Leaving Lander

Fall has arrived. The trees lose their leaves, outdoor activities die down, and the vitality of summer begins to fade. It seems like a fitting time for my internship to end. Like many endings, this one is bittersweet. In less than two weeks I’ll be leaving the charming town of Lander, Wyoming to make the long haul back to Cleveland, Ohio. I am excited to see family, and friends, and to move on to something new. Despite the stigma that has stuck with Cleveland since the Cuyahoga River caught fire…multiple times, it is a pretty great place (the watershed is much cleaner now). Anyway, I will certainly miss Lander. There are many places that I would feel some resistance to leaving after five months of creating memories, and building bonds, but Lander will always be special to me. As I first set eyes upon this storybook small town I felt a nostalgic, comforting warmth sprout inside of me. A handful of old buildings, historic landmarks, and a view of the Wind River Mountains provide the town with an unnecessary, yet welcomed boost in charisma. The weathered and wild appearance instill a sense of wonder about the events; proud and profoundly sad, that have shaped this place. Lander has just enough people to have a “Main Street”, a small strip of downtown. Most businesses, a few restaurants and bars, and a movie theater provide just enough excitement to pull people out of their cozy living rooms when the weather is not cooperating, or the vast swath of natural beauty that extends for miles beyond the town in all directions when sunshine is infinite.

It was surprising to me how outdoorsy a community of people can be. In the months when there’s not too much snow to leave your house, most people use their free time for camping, fishing, hiking, climbing, biking, and in the fall, hunting season begins. I consider myself a somewhat adventurous, nature-loving person, but the people in Lander are on a different level. If the weather is nice, it can be assumed that everyone is outside. Some indoor activities cease to exist in the summer. Businesses even shorten their hours to accommodate for the lack of…business. Bar trivia no longer exists, an evening yoga class is nowhere in sight, and one gym that I looked into joining closed at 7pm on weekdays and was closed for the weekends – summer hours. It seems like even after a long day of work, people just want to ride their bikes or hangout up in the mountains.

While I feel like a sloth compared to the people here, I am definitely going to miss all of the opportunities that the landscape has to offer. Granted, the winters are long and cold in Wyoming (maybe that’s why people are so active when they can be), the majesty of nature has no rival anywhere near Cleveland. Sinks Canyon State Park, only a 10 minute drive away, would be a gem in Cleveland. In Wyoming it’s just a drop in the bucket of magnificent landscapes. I will long for this wild land, and the sense of freedom it provides. If I want to get away from people, all I need to do is drive out of town. In 5 minutes I’ll see sagebrush, open land, blue skies and maybe some pronghorn; a landscape that immediately puts me at ease. Once I leave here, I won’t be able to wake up, and on a whim, drive to see the vivid colors of fall beneath the awe-inspiring snow caps of the Tetons. Even if a hike here fails to provide a moose, or bear sighting, the chance to walk amid these beautiful mountains makes the day an unfaltering success. The wonders are not limited to Wyoming. A long weekend makes a good time to trek to the bordering states of Utah, Colorado, Montana and Idaho (There’s a lot more to Idaho than just potatoes). Even before I came to Wyoming, the forested parks in Cleveland occasionally provided a peaceful retreat from the stresses of life, but I was never really drawn to them. I fear that living surrounded by the picturesque lands of Wyoming has created something in me that will leave a void once I depart.

All in all, I had a great experience in Lander. I learned a great deal about range land management, the ecology of South-Central Wyoming, and Wyoming in general. My position as Range Monitoring Intern pushed me out of my comfort zone and exposed me to a new realm of natural wonders, people, and experiences. I would recommend this experience to most people, regardless of their background. I’ve gotten to know myself better, and feel as though I have lived life right for the past 5 months.

