See you later South Dakota

It’s the end of August and the grasslands have faded into a flat brown. The graph of the soil moisture probe trends definitively downward towards dryness. The cows have always been present out here, but I think I’ve been noticing them and the bison more. At our site by the Badlands there’s finally cows grazing the pasture and more than once the herd has curiously surrounded the exclosure I’m working in. I saw several RVs parked on Buffalo Gap National Grassland, surrounded by cows and I wonder about the campers’ reactions as they woke up to the sounds of cows all around them.

The past three weeks have included some relatively backbreaking work: clipping and sorting. Some of the grasses are sorted out by species, but most are put into the broader categories of their functional groups, warm season versus cool season.The last batch of plots we’ve been clipping are 20 cm x 1 m and were mowed in July. Some of the grasses have grown back but many are just short, brown stalks. Without ligules and mostly without hairs, these stems are identified by vibes more than anything else. It’s been difficult to trust my intuition.

Clipping and sorting the grass.

The nice thing about the clipping is that it is a job that cannot be rushed. Quick work is shoddy work, and shoddy work is simply not worth doing. The first week or two of clipping was relaxing because I could catch up on podcasts and just take my time snipping away at grass, enjoying the dull roar of grasshoppers and meadowlarks. By the third week, I was exhausted. My neck and legs hurt from sitting in the grass for 30 hours a week and the insects left my ears ringing. 

My internship is wrapping up next week and I’m sad to leave. The team I’ve worked with has been up to four people but mostly just Myesa and me. Working with a small crew is nice when you all get along and I’ve definitely made some lasting relationships here.

I’ve been super busy this whole summer: my weekends have never been so full. Yet, I know I still haven’t done all of the things Rapid City has to offer and I’m finding myself wishing I’d had done more, wishing that I did go to the Sturgis rally because hey, why not? I’ve been able to do so much: I’ve spent endless hours climbing around Rushmore; I’ve backpacked in Badlands National Park; I climbed a 13,000-foot peak in the Bighorns. I was half-expecting I’d have a lonely summer, living all alone in the four-bedroom Forest Service housing in Hill City but I’ve been able to have a very full experience. 

My friend Victoria at the top of Cloud Peak in Bighorn National Forest.
Our campsite where we slept under the stars in Badlands National Park.

I heard on the radio that the price of beef has gone down. Cows are getting slaughtered due to ranchers not being able to water them adequately in the drought; beef prices will go up in following years due to ranchers having smaller herds. Jackie likes to have her science directly benefit the shareholders: the local ranchers. I spent my summer looking at the cows’ food and how drought will impact the grasslands and while I may have been merely cutting grass by hand, it is nice to know that the project I broke my back stooping over is researching the effects of climate change. 

I’ve learned a lot about grasses and grasslands and cattle and rocks this summer, but I feel like the most affirming lesson I received is that people are so willing to be of help. I’ve made a lot of great friends and have had a lot of excellent teachers, from Jackie being the most understanding and kind boss I could ask for to learning and nerding out about flowers with Myesa to my climbing friends, who have been sources of unwavering encouragement. After this summer, I’m heading back to Washington state, where I will likely continue to feel lost in life. However, it’s encouraging to know that no matter where I end up, I’ll have somebody, somewhere, on my side.

Me and a bison.

Snipping Stems and Staring at Buds

This last month has been a month of office work, a month of underground buds, and a month of buds (friends).

We’ve mowed the prairie once again. We mow several of the plots at our sites to simulate cows’ grazing, but in order to know how much biomass has been removed from the plots we go in with scissors and manually cut the plants and sort by functional group. The plants are then dried and weighed. Mowing and snipping the grasslands is maybe the most ridiculous thing I’ve done. We’re going to go back in a few weeks to re-trim the grass, to see how much it has grown in the time after the mowing. Science is pretty silly sometimes.

