AIM plots, my time here at PDO has not been wasted.  I’ve been performing a variety of wildlife related jobs, including Greater Sage Grouse lek monitoring.  Leks are essentially breeding grounds for the greater sage grouse where the males strut and display the large, yellow gular sacs on their necks in an attempt to attract a mate.  Despite living in prime sage grouse real estate in Wyoming, I had never seen an active lek; suffice to say it was a fascinating experience.  The strut is absolutely bizarre to witness, and I would encourage anyone who has not seen it to give it a google and watch in amazement/incredulity. Unfortunately, none of the leks here in Oregon rival the 200+ grouse populations of Wyoming.  In fact, one of the leks I checked this year was completely abandoned, possibly indicating a departure from the area by the sage grouse.  Some inferences can be made by this as well, since sage grouse are considered an indicator species in this ecosystem.  The BLM may decide to do some habitat monitoring in the area, to discover if any notable changes or disturbances have occurred.

In addition to lek monitoring, I also performed some Golden Eagle nest monitoring.  The nesting season is beginning, and the BLM keeps tabs on all active nests in the area.  I have yet to see any offspring, but I did discover one nest where a large female eagle was sitting low on the nest, likely over some eggs.  This monitoring was a very cool experience, as it involved a good deal of off trail hiking and searching for wildlife in beautiful high desert ecosystems.  I was also able to see some of the cool tools that wildlife biologists use to monitor these birds, including GPS backpacks that can display the eagle’s travel area on google earth, and give us an idea of where to find the nests. Unfortunately, one eagle was discovered dead in the nest, and we are currently unsure of the cause of death.

Living in the area has been very fun, with a variety of outdoor and indoor activities to occupy one’s time.  I have been spending a good amount of time snowboarding at Mt. Bachelor, a large volcano in the Deschutes National Forest that offers 360 degrees of terrain to ride from its breathtaking summit.  Hiking and trail running is very prevalent, and I have taken full advantage of the BLM trails behind my house for these purposes.  Additionally, the Bend area is absolutely packed with craft breweries and distilleries, which prove fun to explore and compare.  Although I have visited Portland once, the west side of the nearby Cascade mountains still remains unexplored, and I look forward to getting over there once the weather improves.  Overall, I’ve had a fantastic experience so far, and I’m excited to explore more of Oregon!

My Final Month in Casper

My last month working for the BLM in Casper, WY has been very busy and productive.  There has certainly been less field work, but the small amount that I have done has been important and rewarding.  I helped prepare a five-acre section of land for native sagebrush planting and restoration; I also performed wildlife surveys for proposed forestry projects and evaluated areas for prescribed burns and herbicide treatments.  These projects allowed me to become involved with the decision making process that occurs before any large conservation action initiated by the BLM.

Most of my time was spent preparing a report on all cheatgrass herbicide treatments and the vegetation monitoring that has been done to evaluate the ecosystem’s response to these treatments.  This project required me to create maps of specific grazing allotments with layers displaying the areas and years of cheatgrass treatments, along with the locations of every permanent vegetation monitoring transects.  I then used the Access database to summarize cheatgrass percent cover from any monitoring transect located within the treatment areas.  At that point I could use R to visualize the behavior of cheatgrass cover before and after the treatments.  I submitted the report to my mentor and it has been adopted by resources as the living document at the field office to track all cheatgrass treatments and results.  It was a very rewarding project and it allowed me to hone and develop skills gained both from working with the BLM and my education.

Looking back, I believe that this CLM internship has been one of the most productive and career defining experiences of my life so far.  I was able to get a comprehensive view of the workings of a BLM field office and gain hands-on work experience as a wildlife biologist, botanist, and many other valuable disciplines within the conservation field.  I leave the BLM feeling very confident that I chose the correct career path, and would happily work for the BLM full time.

One of the most valuable things I take away from this internship is a much more complete understanding of regulatory actions (such as NEPA, ESA, BGEPA, etc.) and how they influence human development, conservation actions, and management of public land.  The BLMs mission to manage land for “multiple-use” often means reviewing development plans and taking action to mitigate ecological damage.  This idea may take some getting used to for the traditional conservationists among us, but after experiencing the process first hand, it is a very rewarding and ecologically beneficial practice.  It was also refreshing and encouraging to find that land management professionals of many different beliefs and personal philosophies find public land conservation to be important and worthwhile.