Inspired by Nature

Something about nature, specifically wildlife, has always captivated me. Even as a child, I would rather play with plastic animals than trucks, or action figures. At the age of 29, playing with toys has lost it’s appeal, but over the years I have learned to express my affinity for the natural world in other ways. Just being out in nature isn’t enough. I feel the desire to capture my findings through photography, drawing, and occasionally painting. I’m unsure why I find the urge to express myself in this way. Maybe it’s just how I most readily connect with the world around me, and share feelings with people that I am unable to articulate. But sometimes, I don’t feel the explicit desire to share with other people. I’m content with enjoying the solo process of discovering interesting subject matter, capturing it, and possibly manipulating it or combining certain elements to create something new, or visually surreal. On the other hand, I do enjoy sharing the finished product with other people. Making other people feel something positive and tangible through my art makes me feel connected to them. Sometimes I wonder if I would have any drive to create art if I could not share it with others. After all, what is the point of life besides connecting with others. Creating and maintaining meaningful relationships is a hallmark of humanity.

Anyway, I’d like to share a piece of Wyoming inspired art and the process of creation. When I draw, it is very time consuming. Because of that, I have only completed one drawing in the almost four months that I’ve been in Lander, Wyoming. Getting the form down is definitely the most difficult part for me. There’s plenty of erasing involved. Sometimes I will realize that something is out of proportion when I’m too far along to fix it. Oh well…maybe that makes it more interesting. Over the past few years I’ve started by drawing the outlines in pencil. Once I’m satisfied with the form, I will trace it with ink, erase the pencil, then use primarily ink to fill everything in. Even though using ink can be painstakingly slow, I enjoy the challenge of it. I like how the darkness of ink makes it easy to develop contrast in a drawing, and something about the permanence of ink is inherently satisfying. Once I’m at the point that I can start shading, I’m able to relax. The process becomes meditative and my mind becomes free to listen to music, learn something from a podcast, or just wander.

When possible, I enjoy using photos that I have taken myself as references when drawing (I really struggle at creating something from nothing, or drawing with no reference). In my latest drawing, I was able to merge a few photos I’ve taken to create something slightly abstract. I usually don’t find any deep meaning, or strong symbolism in my work, and I feel the same about this piece. I just took one charismatic animal that I’ve encountered in Wyoming and combined it with an equally attention garnering plant. My inspiration started with the only decent photo of an elk that I’ve taken so far. I knew I wanted that elk to form the foundation of the drawing. Next, I looked through photos I had taken of Castilleja (one species of this genus is the Wyoming state flower) and found growth forms that I liked. I drew the Castilleja to look as if they are growing out of the elk’s antlers…and one on the back just to kind of balance things out. After drawing the plant on the back, I got the idea to display the root structure of the plant. I liked what the strong, yet crooked, imperfect lines of the roots brought to the drawing. When I was done with all of the shading I still felt like something was missing. Several elements of the drawing had an ethereal feel to me; obviously, the plants growing out of the animal and the abstract root structure. But in addition to that, it looked almost as if the elk was smiling and there was a slight shimmer in it’s eye. I had the urge to make it more vibrant, but not in a totally rationale way. I added a lot of patterned, vibrant color to give it kind of a psychedelic feel. Maybe I implicitly created something that demonstrates the ecological connections present in nature, since elk do eat Castilleja…not sure what the colors mean though. I just wanted to make something that is visually loud and interesting.

The Difficulties of Grazing Management and Wild Horses

Managing range lands can be difficult. As far as my job goes; it can be difficult to get close enough to cattle to identify brands and to get clear photos of them (each rancher has their own brand), constantly finding cows that are in the wrong pastures, a.k.a. out of compliance, can be frustrating and require a lot of paperwork. For my manager, and other full time range technicians, it can be tough to tell ranchers to move their cattle in a pleasant, but not overly passive tone. Being told what to do can be frustrating, and frankly some of the ranchers really don’t like the Bureau of Land Management, and frequently resist cooperation. I met a rancher who came out to help our crew find some past monitoring transects. He seemed agreeable enough, and was obviously kind enough to help out some BLM workers. But near the end of the day he made some comment about how the ranchers would do well at managing the land without the BLM telling them what to do. This might be true for some ranchers, but definitely not all. The data that my coworkers and I have gathered shows that overgrazing is currently occurring.

