The last two weeks of my internship out in Wyoming began with a road trip to Kansas. Me, my mentor, and a co-worker were headed to the Kansas Herpetological Societies annual meeting where I would be giving a presentation on the herpetofauna research I have been assisting with this field season (read my previous blog posts if you’d like to know more on the project). My presentation went well and the other presentations were informative and interesting. Getting to meet Herpetologists from around the states was a great and interesting opportunity and I am thankful that I was afforded the opportunity to attend the meeting.
The last couple days of my internship were spent mostly tying up lose ends and finishing data entry. I’ve come to love the topography and openness of the Wyoming landscape. I’ve also made some unforgettable friends over the past seven months. Rawlins is a small vagrant town and the social opportunities are minimal but the friends and connections that I made in the town make living here more than bearable. I gained many experiences this summer that will assist me in furthering my career in wildlife conservation and I will always be grateful for my time spent out in Rawlins and the opportunities that I have had. However it seems my time here in Rawlins hasn’t yet met its end. I will be staying at the field office to help our weeds specialist over the winter and I am very excited for this new experience. I wouldn’t have this opportunity if it wasn’t for the Conservation and Land Management Program and I appreciate them for assisting me in furthering my career.
“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun” – Into the Wild
October started off with our last round of herptile trapping for the season. Normally we wouldn’t have trapped in October as conditions are usually unfavorable however, as we did not have the opportunity to trap in June due to a delay in funding we decided to take our chances. We only trapped for eight days instead of the usually ten due to poor forecasts in the weather and definitely saw a decrease in captures with the cold change in temperatures. We caught a handful of mammals but only two young garter snakes for herptiles. Two bullsnakes were caught basking on the roads but, as they were not near our trap sites, they did not count in our data.
The rest of the month was spent mainly on analyzing the data that was collected over the past three field seasons, starting when the project began. The main goal of the project was to determine species presence for the region with the secondary goal being to compare abundance and diversity between our grazed and ungrazed sites.
During the 2019 field season we had 4,255 traps nights capturing 51 individuals with a total of 6 recaptures. As for the overall study there were 13,982 traps nights with 169 herptile individuals captured and 20 total recaptures. The vast majority of the captures were wandering garter snakes (Thamnophis elegans vagrans) with 31% of the garter snakes being young of the year. Herptile species detected included wandering garter snakes, bullsnakes (Pituophis catenifer sayi), prairie rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis), yellow-bellied racers (Coluber constrictor), greater short-horned lizards (Phrynosoma hernandesi), northern sagebrush lizards (Sceloporus graciosus), northern leopard frogs (Lithobates pipens), and the western tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium).
As for comparing our grazed and ungrazed sites, we saw a slightly higher diversity in our ungrazed sites than within the grazed sites. This is likely due to the higher quality of riparian health within the exclosures then within the grazed sites, where the riparian areas are usually degraded by the cattle use. We also saw a higher abundance of northern leopard frogs and prairie rattlesnakes within the exclosures. Interestingly we saw a higher abundance of bullsnakes in our grazed sites. It is unclear as to why bullsnake abundance is higher in grazed sites but it is possible the difference is due to the small sample size and does not show any significant trends.
Something interesting that we noticed while analyzing the data was that we had significantly less captures per trap night in 2018 than we did in 2017 or 2019. One factor we believe may have influenced this was precipitation. The winter of 2018, before they trapped that year, had approximately 50% below average precipitation for the season. This likely resulted in an increase is desiccation during hibernation for herptiles which in turn caused a spike in winter mortality rates that was then reflected in the decrease in captures for the 2018 field season. With only three years of data however it is important to note that this is mostly just speculation, we would need to continue trapping in the Ferris Mountain region to gather long term data that we could then use to determine significant trends.
The plan for this project in the following years is to leave the Ferris Mountain area and begin trapping in new locations. The Rawlins field office encompass over 3.5 million acres of public land and little herpetofauna work has been done within this area. Moving the trap sites to a new area will allow for the opportunity to learn more about Wyoming’s herpetofauna which in turn can help inform better management decisions within our field office. However if funding and resources are available, hopefully trapping can continue in the Ferris Mountain region so long term data can be collected. Additionally, it is suspected that if we create new trap sites at higher elevations on the Ferris Mountain range we may find new or different compositions of species. Hopefully the BLM will continue to get funding to develop projects that improve imperative wildlife management decisions across public lands.