In addition to affirming my drive to work in conservation and land management, this internship also gave me the skills needed to be successful in that profession.  I was able to dip my toes into an incredible variety of management disciplines, from wildlife and archaeology to inspecting coal mines.  I received on-the-job training in activities from GPS devices, to plant ID, to GIS analysis, to skid steer operation, to many other valuable skills.  I feel significantly more confident in my professional abilities and in applying to career positions.  Ultimately, this internship has provided me with an amazing foundation on which to build my career as a conservation professional, and I would recommend this experience to anyone thinking about pursuing a career in conservation.

Month 4 in Casper

My fourth month here in Casper, WY has been very active, and much less routine than the previous months.  I have had the opportunity to engage with many different land management professionals here at the field office, including the rangeland health specialists and hydrologists.  This has resulted in a number of new training and learning opportunities.

On the wildlife side, I recently took part in an ongoing project to install and maintain artificial bat habitat boxes in natural areas around Casper.  The project aims to encourage the establishment of bat populations to help manage insect levels.  I went out and checked every installed bat box around Casper to check for bats and perform any necessary maintenance.   Unfortunately, in the five boxes that I checked, I did not see any evidence of bats inhabiting the box.  There were quite a few wasp nests however, which was an absolute joy to clean out.  Hopefully they see more bat activity in the future.

Observing the bat boxes was helpful in understanding the installation of wildlife projects, which is particularly useful knowledge for the implementation of my wood duck box project.  This past month I surveyed multiple natural areas here in Natrona county and examined published literature on wood duck nesting habitats to determine the best locations to install two wood duck nesting boxes.  I finally settled on two different areas; one where I will mount the box on a metal pole and one where I will mount the box on a tree.  The pole mount is significant because any area where I propose ground disturbance (i.e. installation of the pole) requires a cultural and wildlife clearance.  Wildlife is a nonissue, since this is a wildlife project, but for the cultural clearance I brought one of the field office archaeologists out to the proposed site to ensure that there were no cultural or historic artifacts or sites present at that location.  Once I had successfully cleared both sites for box installation I began to write the categorical exclusion (CX) document to begin the project.  This document is named for a project that is small enough or has a minimal environmental impact so as to not require a full National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental assessment.  I completed writing the background and proposed action sections and am waiting on clearance from resource management to implement the project.

I have also begun constructing a report on all of the cheatgrass monitoring that I have performed this year, as well as the vegetation monitoring from previous years.  The idea is that it will be a living document, chronicling the treatment and monitoring efforts occurring in each grazing allotment.  I plan on breaking down each section by grazing allotment and providing a map showing the allotment and all past/proposed treatments, summarizing the history of cheatgrass monitoring action on that allotment, and making a recommendation for future conservation management based on the vegetation monitoring data.  It is quite an undertaking, but could be very useful for the field office once completed.

Outside of these projects I have had a variety of interesting interdisciplinary experiences.  I helped a rangeland health specialist fix a fence and survey an area for a contractor, I helped the hydrologist process soil samples and inspect water wells, and I helped the forester map an area for contract preparation, among other things.  Additionally, I have been trained in operating ATVs, UTVs, skid steers, forklifts, and tractors.  Overall, it has been a very busy month with a lot of diverse experiences, and I look forward to finishing out my internship strong this month!

Month 3 in Casper

My third month here in Casper has continued to be eventful and informative.  The resources crew here at the BLM field office is slowly making the transition from the summer field season to the fall.  This means a relative break in field work in favor of data analysis and review; some of the less engaging activities at face value.

In terms of my own paperwork and projects, I have finished and submitted the end of the year summary report on raptor nesting activity for 2016.  It was a long project to complete, involving entering all of the observation report data into a geodatabase, mapping and documenting the discovery of new nests, and researching the history of active nests to compare to current nest activity.  This allows us to continue to ensure that development (oil and gas specifically in this area) does not disturb the raptors during this crucial period.   This concludes all raptor monitoring and analysis for the season, until the bald eagle roosting season begins in December.

