Saying goodbye to the Owyhees

In the forefront is an open space of bunchgrasses gone to seed. To the right is a dirt road passing foothills dotted by juniper trees and leading off into mountains against a clear blue sky.
The view on my last day of fieldwork. I had a relaxing day collecting utilization data with my coworker LeeAnn.

I can’t believe my time with the BLM is coming to an end! It seems like I only just got to Boise, and now I am embarking on a road trip back home to Austin. I am currently writing this post from Ohlone land, in the ancestral territory of the Muwekma and Ramaytush Ohlone (otherwise known as San Francisco). I have also been wrapping up some data management and writing for the office remotely the past couple of weeks.

Even though it seems like time has flown by this summer, I leave Idaho with so much new knowledge and excitement. While I started this internship with no prior experience in the sagebrush steppe and with minimal exposure to land management, I leave acquainted with the plants of this ecosystem and feeling much more prepared to continue this work in the future. Towards the end of my internship, I even met a former CLM intern who was just hired for a full-time position in my office. It was so sweet to chat about our experiences in the program and spend time in the field together.

Even with COVID posing unique challenges, I still experienced a wide variety of life in a BLM field office: from conducting veg surveys and searching for rare plants to fence construction and riparian assessment to data analysis and writing reports. I was also able to meet permittees and see what it is like to do community outreach in the field office. I even tagged along with our geologist to experience the mineral program. I am so glad for the opportunity to intern with such a welcoming group– my mentor and all of my coworkers were so incredibly kind and knowledgeable and made me feel truly like a part of the team. It was great to work alongside them and learn about all the different parts of the field office.

The past five and a half months have been a period of growth and challenges. In such a turbulent time filled with national and international grief and uncertainty, I am incredibly grateful to have been employed doing work that I love and find meaningful. I will miss the views of the mountains and working with the plants of the high desert. Idaho is a beautiful place, and the Owyhee Field Office had so many sites to explore and plants to meet! I hope that I will be able to come back and visit in the future. Next year’s Botany conference will be in Boise (hopefully, although who knows with COVID), so I might be back in the summer.

I am not yet sure what is in store for me over the next few months, but I fully intend to spend it with loved ones and botanize as much as I can.

Until then,


Prepared for the worst…

This past weekend I attended a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) Wilderness First Aid training here in Boise. I wanted to do this training because there have been several times where I have been out in the field, decently far from a hospital, without service. I realized that if anything were to happen, I really would have no idea what to do. Since I expect to spend more and more time outside, both for fun and work, I figured it is good for me to be prepared in case someone gets hurt.

Within the first few minutes of the class, I immediately felt out of place. During our brief introductions, where the icebreaker was to list your favorite way to get into the back-country, I realized that I was way out of my league. Almost all of the other students were back-country skiers, rock-climbers, backpackers, and mountain bikers. My nerdy, sheltered self– who broke her ankle attempting the very easiest route available at a bouldering gym– has never even seen snow, let alone ski!! I introduced myself, just said, “hiking” and then vowed to hide just how little I knew about outdoor adventuring.

Despite this rocky start, the class went well. These were two fully packed days: we learned what to do in case of cuts, burns, broken bones, sprained ankles, heatstroke, hypothermia, and more. We also learned how to be resourceful, improvising splints out of things we might have with us while out in the field. Throughout the entire weekend, we took full COVID precautions, with everyone wearing masks and gloves and checking temperatures at the door. We also were outside for the majority of the class. 

Our NOLS instructor demonstrating wound care techniques on a fellow student

[Image description: two people wearing masks on a basketball court with a whiteboard, a playground, and a school building in the background. One of them (the instructor) is standing, wrapping a bandage around the student’s arm right arm.]

All of the skills we learned were put to the test as we acted out scenarios that might happen in the back-country. We took turns being the patient and care-givers, mostly working in teams of two or three. To help with making the scenarios realistic, our instructors even used wound makeup to simulate cuts, bruises, and scrapes.

Here, our instructor is demonstrating how to check for proper circulation to the feet after applying a full leg splint.

[Image description: The same instructor as in the previous image is leaning over while a different student sits with her right leg (which is wrapped in a foam pad and ace bandages) outstretched. The instructor is wearing blue gloves and touching the student’s toes, which are obscured by the makeshift splint. They are outside on a basketball court with a whiteboard behind them.]
My team made our splint out of various items of clothing and a foam pad. Not the most beautiful, but functional nonetheless.

[Image description: The legs of someone sitting on a grey, gravelly surface. She is wearing grey field pants and a sandal on her left foot. Her left leg is lying so that the inside of the leg and foot faces upwards with her knee out to the side. The right leg is outstretched towards the camera, wrapped in a foam pad tied around the leg and foot with jackets, shirts, and an ace-wrap.]