To give the ranchers the benefit of the doubt, it can be tough for them to keep track of all of their cattle while they roam thousands of acres of land, and moving the cattle seems like an ordeal that requires a significant number of people and resources. In addition to the inter-relational challenges of range land management, there are the effects of wildlife on the land. Cows are not the only animals grazing the public lands of south-central Wyoming. The presence of grazing wild animals can be a source of tension and ambiguity between ranchers and those monitoring the land. The BLM may attribute the degradation of the land to a lack of cooperation from ranchers and their cattle, while the ranchers claim that the impact of wildlife is to blame. Not all grazers play a role that directly competes with that of cattle. There is one animal that is of primary concern, that is horses. Namely, wild horses.

Horses feed in the same areas as cattle, and they share similar diets. One study suggests that the dietary overlap between horses and cattle during the summer averages 72 percent and in the winter increased to 84 percent (Krysl et al., 1984). And I would assume that since horses like riparian areas, their trampling of saturated, bare ground can have the same detrimental effects on stream banks as that of cattle. The population of wild horses is supposedly above carrying capacity, but there is no clear, ethical method to control them. Euthanasia can be viewed as inhumane, and thus, controversial, and rounding up horses and moving them to less populated areas is not enough. Adoption does seem to be a valid solution to controlling numbers of wild horses, but there is just not enough of it. Getting the word out to the public seems like a clear way to take a step in the right direction.

On a lighter note, the background of wild horses is pretty interesting. Horses are not really native to North America, at least not modern day horses. Horses were native to the continent but died-out after the last ice age. We can thank Spanish explorers and other European settlers for bringing the horse back to North America. But very few wild horses we see out west are descendants of those brought over by Cortez and Coronado. Most are descendants of horses that escaped from their owners only in the past 100-150 years. The term “wild” is not technically correct either. The horses are “feral,” like an escaped house cat that has learned how to survive without human assistance (Crane et al., 1995). But “wild” sound better, it’s more romantic…I doubt the Rolling Stones would have had a hit with “Feral Horses”.

A Desert Full of Life

Some people may think of Wyoming as just wide open land. A vast swath of desert with not much to see. Some might even think it’s boring. But, once you work out there you know that there is plenty to see and learn about. A variety of flora, fauna and a range of features that create different biomes. The evolution of my perspective from learning more and more about the natural world is amazing to me. Before I did any field work with plants, they just didn’t appeal to me much. I was one of the people that would look out onto the open plains of Wyoming and think that there were some shrubs, and along with the blue skies it was kind of nice to look at. A desolate, homogeneous landscape that stretched on forever. Chances are that I would take a quick glance and keep on moving. Now I realize that those shrubs stretching to the horizon are sagebrush, and a few other things, but mostly sagebrush. Just learning that single genus began to pull me in a little. I wanted to learn more. I was told that there were several species of sagebrush, and several subspecies. Some species prefer certain soil conditions and other abiotic factors. The charismatic genus Castilleja, or Indian paintbrush, is a root parasite that steals resources from sagebrush (from other plants too, but in dry areas sagebrush is a common host). Becoming aware of different species and how they are interconnected in complex ecological webs has opened my eyes. Now instead of seeing an expansive monoculture, I look closely at individual plants. Seed heads, leaves, and other morphological factors that set them apart. It’s like I’m seeing a whole new world.

Castilleja sp.

Animals on the other hand, have always captured my attention. In addition to the variety of plants in Wyoming, there are some pretty charismatic animals. I’ve seen pronghorn and wild horses every day in the field. Some raptors, the occasional elk, prairie dog, or sage grouse…and one rattlesnake.