We have also begun the data analysis process for all of the vegetation and cheatgrass monitoring data that we collected over the past three months (and even data from previous years).  We worked with specialists here in the BLM to develop a Microsoft Access database that allows us to input all of the data from our field sheets into the database.  Whenever we are not working in the field or are otherwise engaged, we work to enter all of the datasheets into the database.  Once this is completed, we will be able to analyze trends in vegetation data over past months/years, and detect vegetation response to certain treatments.  We are specifically interested in the response of cheatgrass to aerial herbicide treatments in the past, and in what areas require additional herbicide treatments.

I have also been given the privilege of being allowed to sit in on various meetings for many active projects in the BLM.  These projects include processing applications for permits to drill, free land use permits, and other land management proposals.  It has been very interesting to learn the process by which a federal wildlife biologist evaluates the ecological health of a certain area, and what stipulations can/should be applied to ensure any development of federal lands or minerals is done sustainably.  In fact, some projects, such as development of an oil well pad, require comprehensive reclamation plans in which there is a net conservation gain after all activities.  In other words, the BLM requires that the project location be restored to better ecological condition than it was before the development took place.  It is difficult to measure how successful these actions are, especially with native species such as sagebrush having such long developmental cycles, but it is encouraging to know that reclamation is a priority for land managers here.

Some of these projects require wildlife surveys for clearance, and I have been fortunate enough to perform some of these surveys.  This includes exploring the area and recording the presence of any wildlife, but paying particular attention to specific species of interest, such as the Greater Sage Grouse or certain species of raptors.  These species are protected under certain laws and therefore are of greatest importance in evaluating disturbance impacts.

Lastly, we have made some progress in our Wood Duck reintroduction project.  The aim of this project is to encourage wood ducks to repopulate nearby riparian areas and wetlands.  There are certain associated challenges however, such as the low availability of wetland corridors to reach appropriate areas of habitat, and the fact that those areas that are on public land can be very difficult to reach.  However, we have prepared two wood duck boxes (previously constructed by boy scouts and recently modified by helpful firefighters) to be set up once we can decide on the best locations.  I have contacted multiple other organizations who have implemented successful wood duck projects to ask for suggestions or advice.  If possible, I plan to set up a camera trap near the boxes to monitor their use by wildlife.

Outside of work, I have continued to explore all the amazing natural areas located in this region of the country.  Recently, I journeyed to Glacier National Park, where I experienced the most amazing views that I have ever seen in the U.S., as well as an abundance of wildlife including moose, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats (the first I’ve ever seen).  I plan to continue to take full advantage of every experience, personal and professional, that Casper has to offer, and I look forward to my last two months with the BLM!


Month two in Casper

I am close to completing my second month working for the BLM here in Casper, WY. This second month has proven to be much busier than the first, with some exciting new projects and responsibilities.  Although we began to do some cheatgrass monitoring during my first month here, the other intern and I have largely taken over all the monitoring duties associated with that project.  This includes selecting sites to establish new permanent monitoring transects, with the intention of treating that area to remove the cheatgrass at a later date.  Once the monitoring is complete, I will analyze the data and make recommendations for a treatment plan based on the location and density of the cheatgrass.

The importance of removing this dangerous invasive has become more and more apparent as we have entered the main fire season here in Wyoming. The fire danger, posted daily in the office and on many highways, is consistently classified as “Very High” or “Extremely High”.  New fires are seen and reported daily, some of them burning areas greater than 20,000 acres!   The BLM firefighters at this office have been hard at work to control the situation, and have been in cooperation with many nearby fire agencies.  I recently heard that one of the larger fires had 12 large firefighting engines assigned to it, a very large number considering all of the smaller fires that also require attention.  Cheatgrass, being incredibly flammable, may have been a factor in starting these fires, and we are therefore hopeful that removing it will lower the fire danger in the future.

In addition to addressing the cheatgrass problem, I have been helping the wildlife biologists here wrap up the raptor and nest monitoring for the year. Although it may seem early, most raptors will only remain around their nests until their offspring have fledged.  The typical fledging season has ended, and we have observed that most raptors have now left their nests.  I am currently working on an end-of-the-year report to summarize our findings at one monitoring site encompassing 19 nests.  I will indicate which nests remain active and which will require monitoring next year.  The distinction between active and inactive is important because buffer zones are established around every active nest that prohibits any development in that area.  If no raptor activity is recorded over a certain length of time, the buffer restriction is removed and companies (typically oil and gas) are free to develop in that area.