I left the training Sunday evening tired but feeling much more prepared for my days in the field than I’ve ever felt before. I now know what kinds of tools to bring for different trips and how to act under different scenarios. I hope that I will never have to use these skills, but now I am more confident in my ability to deal with trips that don’t go as planned. I also feel more capable of helping people I find during my adventures. Now, instead of panicking if someone is injured, I can say, “Hi, my name is Lili, and I have wilderness first aid training. Can I help you?”

Until next time!


Planning for the future: collecting seeds for sagebrush habitat restoration

This season we did one small collection for the Seeds of Success program! This collection was of Crepis acuminata (common name: Tapertip hawksbeard, Shoshone name: yham•bah•wuhrn), a small yellow flower in the family Asteraceae, tribe Chichorieae. It occurs in all western states from California, Oregon and Washington east to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico (USDANRCS, 2011).

These flowers are targeted in restoration efforts because they support wildlife including generalist bee species, sage grouse, elk, deer, and antelope. It is also utilized by livestock such as sheep and cattle! Based on seed transfer zone information and a previous scouting trip, we chose to gather seeds from about 3 hours from the field office, near the Duck Valley Indian Reservation and the border of Nevada, homeland to the Shoshone-Paiute tribes. Heading out there a couple days in a row resulted in a decent amount of driving time, but with some good music and podcasts, it went by pretty quickly! 

Important note: if you are choosing to travel/recreate during this time, try to do your research ahead and be respectful of indigenous territory and travel restrictions that tribes are implementing. Many reservations are being impacted particularly hard from COVID-19, and an influx of tourists/travelers can bring an increase in cases. 

Seed collecting is a very relaxing experience. I settled into a rhythm: find a plant, pick off the white tufts of seeds and feel them between my fingers to check for insect larvae, and then place them into the paper bag at my feet. repeat. It becomes almost meditative after a while. Our first day the heat was pretty intense so we didn’t stay more than an hour or so before heading back, but the following day was cooler and we were able to settle down and collect for a few hours. By the end of our second day we had a modest pile of white fluffy seeds, a promise of future little Crepis seedlings out scattered among the sagebrush.

By mid-august the Crepis acuminata was well over flowering and was getting very dry and crispy. My mentor Jessa often jokes that a lot of our work in the summer here requires getting good at necrobotany.
The plant community in the area we collected was primarily perennial grasses such as bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) surrounded with scattered sagebrush (Artemisia sp.),  and various forbs also associated with sagebrush communities.
Crepis flowers are quite cute! They have a white fluffy pappus that helps them disperse in the wind. Since we collected a little late, a lot of the heads had insect larvae damage inside (which is apparently common with Tapertip hawksbeard according to an observation way back in 1938 by Babcock and Stebbins), which made it more difficult to collect viable seeds but we still managed to do a small collection!
After two days of seed collection we treated the seeds with some no-pest strips and then packed those babies up and shipped them off to the Bend Seed Extractory in Oregon! They’ll be cleaned and used in future seeding projects. 

Until next time!


Out in the field!

A couple weeks ago one of our seasonal technicians, Jordan, and I camped for a few days near our field sites in the Nickel Creek/Juniper Mountain area (Shoshone-Bannock territory). The goal of this trip was to collect Trend data (species diversity, canopy cover, plant community composition) at as many sites as we could. Some of these points hadn’t been surveyed since the 90s, so it was important for us to go back and collect this information. We ended up completing about 8 total sites, plus a couple of photo plots, and a rare plant assessment for a nearby population of Astragalus yoder-williamsii

This was my first time camping for work, and it went really well! We stayed a total of 4 nights, waking up early to get started on fieldwork. It was one of the hotter weeks in Idaho that I have experienced, so both of us were definitely tired by the end of each day. It was good to relax in the evenings, work on some plant IDs, and catch up on my reading (Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, which I will continue to bring up at every opportunity I can). I even managed to find a couple of juniper trees to hang my hammock and watch the sun set. We even had some company! One evening Jordan and I were swarmed with some solitary bees who were attracted to our sunscreen or our sweat. At one point I had about five bees sitting on me, and a few others buzzing around. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to snap a photo, but I think they could have been a species of Xeromelecta.

Many of our sites were quite diverse, which was good to see even though it made our work a little bit more difficult. While I am becoming much more familiar with the plant community here, there were still a decent number of species I had never seen before! We took a lot of specimens back in the plant press to identify out later using a combination of Idaho keys, iNaturalist, our office herbarium, and Jessa’s expertise.

We found a little nest on our transect! Hopefully it was abandoned and we weren’t bothering anyone!
Perks of waking up early in the field is getting to see some beautiful sunrises!

Since field season is winding down out here (it is wild to think how fast time is flying!), this will probably be my only overnight trip during this internship. However, a few of us in the office will be taking Leave No Trace training, which will be very useful in future positions where I might be doing more overnight work in the field. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to practice these skills while spending time outside and learning about the ecological communities of Idaho.