Along with our normal trapping project this month, I had the opportunity to assist with a multitude of different habitat assessment surveys. The assessment, inventory, and monitoring (AIM) strategy is used to assess terrestrial and aquatic habitats across our field office. This system is used to provide standardized information about the habitats in our field office and help to inform better management decisions. In terrestrial AIM you have three, 25m long transects and you start by categorizing the plants that occur along each transect at equidistance points. Gap is also measured along transects, which is a way to measure how much of each transect is not covered by living plant matter. A soil pit is dug and the different layers of soil are analyzed for their composition. I assisted with AIM surveys in sage brush steppe habitat north of the Ferris Mountains and also within an aspen stand near the Baggs area of our field office.
Aquatic AIM differs from terrestrial AIM in many ways however the main goal of providing standardized information for habitats across the field office remains the same. In aquatic AIM, transect are set up along a stream bed and measurements are taken at standardized points. Measurements are used to determine stream characteristics and include bankfull, scour, thalweg, pH, temperature, channel widths, floodplain connectivity, canopy cover, and slope to name a few.
I also helped with Multiple Indicator Monitoring (MIM) and surface compliance monitoring. MIM is a monitoring strategy that combines long term and short term metrics to condense surveying efforts along stream systems but also inform good management decisions. Measurements taken include stubble height, bank alteration, woody browse, pool volumes, stream width, vegetation, and slope.
Surface compliance monitoring is used to keep companies, especially oil and gas, responsible for safe practices. Active and rehabilitated well sites are examined for any hazards to humans or wildlife, including unlabeled areas, poor rehabilitation, broken structures, invasive species, and so forth. Anything found to be out of compliance with the company’s contract must be fixed by the company or they will be responsible to pay hefty fines.
We completed our third set of trapping this month with another ten day stint. We caught plenty of garter snakes, a couple leopard frogs, and finally another rattle snake! Unfortunately we couldn’t process the rattlesnake and all we could say for sure was that she was not a recapture. One of the garter snakes that we captured was preparing to molt. Before molting snakes will develop an opaque film over their eyes and you may see some flakes of skin already starting to peel. Another interesting capture was a sagebrush vole that was in one of our pit-fall traps. This is the first sagebrush vole that has been caught since the project started in 2017. The most intriguing capture of the season so far was a horsehair worm. Horsehair worms are parasites that develop in the bodies of grasshoppers and crickets. It is common that when the host of the parasite dies, especially if it is in water, the worm will leave the dead hosts body and search for a new host. In our case, we had a dead Mormon cricket in one of the pit-falls and next to it in a puddle of water was the living horsehair worm parasite. Hopefully we will have even more interesting captures next month.
We began the month doing Wyoming Toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) surveys once again. However this time instead of breeding surveys, where we were looking for tadpoles and egg masses, we surveyed for the adult toads specifically. The procedure is mostly the same with the exception that the plots we were surveying extended farther from the waters edge. When we captured a toad we measured lengths and mass and took a sample for chytrid fungus. This fungus causes an infectious disease in amphibians called Chytridomycosis which is believed to be a factor in the global decline in amphibian populations and is possibly a factor in the decimation of the Wyoming Toad population in the mid 1970s.
After toad surveys, I assisted fisheries with their seining surveys. Seining is a method of catching fish using a seine, which is a net with poles fixed to either end, a weighted bottom and buoyed top. The net is dragged along either side of the shore and many of the fish in the river get trapped inside. We were doing a depletion removal study to estimate the actual abundance of fish species. This consists of three successive passes done with the seine per site and the number of each species of fish that was caught was recorded. If done correctly each pass should yield less fish then the last and the rate of decline can be used to determine species abundances. I also had my first experience electroshocking which is another method to determine fish species abundance. In this method, one surveyor administers a non-lethal shock to the water with an backpack electrical generator to temporarily stun the fish so the other surveyors can net any observed fish. Again three successive passes are done per stream section and actual abundance can be determined.