The Rocky Mountain Research Station in Rapid City, South Dakota is kept at a chill temperature that nobody seems to have control over. This means that even when it’s 95 degrees out, I still have to bring a sweater to work when I’m in the office. I’ve been doing a lot of sorting and weighing of plants, plus mind-numbing data entry.

The process of weighing the dried plants involves shaking everything out of its paper bag onto a sheet of repurposed herbarium paper, placing the bag on the scale and zeroing it, finagling everything off of the herbarium paper back into the paper bag, then weighing and recording the mass. We’re about halfway through the job: there’s two sites, each which had about 50 plots clipped, and each plot has up to eight paper bags. These eight bags are categorized by their contents: annual forb, perennial forb, warm-season grass, cool-season grass, annual grass, standing dead, Bouteloua gracilis/Bouteloua dactyloides, and Pascopyrum smithii.

Jackie lighting the fire tables.

Besides snipping and weighing grass, my supervisor, Jackie, also does research involving underground buds, typically grass buds. She studies the bud bank and how plants regenerate from belowground buds throughout their life histories but also after events like fires. Some of this research is done out of Colorado State University, and in the middle of the team’s fire treatment a burn ban was put into effect in Fort Collins. They drove 6 hours to Rapid City to burn the samples and I got to be involved with the use of fire tables!

Fire is super interesting to me. Experiencing the near-annual smoke season in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve heard about how the bigger, hotter fires of today are the result of forest mismanagement and practicing fire suppression. It feels weird to be preached at by Smokey Bear that only I can prevent forest fires when fires have been present in forests since time immemorial. I’ve also known that prairies also rely on fires to “refresh” the vegetation but I’ve never considered how it all works. It makes sense: perhaps fireweed responds to fire so well because its rhizomes are just deep enough to not crisp up in a fire and the burning of neighboring plants opens up aboveground space for its buds to shoot up and bloom.

A bud of Bouteloua gracilis. The feathery, white structure is the prophyll. Underneath the prophyll is the bud.

Jackie took Myesa and me down to Colorado State University in Fort Collins to teach us how to dissect and count the underground buds of some of the native prairie plants. It was a lot of tearing grass apart under a microscope, trying to determine if the bud was, in fact, a bud or if it has become a juvenile tiller. As far as I understand, the distinction is that a bud is completely underneath the prophyll (a sort of casing that protects it) whereas tillers extend past the prophyll. Even after spending a whole afternoon peering through the microscope, I still struggle when distinguishing the roots from the buds. 

Outside of work, I’ve done lots of playing. There’s some pretty good hikes here, and a few weekends ago I got up at 3 am to get a sunrise hike in, despite a thunderstorm that lit up the lawn outside as I sipped my coffee. The weather cleared up just in time for my friends and I to hike up Little Devil’s Tower to see the sun come up over Rapid City. I’ve also had two buddies visit me: my partner, Bryce, from Tacoma and my best bud, Joe, from Chicago.

The Black Hills have been an excellent place for me to get into outdoor rock climbing and it was exciting to share that experience with some visitors. The Black Hills granite will tear your fingers apart and rip your skin open without you noticing, but it is also super grippy and relatively easy to climb. The local climbing community is pretty small and tight, and there’s a huge amount of climbing which attracts people from all over to climb in the Hills.

When Joe visited, we toured one of the numerous caves out here. We went to Jewel Cave, which is named for the calcite dogtooth spar found within. Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave in the world, which is pretty neat. Southeast of Jewel Cave is Wind Cave National Park, and while I haven’t been inside Wind Cave itself, I have gone through the park several times to see the bison and prairie dogs.

A few weeks ago I helped do some point intercept line transects at Wind Cave. Point intercept line transects involve placing a pole, the “plunker”, down along a transect tape at regular intervals and recording which species are touching the plunker and at what heights they are touching it. This was fun because point intercept involves less species analysis than taking aerial cover of 1 meter x 0.5 meter quadrats, which is what most of my summer’s prior data collection has been. Plus, most of the transects were through bare prairie dog towns so there wasn’t any data to record.