I have also become involved in a number of other exciting projects. We have begun monitoring of Ute Ladies’ Tresses, a listed species of orchid that is endemic to the western United States.  I have observed one population begin to flower, allowing the wildlife biologists here to alert other biologists and contractors to begin searching a variety of areas across the state for more flowering individuals.  The consolidated data should give us an idea of the health of the species, and could potentially be compared to climate data to look for any correlations or trends.

Going forward, I have been talking with one of the wildlife biologists about beginning a project to establish substrate to encourage the nesting of wood ducks in suitable Wyoming habitat. This project would entail identifying areas of habitat that appear appropriate for sustaining populations of wood duck, building the artificial nesting structures, and developing a protocol for monitoring their efficacy going forward.  One of the challenges of this project is that many areas of appropriate habitat may lack corridors to provide feasible immigration by wood ducks.  Therefore, more research may be needed before beginning this project.

Outside of work, I have continued to explore the area and engage in various outdoor activities. I travelled down to Lander, WY to briefly check out a rock climbing festival before embarking on an overnight hike in the Wind River mountain range.  I spent the night at “Island Lake”, likely the most beautiful place I have had the good fortune to camp in the United States.  When not camping or traveling, I have spent a few weekend days floating down the North Platte River here in Casper, which makes for a very fun and relaxing time.  Overall, my second month in Casper has been fantastic both personally and professionally, and I look forward to continuing my work!

Wildlife in Wyoming – Month 1

I’ve just wrapped up my first month working for the BLM at the Casper field office.  It’s been an excellent experience learning a variety of land and wildlife management techniques!  We were thrown straight into field work on our first day, where we learned the new AIM (Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring) protocols alongside the permanent staff members.  The aim (ha ha) of implementing these new protocols is to standardize procedures across departments, so that data from different projects can be consolidated and used to inform future operations.  It was a very unique experience because the permanent field staff were also learning the protocols for the first time, which allowed us all to get to know each other while we worked through each activity.  The techniques learned included characterizing soil horizons, evaluating soil stability, determining vegetation cover and density, and estimating plant diversity.


A snapshot of typical sagebrush steppe ecosystem.

One of the primary management objectives of wildlife biologists in Wyoming is the preservation of the Greater Sage Grouse.  The Sage Grouse is an indicator species for the deceptively diverse sagebrush steppe ecosystem, meaning that a regular abundance of Greater Sage Grouse indicates that the surrounding ecosystem is stable and healthy.  Part of the work of the BLM is to monitor cattle grazing on public areas of sagebrush steppe.  The wildlife biologists can then make recommendations on whether those areas are available for additional grazing, or if the cattle should be diverted elsewhere to allow the environment to recuperate.  I was able to assist in completing these range-land health assessments.

The Casper Field Office manages over a million acres of public land.

The Casper Field Office manages over a million acres of public land.

Additionally, I have been aiding wildlife biologists in monitoring a number of nearby raptor nests.  These include both natural nests as well as artificial nesting structures.  Any active nests are protected by a buffer zone that prevent any kind of oil and gas development within those areas.  We were able to observe a variety of different species including golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, and burrowing owls.

Finally, I was able to participate in Environmental Education day, a public outreach event with a local boys and girls club.  We spent some time planting trees and discussing ecosystem health before I gave a brief presentation on the wildlife of the sagebrush steppe.  I exhibited a stuffed sage grouse and a number of different game animal horns/antlers, which the kids were very excited to interact with.

Bighorn National Forest is only a couple of hours away, perfect for a weekend trip!

Bighorn National Forest is only a couple of hours away, perfect for a weekend trip!

The city of Casper is located in central Wyoming, very close to a number of amazing natural places.  On the weekends I’ve enjoyed hiking and exploring these areas, which include Medicine Bow National Forest, Bighorn National Forest, and Grand Teton National Park.  Overall, the first month of the internship has been a very positive experience and I look forward to learning a great deal more!