One of the most compelling things I did this month was Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) surveys. These remarkable animals are North America’s only native ferret and were once considered to be extinct until one was caught by a farmers dog in Meeteetse, WY in 1981. Since the discovery of the extant population, many breeding and reintroduction efforts have been underway to save the population and have been considerably successful. Black-footed ferrets main food source is prairie dog and they use their burrows to hunt, sleep, hide from predators, and reproduce. The ferrets historic range coincided with that of the prairie dogs. The project I was helping with is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and we were surveying the Shirley Basin population. The goal of the surveys was to attempt to determine population size but also to tag and vaccinate as many ferrets as possible. Surveys took place from 7pm until 6am as the ferrets are nocturnal. Everyone was given a section of land to survey and spotlights were used to locate eye-shine. Black-footed ferrets eyes appear an emerald greenish blue when light is shinned on them. Once a ferret was located it was followed until it entered a prairie dog burrow and then a trap was set in the entrance of the burrow and all other exits from the burrow were plugged. The trap site was then checked once per hour for any trapped ferrets. When a ferret was capture it was transferred to a tube that resembled the inside of a burrow and it was brought to the processing trailer where measurement were taken and vaccinations were administered. Once processed, the trap set up was disassembled and the ferret was released where it was captured. Over three nights of surveying I caught four ferrets, two female kits, a male kit, and a young adult male. Between the 10 survey areas 16 ferrets were captured and processed. We also observed many incidentals, including badgers, swift foxes, red foxes, coyotes, pronghorns, jack rabbits, and ferruginous hawks. Getting to work with and observe such an iconic species in the wildlife conservation world was an absolutely incredible experience and I couldn’t be more grateful that I got to assist in the conservation efforts for the species.
For the last half of August we completed our second round of trapping for herptiles North of the Ferris Mountains. This trapping period was great for garter snakes (Thamnophis elegans) as we trapped around the time that females were giving birth. Many of the garter snakes we caught this period were young of the year. We also caught our second Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipens) which was an excitement. My most exciting opportunistic catch this period was a three foot long bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi)! I also had the opportunity to tube and process a Prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis), which was an incredible learning experience. The rattlesnake was a small female caught outside the office so we relocated her to one of out trap sites. Unfortunately we couldn’t count her in our data but fingers crossed we can catch her again later in the season. We added some sherman traps to three of our sites in an attempt to trap more mammals but they were much less successful then I was expecting based on past experiences. Only one deer mouse was captured who unfortunately had succumbed to the environment. Overall for mammals we caught plenty of deer mice and voles, plus a hand full of shrews. Overall it was a good trapping period but I am hoping for an increase in diversity for our next, and last, trapping period.
As the funding for our trapping project finally came through, we spent the first two weeks of the month building our trap sites up in the Ferris Mountain region of our field office. It was physically demanding work but essential for our project and rewarding in its own way. Each trap site consists of three cover boards and a Y-shaped drift fence with a pit-fall trap in the middle of each arm and a funnel trap at each end. The fence is designed to encourage animals to either enter the funnel trap or fall into the pit fall traps. We have twelve trapping sites; six within exclosures and six outside of them. This is in an effort to compare the type of species that occur in grazed versus ungrazed areas.
The purpose of the trapping project is to inventory the herptile species that occur in the area, assessing both the diversity and the abundance of species. We will also be comparing species occurrences between grazed and ungrazed sites. We trap for ten consecutive days, checking each trap daily. We will do three sets of trapping total, one set per month. As herptiles go this month, we caught many Wandering Garter Snakes (Thamnophis elegans vagrans), two Bullsnakes (Pituophis catenifer sayi), a Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens), and a Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). When we catch a snake we will insert a pit-tag just under its skin to track if a snake is a recapture or not. We will also cauterize a small part of the snakes scales in a systematic numbering system as another way to identify different recaptured individuals. For frogs, we mark them by preforming toe-clippings and again use a specific numbering system to tell between different individuals. Since our traps don’t discriminate we also catch plenty of mammals. Most of what was caught were Deer Mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) and voles. However we also caught Masked Shrews (Sorex cinereus) and Northern Pocket Gophers (Thomomys talpoides).
I hope to catch more rattlesnakes as the season goes on, they are a fascinating species to work with. Before handling a rattlesnake we will use a tongs to guide the posterior of the snakes body into a tube so there is little risk of the snake being able to bite you. Once tubed the snake can be handled safely and is processed the same as any other snake that we catch.