Soon enough, I’ll be back out on Buffalo Gap National Grassland, trimming the prairie by hand once again. 

The bison at Wind Cave National Park.

The Prairie is Full of Grass: Poaceae is Difficult Sometimes.

June began with a package from my mom containing my forgotten raingear, which I needed for a few chilly, wet days. A bit of drizzle isn’t anything new to me, but the storms sure are. Two times now I’ve gotten caught in a car while a storm above drops hail the size of grapes, which pounds so loudly on the metal roof that you have to shout to be heard. Once the hail subsides, one can be sure to find dimples on the car body and the offending hunks of hail slowly melting in the ditch, inert.

Our site by Badlands National Park. To the right of the truck is the cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides) that is the singular source of shade at this site.

While the storms aren’t going to go away, the rain is no longer cold and it’s quite hot now. A few weeks ago it reached 102 degrees. We lunched under the shade of a singular, shrimpy cottonwood tree and the breeze still felt like it was gusting from an oven.

A week of June was also spent in Bill, Wyoming. Bill is an unincorporated township of about 10 people. Myesa and I were there helping the seasonal crew with a sagebrush fire study on Thunder Basin National Grassland, where we helped record aerial cover and stem counts. The craziest weather experienced there was just the wind: on Tuesday, everybody toppled over at least once. My knees hurt from bracing myself against the wind all day.

My time in Wyoming got me thinking about how much of ecological science is carried on the backs of young people. Sure, there are all the scientists and professors who publish the papers and design the experiments, but behind nearly each research project is a crew of several seasonals blundering through tall grass while trying to preserve the structural integrity of the data sheets and not-quite-rugged-enough plant field guide. The crew I worked with in Wyoming consisted of undergrads and recent college graduates, most of whom seemed to fall into the job because of a general interest in ecology and a stronger interest in employment, but not necessarily plants.

One of the plots on Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming. This grassland has much more sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) than Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota.

It seems like an almost obvious labor solution to hire only young people: our bodies aren’t broken yet and we don’t always know that it is wrong to cut your 30-minute lunch in half in order to get the job done, while earning $15/hour. It’s a shame that most scientific projects don’t receive the funding to thoroughly train seasonal workers who will have moved on by fall. I wonder about the robustness of some studies where plant identification is important. I have a couple years of experience with staring closely at plants and identifying them but if somebody has never really noted and wondered about the differences between, say, a maple leaf and an oak leaf… how many mistakes could they make, out here on the prairie, trying to determine the differences between these very similar grasses?

Don’t get me wrong, I love plants and I am thoroughly enjoying my internship but if I had to describe my ideal summer gig, I wouldn’t exactly be waxing poetic about the joys of straining my eyes and lower back to peer at grass ligules, determining if the plant at hand is Bouteloua dactyloides or Bouteloua gracilis and then counting each individual stem of grass. I can’t imagine doing this job without having a semblance of passion for the plants. Plant identification mistakes are too easy to make and can have a huge impact on the data.

There is a grass out here called Pascopyrum smithii, which is easily identified by its clasping purple auricles, strong venation, and sandpapery texture. However, there have been several instances while counting stems where I identify a grass and its auricles as P. smithii only to glance at the inflorescence and realize that I’m wrong, it’s Bouteloua curtipendula. 

But of course, even if you have years of experience there are times where it is not enough. There are an infinite amount of perspectives that one can know plants from: from ornamental varieties to houseplants to vegetable gardens to native plants from one specific ecoregion, from agriculture to ethnobotany to taxonomy to functional traits to forest management to herbicide application.

A few summers ago I worked a plant survey job throughout Washington and Oregon when my partner and I came across a wondrously tall plant in town with large purple inflorescences.

“What could this beauty be?” we exclaimed in awe. “It’s so mighty and large! It looks sort of like a lilac, but it’s not the right time of year for lilacs to be blooming.”

