When Badgers Attack

The past couple weeks have been filled with plenty of field days, inspections, and the inevitable trecks to unmarked sites. Always interesting, always an adventure, just sometimes that adventure is searching around in 100F for a site that in theory should no longer exist. The irony is palpable.

Last week, my fellow intern, Jess, and I took a break from our regular fieldwork to go look at the recovery of some former spill sites with Andy, the assigned NRS. We lucked out with the one mid-70s day that week, and the primary site was in a beautiful area of the field office. The site was almost completely recovered, and aside from a few small sections still catching up, you wouldn’t have known how large of an area had been affected, or how much bioremdiation and reclamation had been done. After inspecting the entire area we headed out to the next site, and on our way we encountered some road blocks.

Locked gates and dead end roads are always a possibility out here, and something I’m sure many, if not all, interns have experienced. We ran into a few on the way, though fortunately nothing that significantly impacted our route. Cows and sheep in the road are also a regular occurrence, so a stubborn old bull was par for the course. He certainly took his time, but we managed to make it through. However, as we made a turn further down the road and crested a hill, we came across perhaps the most interesting, and some might say formidable, obstacle yet: a mating pair of badgers.

Male badger as he crosses in front of our truck

Squarely in the middle of the road, and not at all pleased by our interruption, they immediately went on the offensive. The female took the lead – perhaps her young had just dispersed (or were in the process of doing so) and she still felt the need to protect and distract, or maybe she was just bothered by how rudely we intruded on their privacy.

Whatever the reason, she became vocal immediately, with what I can only describe as an intense combination of growling and hissing, and began to charge our truck. The male seemed satisfied that she could handle us, making a couple passes across the road before heading into the neighboring tall grass with some parting snorts.

Growling and hissing, the female turns for another charge

The female continued her attack with a persistence that was as impressive as it was intimidating, and as amusing as it was endearing. I loved her for it. After charging our front tires relentlessly, and pacing a few times parallel to the truck, she began lunging near the tailgate; each time running a little further down the road and looking back, maybe to see if we would follow. Eventually she was either satisfied our truck was no longer a threat, or that she’d successfully made her point, and she looped around and met up with the male who was still lingering on the edge of the road. They dropped below the ridge, and after getting out, I was able to watch them go into a burrow (or cete) about 10-15 yards down.

And so, 20 minutes after this had all begun, we headed to our next site.

– Christine

Buffalo, WY Field Office

Retreating before another change at our tires

The female loops around our truck as she heads back towards the male

Chasing Trails: Paper and Dirt

After a great week in Chicago at the CLM workshop, I have come back to the Buffalo field office to find a pile of work that has accumulated in my absence. Along with the field work entailed in abandoned/reclaimed well inspections, comes the necessary paperwork, so I’m not particularly surprised. Luckily, even the paperwork can be pretty interesting sometimes. With multiple operator changes, operators going bankrupt, and abandoned sites over 10 years old, it can be pretty big puzzle to piece together and each group of wells has its own challenges.

View riding home from the Buffalo Field Office.

There’s also often the added factor of split estate, where surface and mineral ownership is divided among multiple parties. Due to the Homestead Acts, particularly the Stock-Raising Homestead Act (1916), many wells have private citizens as surface landowners, with the federal government owning a portion or all of the mineral rights below. This is obviously important in the permitting process, but it is also key for any reclamation on those sites.

Heading down from the two-track to try and find the original well site.

While the BLM has conditions and requirements for a well to be released from bond, when it’s on private surface we defer to the wishes of the landowner for how they want the site to be reclaimed; this may also mean the site does not go completely back to its original, pre-development state, as it does on Public lands.

Ultimately what this means is a lot of research before going to a site – what’s the well’s status? Has the necessary paperwork been filed? What operator is responsible for the reclamation? Is there a landowner – if so is it the same landowner? And plenty more that are too long to list. All of this creates a framework for what we expect to see when we get there.

View from the old well site once we found it.

Often a site visit can bring up further questions, but it’s always great to go to the field and see a site that has successful revegetation, wildlife habitat/activity, and has finished the reclamation process. When you go out to the field and have trouble finding the original well site because of how well it has rejoined the surrounding landscape, it’s a good day.

After catching up on all the office work, the rest of our week was spent in the field – visiting reclamation sites, and joining some of the Environmental Protection Specialists (EPS) and Natural Resource Specialists (NRS) on their inspections and monitoring. They each have numerous projects going on so it’s always a great opportunity to learn more, plus they’re all a lot of fun to work with. I’m looking forward to some of the new projects we’ll be jumping on these next few weeks since they all have a different focus/involve a different work-group then we’ve experienced so far. It should keep things interesting!

– Christine

Buffalo, WY Field Office

Spill site an EPS in our office is monitoring. It has gone through bioremediation, and is starting to recover, but there’s a long way to go.

From Boston to Buffalo

Despite numerous trips out west, I’ve never had the opportunity to drive the whole way. So as I started thinking about the logistics of moving to Wyoming there was clearly only one option: road trip. Well, I could not have had more fun transitioning from New England. It was a perfect excuse to explore some beautiful national parks along the way, have a little adventure, and spend some extra time getting to know home for the next 5 months.

The sun begins to set in Badlands National Park, SD

Now, over 2,000 miles and 12 states later I find myself in Buffalo Wyoming, surrounded by the Bighorn mountains, and about to wrap up my first week as a Surface Use and Environmental Compliance (SUEC) Intern with the BLM.

Spring Snow on the Bighorn Mountains, WY

My time in Buffalo started off with a snow storm, road closures and unpredictable weather, but it took a turn for the better as my internship began and we are now experiencing daytime temperatures in the 60͒s and 70͒s; it’s supposed to hit 80͒ this weekend! My first week as an intern has certainly consisted of the necessary enrollments and trainings – not to mention getting to know the logistics and numerous aspects of the position – but there are plenty of assignments for me to get started on. I’ve been inundated with information and work in the best possible way, and now that the weather is cooperating I’ve gone into the field to join on some inspections. Of the number of sites we visited, the largest was easily a reclamation site waiting for final approval of abandonment. It had been resurfaced and reseeded, and after a number of years, had integrated back into the landscape. While the sagebrush regrowth wasn’t complete, we were happy to see that the other native vegetation had completely filled-in, and that the sage brush is making good progress. On the opposite end of the spectrum, is a plugged pit we inspected. With no regrowth and some erosion, the reclamation process will have to start over.

The vegetation hasn’t taken at this pit, plugged last year, and will need to be reseeded

View of the high plains landscape just up the road from the reclamation pit

I was also excited to realize that although unplanned, the start of my internship overlapped with the last week of lek counts/visits for the sage-grouse mating season. Given that sage-grouse have been a standard reference in pretty much every biology, animal behavior, and conservation book I’ve ever read, it was about time I see them in action. With their inflated gular sacs and fanned-out tail feathers the males are striking, and their performance did not disappoint. I was lucky enough to hear plenty of booming, and see the males strut and square off.

The first time out we visited an easily located lek, but the second day found us moving through the sagebrush looking for signs, until we finally found the lek had shifted to another hillside. It was definitely worth the 4am wake-up, and provided some great wildlife viewing. There’s nothing quite like starting your day with a sunrise and some sage grouse, or viewing a nesting golden eagle as you head to the office.

I’m already looking forward to next week, and can’t wait to meet the rest of the interns who join the office on Wednesday!

Bachelor group of Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park, SD

Looking up at Devils Tower, SD