Before trapping we spent a day doing surveys for the Greater Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi). Surveys for horned lizards consists of walking transects and scanning the ground for the well camouflaged animals. Once one is spotted they are pretty easy to capture by hand as they are relatively slow. Horned lizards main defense against predators is their camouflage. Their flat-bodies cast very little shadow and they will often stay completely still when you pass by making them even more difficult to notice. When one is captured, if it was not a recapture, we will pit-tag it.
June went by fast out here in Wyoming. My co-intern finally arrived this month and I think we will be a good team this summer. We started the month off on night call surveys and finally heard Spadefoots calling! It was a really exciting moment and we were able to get within a couple meters of the calling toads. We also found clusters of egg masses in the same vicinity. Knowing definitively that the Great Basin Spadefoots are in this area could allow us to increase protections in the area for this BLM sensitive species. I’ve attached a video of them calling below!
Great Basin Spadefoot egg masses
The second week in June I was in Chicago for a week long training with the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was most interested in the plant taxonomy that we learned as it is an area that I do not have a lot of experience with, being predominately wildlife. I learned a lot and meet a ton of new and interesting people, including our hosts, who I hope to stay in touch with into the future. The Chicago Botanic Gardens are an absolutely beautiful place and I recommend visiting them if you ever get the chance. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to see some herps in the gardens, catching a fowlers toad (Anaxyrus fowleri) during one of our exercises and finding a spiny softshell turtle laying her eggs (Apalone spinifera).
Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera)
Chicago Botanic Garden
When we got back from the gardens we returned to doing night call surveys but unfortunately didn’t find anything. The good news from the week was that the funding for our trapping project finally came through so we will be able to start making progress on that soon! This last week we were able to help the Wyoming Game and Fish Department with their breeding surveys for the Wyoming Toad (Anaxyrus baxteri). The Wyoming toad is considered extinct in the wild and is found only within the Laramie Basin. There are multiple zoos with programs dedicated to the survival and propagation of the species. No single reason has been determined for the rapid decline in the species population but likely culprits are chytrid fungus, pesticide usage, or habitat alterations. For the breeding surveys we were looking mainly for egg masses and tadpoles and they will have surveys for adults later in the season. We were able to find both captive breed and wild tadpoles and a few adults during our surveys. It was really exciting to find the wild tadpoles as it is a great sign for the population. June was a good month and I look forward to what July has in store.
I have had the opportunity to work on a multitude of different projects over the past month and gain many new experiences. We continued to monitor Greater Sage-grouse leks into mid-may and I enjoyed getting to observe these birds unique behaviors. The week after leks we started on night call surveys for the Great Basin Spadefoot (Spea intermontanus) and the Plains Spadefoot (Spea bombifrons). It was a bit of a challenge switching from waking up at 3:30 in the morning to monitor leks to staying up until 3:30 in the morning monitoring for toads but I am definitely glad for the experience.
Spadefoot toads prefer friable soils where they can easily burrow down using their cutting metatarsals or tubercles on their hind feet. They breed quickly after heavy rains and prefer ephemeral streams which can make them difficult to locate.The procedure for night call surveys starts just after dark. You begin on a predetermined route and stop every half mile to listen for calling amphibians. After three minutes of listening you record everything that you heard and take a bearing on the direction you heard the call. Later if you want to search for the source of the call you can follow the bearing and set out a recorder or do dip-net surveys. The first two nights that we went out we heard nothing calling at all. I believe this is because it was to cold outside for the amphibians to be breeding. The third time that we went out we heard a ton of Boreal Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris maculata) but unfortunately no spadefoots. It’s interesting being out in the field so late into the night as you notice things you would normally miss like the international space station, distant thunderstorms, or packs of calling coyotes.