Until next time!

My First Month in Idaho: Tying in Social Justice with Plant Conservation

A quick introduction: Hi! My name is Lili Benitez (she/her) and I am interning with the Owyhee Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management office in Marsing, ID. I am a recent graduate from New College of Florida with a degree in Environmental Studies and Spanish, with a focus on plant conservation.

Just a heads up- in this post I’m going to be mentioning /discussing stolen land, police violence, and racism.

I want to start this post acknowledging that I am writing and working as an uninvited visitor on the unceded territory of the Shoshone-Bannock and of the Paiute tribes. This is important to recognize especially in relation to the Bureau of Land Management, an entity created as a result of colonization and the removal of native people from their land. By 1866 the Boise River valley and most of Southwest Idaho was taken from these tribes by the United States government. To control the newly acquired lands, The General Land Office (GLO) was created in 1868, which then merged into the Bureau of Land Management in 1946. As an intern, it is vital for me to understand this dark history and learn about the indigenous communities impacted. 

In the wake of recent attention to murders of Black people by the US police force and the following protests over the past months for Black lives, many environmental and ecological organizations continue to stay silent or make performative statements of solidarity without meaningful action. When the history of this violence is so intertwined with the racist history of white environmentalism and land management, it is unacceptable for these organizations to not speak out. We can’t be advocating for plant conservation without also fighting for justice for Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+, disabled, and immigrant communities. As a white, cis, Latinx woman, I walk through this world and into these environmentalist spaces with certain privileges. While I am by no means an expert on social justice issues, I hope to practice allyship for these communities. In addition to marching, donating, listening to and amplifying BIPOC voices, one of the roots of this process is unlearning years of biased education and confronting the racist histories within my area of study. 

I’d like to share something I learned last month from listening to the Dope Labs podcast episode “Skin Deep”, and reading Ibram Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist. As a young biologist, I learned about Carl Linnaeus, the “Father of Taxonomy,” a famous naturalist and botanist. However, what I never learned was that he was the father of biological racism as well. Kendi draws attention to the insidious nature of taxonomy at its invention, demonstrating how Linnaeus, in 1735, was the first to color code the human races as White, Yellow, Red, and Black in Systema Naturae. Kendi points to this moment as the start of the “blueprint that nearly every enlightened race maker followed, and that race makers still follow today… racist power[s] created them for a purpose (p. 41).” Like so many other white men that tend to be idolized in the environmental field (the National Park Service still has sites named after John Muir and other racist idols), Linnaeus was a white supremacist, and his taxonomic ideology still influences how we talk about race today. What does it mean for us as botanists and biologists to hold so much faith and respect for this system of classification when this is its history? How can we actively work to confront racism and colonial thought within our fields on a daily basis?  Stay tuned for a more lengthy post on colonial influences in botany.

Just as I am learning about these connections between social justice and my work, I am also connecting with the local environment in the field. It is amazing to have the opportunity to be outside and hang out with plants all week. This month I’ve been getting acquainted with the sage grouse habitat in the area, and learning about these plant communities. As a Texas local, everything here is new to me, which I greatly appreciate. I am learning Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring (AIM) techniques that examine species diversity, plant composition, and soil quality, mostly for range management. However, my favorite days are those where we conduct rare plant monitoring. On these days, I go out with my mentor, Jessa, to try to find cute rare plants and evaluate how they are doing.  

Pictured above is a rare milkvetch (Astragalus yoder-williamsii) in flower! A tiny cute plant in the bean family (Fabaceae).
Pictured here is Monardella angustifolia, a beautiful rare plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae). We spotted this guy a couple days ago and were lucky to find it in flower. It smelled amazing!

To close out, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention it was Black Botanist Week last month. This effort was started by Bucknell University post-doctoral researcher Tanisha Williams and others as “a celebration of Black people who love plants. This plant love manifests in many ways ranging from tropical field ecologist to plant geneticist, from horticulturalist to botanical illustrator. We embrace the multiple ways that Black people engage with and appreciate the global diversity of plant life.” Along with Black Birders Week, these celebrations of Black scientists are a great example of combating Anti-Black racism in our fields and can inspire young BIPOC scholars to see themselves pursuing these careers. Go check out the hashtag #Blackbotanistsweek on Instagram and their website for more info. 

For more information about the Black Lives Matter movement in my part of the country, check out the BLM Boise website and follow them on Instagram and Twitter (@blmboise). Additionally, to support local Indigenous efforts, check out the Nimiipuu land protectors, whose community and sacred sites were being threatened by the “Rainbow Family Gathering” this past month as an influx of tourists and outsiders arrived in Riggings, ID. Find them on Instagram (@nimiipuulandprotectors) to learn more and support their work.

Until next time!!