About Tori Bauman

Me? I'm just a lowly collector of seeds, trying to get by here in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests of Montana, also know as "a land of extremes." My favorite part of the job is the identification of species. It's good fun AND strength building to carry a multitude of keys around the forest on the hunt for flowers and fruits. In the coming months, I hope to gain an understanding of the flora and fauna that can make a living in such a harsh environment.


Lately, there has been quite a lot of change happening around here… With the switch from summer to fall brings the end of the season for some. And with the end of the season upon us, the tasks we are able to accomplish begin to shift as well. What is most striking is how quickly Montana seasons change from one to the next. We’re now experiencing quite the winter wonderland here in the Little Belt Mountains, and I am greatly anticipating the few field days we may have left and what we’ll be able to accomplish in a foot or so of snow.

My counterpart, Dayna, has left for the season. She was a huge help with many of the end of season tasks, and did what she could to make the end of the seed season easy on me in my final weeks. I’ll be here about a month longer than her seeing as I started about a month late. Work without a co-seed collector has been strange! But overall, it has been exciting to have the opportunity to work more with the wildlife crew. One of their members wrapped up and headed home shortly after Dayna did so. As she finished her final day, and left the office, Madeline, the only other seasonal wildlife technician quietly declared, “And then there were two.”

Dayna left just in time. With the wildlife crew’s help, we were able to make our last collection of Monarda fistulosa, or beebalm on her last day. It was such a beautiful and sunny day. So sunny, in fact, that the vegetation wasn’t even wet from the recent rains. We considered ourselves lucky as we split into teams of two and went off in separate directions. We collected all along these massive meadows that had some encroachment from the surrounding Douglas fir forests. It made me consider how large and sweeping these pocket meadows must have been before the days of no grazing and of active fire regimes… Regardless of encroachment, we were able to find and collect lots of MOFI, which was our final known location where there was collectable seed. Perfect timing as we were expecting snow the following week.

As an added bonus that week, I was able to join my supervisor, Victor Murphy, and what was left of our seasonal crew for a tour of the local Superfund Sites. For those reading who are not familiar with this term, Superfund Sites, at least as I understand them in this neck of the woods, are areas of environmental concern due to past mining activities. The sites we toured are just a 30-or-so minute drive down a dirt road from the Ranger Station. These sites are a large part of the reason for our seed collection efforts in this area, so it was incredibly interesting to hear all the where, what, why, when, and how of these sites. Apparently these sites have been polluting the watersheds and the land where people recreate (camp, swim, play) for around 60 years!! Tragically, there was signage put up about the issue just this year as liability for who’s technically responsible is arguable and somewhat unclear. By the end of that day, I had greatly exceeded my capacity for receiving information, however, I am still very grateful for the opportunity to know more about why our work here in the Little Belts is so critical to the restoration of these landscapes.

Snow did arrive the next week, however, it did not come as quick as projected. So the following Monday morning, I was prepared to get a start on office work, however, Victor asked if I’d be interested in joining the wildlife crew on a lynx habitat survey! But of course I wanted to join, and I was so glad for the opportunity. It is interesting to experience the forest landscapes through the lens of land management and wildlife habitat. We toured around parts of the Castle Mountains which has previously been areas where timber had been harvested. The idea behind the surveys is to see if the forest has since recovered enough to be suitable habitat for lynx. Sadly, we did not find many stands that would classify as such, and even the little we did find that classifies is not helpful to a lynx who travel one to five miles a day and require dense forest and tall/thick understory to move through… Being afforded these different opportunities as the seed work comes to an end has been a really awesome part of my time here on the Helena Lewis and Clark.

After only a couple days of Lynx Habitat Surveying, the snow came. For a Californian such as myself, this change has been rather drastic. I’ve only heard of and seen on TV what snow storms and white winters look like, but the actual experience of it is a bit baffling! Especially in the fall! It came, a foot or so of snow, overnight. We woke up and got to shoveling the walkways to the Ranger Station. We bundled up in layers, only to remove them as we worked. The temperatures hardly climbed above freezing the rest of the week. To think people live here year after year in this snowy/icy landscape. As I made my way to town after the storm had subsided, I couldn’t help but think, “Who in their right mind would live here and among all this dramatic weather?!” As somewhat of an answer to my own question, I do think the stunning flora in the summer does make it quite worth it. And after all, there really aren’t so many people out here comparatively, which is another perk in itself if you have an aversion to people.

Despite the low temperatures, the sun has been high in a blue blue sky most of the day. It does little to melt the snow, but it does feel good on the skin. The plowed roads are beginning to clear up, and I am curious to see what tasks I’ll be put on to do for the end of the season. Even with all the changes of late, I am still thoroughly enjoying my time spent here working on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests.