Wyoming Traffic Jam
I have also had the opportunity to assist with monitoring Mountain Bluebirds (Sialia currucoides). The BLM maintains and monitors nest boxes for the bluebirds mostly around the Sinclair area. Most of the boxes were originally placed by a worker at the Sinclair oil refinery but when he could no longer take care of them he asked the BLM to step in and we did. Since then we have added more boxes throughout the field office and there are plans for additional ones to be added. Mountain bluebirds naturally nest in tree cavities created by woodpeckers so in areas such as the RFO where trees are scarce the nest boxes help to maintain their populations. When we go out to check the boxes we look for male and female birds hanging around the nest, check to see if the nest inside is actually bluebird or a different species, and count the number of eggs or hatchlings inside. Bluebird eggs are usually a light blue but we have one nest where the bluebirds eggs were white which is a relatively rare phenomenon and fun to see.
Female Mountain Bluebird Sitting on Her Nest
I have spent a few days out in the field helping survey raptor nests. When you find the raptor nest the goal is to determine first if it is still active and the species that is using it, then to monitor for chicks. We have some artificial structure that we have placed to keep raptors from nesting on power lines or on the tanks at well sites, but we monitor natural nests sites as well. One thing that we are hoping to learn more about is if the placement of artificial structures is deterring raptors from building natural nests and how big of an impact these have on their behavior.
Greater Short-horned Lizard
I also had the opportunity to go on an onsite a couple weeks ago for some proposed gas wells down in the chain lakes region of our field office. It was definitely an informative experience and I am glad I got to learn more about how the BLM works with oil and gas companies to maintain both their and our goals. While there are definitely difference on both side of the issues everyone was willing to work towards a satisfying compromise. I also caught my first herp of the season, a Greater Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi), while walking one of the proposed roads. The only other herp we’ve caught so far was a bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) that was sunning himself on the road. These are interesting snakes that will mimic rattlesnakes in an attempt to frighten off predators. One way they do this is by vibrating their tail back and forth and making a hissing noise meant to sound like that of a rattle. Hopefully we will start hearing and catching more amphibians and reptiles in the coming weeks as it starts to get warmer. We placed some cover board up near Ferris Mountain and I am looking forward to see if we will find anything there. Until nest time.
I have only been at my position here in Rawlins for one week so I am still getting my feet under me and figuring out the lay of the land. I was surprised on my first day by the size of the office. Rawlins is a small town but the BLM Rawlins field office has 3.5 million acres of public lands with around 100 people working here. Everyone that I have met so far has been incredibly kind and genuine and I am looking forward to getting to know them better. I am the only seasonal intern at the office currently and it is likely that will not change for a couple more weeks, I look forward to meeting the other interns as well.
The main project that I will be working on this season will be inventory and monitoring of the amphibians and reptiles in the Rawlins Field Office (RFO). However, since my partner wont start until June, I will be helping with other projects until she arrives. This week I have been helping mostly with Lek Monitoring or ‘Grousing’. This entails rising a couple hours before sunrise and driving to know lekking sites for the Greater Sage Grouse. Around sunrise you count the number of male and female sage grouse that you see. These are amazing birds! A lek is the area where the male grouse preform their mating display and where the females watch from the sage brush to choose their mate.The mating display is unlike anything that I have ever seen. To display, they spike their tail feathers, hold up their wings, puff out their chests 3 time in a row, and inflate the bright yellow air sacs on their chests to produce a type of popping or bubbling noise. The grouse will preform their displays every morning for all of the breeding season, sometime starting in the middle of the night and going until just past sunrise. Grouse return to the same lek every year (with some exceptions of course!) and usually all of the females will choose the same one or two males to mate with. Most of the occupied leks that we’ve seen so far have had around 30 birds on them.
Greater Sage Grouse displaying on a lek
As for the amphibians and reptiles, I have done a little bit of training with them this week. We took nets out to two different water sources to try to capture some amphibians. We heard Chorus Frogs but only caught one Northern Leopard Frog. We also tried to noose some lizards, which consists of lassoing a lizard with a small piece of string (in this case dental floss) tied to a snake hook. For some reason the string doesn’t frighten the lizards so you can slip the loop around their neck and have a better chance of capturing them. My mentor is also working with people from the Game and Fish Department and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database (WYNDD) who are doing amphibian surveys in the RFO. I got to sit in on their meeting the other day which turned out to be pretty informative. If plans stay the same we will hopefully be working together to survey for Spadefoot Toads in the coming weeks. I’m excited to work with them and learn from these other agencies.
Overall it has been a good first week in the office and I am looking forward to what the rest of the season will have in store.