Prairie Dog
Calves are curious and kind of slow to move out of the way

Raising Livestock on Public Land

Last time I checked in I hadn’t really started my routine duties, but I am now monitoring range land full time. I am learning a lot and enjoying the experience. The general area that I am responsible for, commonly referred to as Green Mountain Allotment, is over half a million acres. To cover this vast area, I spend a significant amount of time driving. Driving for hours everyday might seem dull, but I love it. Whether it’s trudging along rocky two-track roads, trying to avoid getting stuck in mud, or gliding down the highway, it’s never boring. The landscape and wildlife within are a constant source of entertainment, no radio necessary. Pronghorn antelope seem to be everywhere. Often dashing across the open land, seemingly running from nothing. They’re very elegant, captivating animals. And as North America’s fastest land animal, they can supposedly reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get any decent photos of pronghorn yet. They’re kind of skittish. On the other hand, cows aren’t really afraid of our trucks. So…here are some cows!

I wouldn’t call cows majestic, but they are kind of charming in their own way. The ungainly way that they amble about, and stare at you endlessly is pretty amusing. And, cows are the focal point of all the work that I’m doing this season. Cows can cause the degradation of the land in several ways, especially in riparian areas. For this reason, the primary objective of my work is to make sure that there aren’t too many cows in one area for too long.

The land that I work on is public land, and ranchers are issued grazing allotments. That means that ranchers are issued permits to graze their cattle in pastures owned by the federal government. But cattle are only allowed in certain pastures for certain parts of the year. Rotating cattle prevents areas from being overused and over-grazed. One of my primary duties is to ensure the proper placement of cows. I need to be aware of which allotment I’m in, and whether cattle should be there at a given time. If I find cows in a place that they shouldn’t be, I need to count them (a rough estimate if there are a lot), and try to find brands on the cows. Each rancher has there own brand, so if I can see a brand, I should know who’s cattle are out of place. Then, either I, or my supervisor will contact the rancher and ask them to move their cattle. There is more to my job than counting cows, but I can expand more on that next time.

It seems like there are endless wild places to explore around Lander. I recently hiked Johnny Behind the Rocks, a short local trail system. Here are a few photos:

The wildflower is one of twenty some species in the genus Castilleja, with the Wind River Mountains in the background.
Northern Sagebrush Lizard
Prairie Rattlesnake along with an infamous, invasive plant commonly known as cheatgrass. Don’t worry, I zoomed in to get this.

Grazing and Wyoming

When I left Cleveland, I did not know what to expect. The only certainty was that I was about to drive over 1500 miles west to work as a range land monitoring intern at The Bureau of Land Management in Lander, Wyoming. Two weeks in, I can say that I still have a lot to learn but I am excited about the road ahead.

After five days of driving, and doing some exploring on the way, I reached my destination. Despite the weather, (it snowed most of my first week in town) this small mountain town in central Wyoming was very welcoming. The people are very friendly, the landscape is awe-inspiring, and there always seems to be this aura of tranquility all around.

Although I was not able to get out into the field much my first week, the wintry weather allowed me to settle in at the office. I became acquainted with many affable coworkers, and began to gain appreciation for the wide variety of intriguing work done in the BLM office. Wild land firefighting, work with wild horses, archaeology. It was eye-opening to see how all these different facets of conservation converge.

Most importantly, the scope of my range monitoring duties began to come into focus.  After two weeks on the job I still feel like I’m just getting my feet wet, but I have a firm grasp on what my duties will be as I ease into independence in the field. If I had to sum up my responsibilities in one word I guess it would be…cows? Counting the numbers of cows in a grazing allotment, looking at brands on cattle to derive their ownership, and making sure cows aren’t in areas they shouldn’t be. There’s also a fair amount of botany and other skills involved, but even then, these skills are used to monitor the grazing habits of cattle.

From a recent tour of the field, you can see the Sweetwater rocks off in the distance beneath the vast blue sky

The Lander field office is responsible for more land than I imagined. I, together with another intern, will be largely responsible for monitoring a sizable chunk of that. It’s intimidating, but after a couple tours of the vast countryside, I think I’m beginning to get a grip on how to navigate it. Other than off-road driving skills, and a few short lessons in monitoring techniques and plant ID, I have a lot to learn. I’m eager to progress and I look forward to reporting back when I’m fully immersed in my work!

I rode along to a meeting with a rancher to view the progress of a prescribed burn site and met the rancher’s 4 dogs