We left the behemoth behind, un-keyed because it was not at a target site. Two years later, as I found myself cutting down and digging out and injecting poisons into invasive plants, I learned about Buddleja davidii. It’s also called butterfly bush, and it’s a beautiful ornamental plant from Asia, a plant people put in their gardens because it’s pretty and “feeds butterflies”. A plant that can produce up to 40,000 seeds per inflorescence and is very capable of pushing native plants out of their habitat.

The more I learn and do, the more I find myself feeling as if there is too much to know. The plant world is overwhelming and never ending, and perhaps no amount of training can ensure 100% accuracy, but at least I can rest assured that I will never cease to have the opportunity to learn more. At least Poaceae is less intimidating of a family than it was two months ago.

Escobaria vivipara

Aphyllon fasciculatum
(clustered broomrape) parasitizing the Artemisia frigida (fringed sagebrush) in the background
Lewisia redviva

Wide Open Spaces: the grasslands of South Dakota

    After arriving in Rapid City, South Dakota, I promptly tested positive for COVID. This meant I spent the first two weeks quarantining alone and working from home. Home here is a little house in the hills surrounded by ponderosa pines, white-tailed deer, and the occasional turkey. But this last week I was finally able to go into the office and out into the field. And what a field it is!

Three white-tailed deer in a lawn surrounded by ponderosa pines look towards the camera.
These white-tailed deer that graze the lawn were some of my only company as I quarantined. Unfortunately, they’d bolt at any sudden noise or movement.

    Coming from the thickly forested west side of Washington state, the wide open spaces of the Midwest are something to get used to. There’s seemingly just grass for miles, with maybe a scrappy-looking cottonwood or two sprinkled in every now and then, almost as an afterthought. It makes me feel prone and nearly agoraphobic, causing me to empathize with rabbits and other critters that get spotted and scooped away by birds of prey.

    My first day out in the expansive fields of Buffalo Gap National Grassland was spent working on our plot for BromeCast. Bromus tectorum, also known as downy brome or cheatgrass, is an invasive species that outcompetes the native grasses on rangelands. Oftentimes the cows will graze the grass down, but if it is missed, B. tectorum dries out and becomes fuel for wildfires. The BromeCast project aims to predict the invasion of B. tectorum in order to better control the spread.

Our BromeCast site. B. tectorum seeds have been planted along the transect tape.
Myesa looking for the planted B. tectorum along the transect.

    In the fall, my mentor, Jacqueline Ott, planted B. tectorum seeds attached to toothpicks (for locating the plants later) along transects with bare and control conditions. Our job now is to record the amount of seeds that successfully germinated and were still alive and the surrounding plant composition. Unfortunately, the number of survivors was very low– we hypothesized that this could be because the toothpicks planted the cheatgrass seeds deeper than normal. It is an interesting feeling to be frustrated by an invasive species’ apparent lack of fecundity.

   Although the vastness of the grasslands is new to me, a lot of the plants are familiar. The ponderosa pine forest system exists in eastern Washington and I was surprised that pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea), which is a flower I got tattooed with some other people in memory of an excellent field summer in Washington, is actually much more common out in South Dakota than there!

    My coworker, Myesa, is also the type of person who stops at every new flower and can take an hour to hike half a mile. We went on a little day trip to Wyoming to check out Devil’s Tower and saw lots of neat plants.

Balsamhoriza sagittata,
Arrowleaf balsamroot

Castilleja sessiflora,
Downy paintbrush
Escobaria missouriensis,
Missouri Foxtail Cactus
Viola pedatifida,
Prairie violet

    Coming to a fresh ecoregion is exciting because it tests my plant identification skills: some plants I recognize as old friends, like Balsamhoriza sagittata; others I can identify the genus but the species itself is a stranger, as was the case with Castilleja sessiflora. And even further up the taxonomic tree, I am encountering families that are new to me: unpictured, but Myesa showed me some vegetative Apocynum androsaemifolium of Apocynaceae.

    I’ve only been out and about for one week now and I’ve already seen so many new things. I’m excited for the summer and what it holds.

The inimitable Devil’s Tower, also called Bear Lodge.