Curbing A Sense of Burnout

At this point in the season, there is much to be done and so much to stay caught up on. Our main task here at the Belt Creek Ranger Station has been our seed collection efforts. I feel so very lucky to be able to focus wholly on these efforts as it makes me feel that much more productive at the end of a day. Carrying home many a bag filled with seed and high hopes. It seems that some other teams/individuals have been balancing a wide range of tasks throughout their time this internship. This, of course, provides its own perks as there are endless opportunities to learn within the various agencies. Whether it’s rare plant surveys, vegetation monitoring, planting for restoration, or even attending training, there are so many opportunities and things to learn!
While acknowledging this fact, I have also been incredibly content with the way things have gone at this position as far as the focus on the seed collection. I enjoy being able to focus whole-heartedly on the collection process. Having the freedom to collect any day of our work week is also incredible because it has allowed us to do our best to time collections well and I’d say we’ve been fairly successful as far as timing goes this season!
We’ve also been able to get into a bit of a groove with our collection process so we know who does what and when and how the whole process comes together to achieve the end goal. My co-seed collector and I have also been good about sharing tasks between each other, that way we are both accustomed to the entire seed collection process front to back. This is incredibly valuable for us because when it comes to future job opportunities, we will be able to confidently say to a future employer “Yes, I know how to ethically carry out the entire seed collection process, and yes, I can do so in a timely manner.”
While acknowledging the value in this, I have to admit that this part month, I hit a bit of a wall near the middle of the month. I’m not sure I can exactly pinpoint the reason, but I think it had something to do with the potential government shutdown, combined with the downturn in moods of those around me due to this potential, as well as the shift in weather with the changing seasons and the slowdown in seed collection changing our day-to-day activities.
Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors, but I think what weighed on me most heavily was the moods of those around me. I could tell that the federal seasonal employees were quite distressed at the unknown outcome of their positions into the future and seeing this in them was enough to sadden me. Not only this, but because I felt rather secure in my job as a contracted worker, I felt it would be insensitive to be my normal chirper self. I could feel in myself a lack of energy that was impacting my job performance and my confidence in my ability to do my job whole-heartedly.
In order to combat this, I tried to find a balance between positivity and checking in with my co-workers when I had the time and energy to do so. I also tried my best to focus on the aspects of my job that I really enjoy. The things I would miss if we shut down. I began to find that there are many things about this position that bring me joy!
1). Being at the mercy of the elements-sometimes treacherous but mostly exhilarating.
2). Getting to be outside most of the day and being able to use a government rig that can take you (almost) anywhere- Allows for some of the best views in the state!
3). Doing something that will have an impact for years/generations to come-having a defined purpose
4). Getting to spend time and become acquainted with plants all day!
5). The fascination of seeing new seeds-they are all so different.
6). The fact that I am physical for my job-so many people do not have this luxury and I do not want to take it for granted.
7). Working alongside passionate people!
8). Getting to watch the change in vegetation as the seasons shift.
9). ….

There are still more things I enjoy about this job, but I’m sure you get the point. Focusing on these aspects of the job instead of the potential for impending dooooom was an incredibly helpful strategy for curbing burnout during a tough time. It really helped me to frame my mind to focus on the things that make me happy. It sounds so simple, yet it can be so powerful to change your mind. So for anyone out there who was feeling a sense of dread these last few weeks, please know you were not alone! Hoping you were also able to find a strategy that worked for you to get out of any funk y’all may have been experiencing, and that you’re able to finish up your season on a good note. Looking forward to reading all about your last few weeks on the job.

Highly Variable Landscapes Wont Get Us Down

Thus far, August has been the most profitable month for seed collection. We are finding that most of our populations are nearly ready, already collectable, or past at this point in the season. This makes for two quite scattered seed collectors! It’s difficult to be in many places at once, and seemingly more difficult to make a decision about where is the most profitable place to spend our days. Of course, there is some rhyme and reason to it all; we consider the location of the population (elevation, moist/dry area, shaded or exposed), the timing of flowering/seeding of other populations in the area or other populations of the same species, and which populations to prioritize based on size/profitability as well as species we may have already collected enough populations. Despite knowing to consider all these different factors, it is still possible we may make the wrong call, simply as a result of the highly variable landscapes that exist in and among the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests.

We do not, however, let this get us down!

We are professionals in our field with the knowledge that each of us is doing the very best that we can to accomplish this incredibly important work we have been called to do. We work with the knowledge that there is no ‘one size fits all’ for this type of work, as there are many factors out of our control, especially as we make our way into fall and the rainy season.

In an effort to combat these highly variable factors and put our knowledge as native plant materials collectors to good use, we have called on some backup. Fortunately for us, the Wildlife crew that works out of the same office as us has had a bit of a lull in work between projects at the very moment that we are experiencing the height of our season. It has been awfully convenient to the point that I wonder if maybe it was planned this way by our very experienced boss. In reality, I think luck would just have it that way. Regardless, this recruitment of even just two (sometimes four) extra individuals really increases the flow and productivity of our work. Typically, my counterpart and I will split up and each take one to two extra individuals with us to separate locations/populations that are in need of collection. This allows us to cover more ground in a timely manner, taking advantage of ripe seed crops as they become available, because, well, they don’t typically wait!

This addition of extra help is wonderful because we can get more done in a day, however, this is just a small portion of the extent to which this supports our efforts. I also find this addition helpful because it requires us to explain to other very thoughtful and considerate people the ins and outs of collection. Not only does this reiterate the requirements and the procedure for me again, but teaching others about this process inevitably brings up questions or comments from those learning, and gives me another perspective with which to look at the collection scenario at-hand. This is especially helpful when working with our crews here at the Belt Creek Ranger Station because each of them are incredibly attentive and committed to providing their services to the best of their abilities. They are advocates for the forest and its many inhabitants and care deeply for their vigorous persistence into the future. Truly inspiring and thought- provoking individuals alongside whom I am so very delighted to work.

The Penstemon Predicament

Since last month, things have been moving along quite well, and quite as expected. We’ve started a handful of collections, and we’ve been keeping a close eye on scouted populations as we continue to keep eyes out for any new populations that may be coming up as summer hits us full force. As with any new job, there is a lot of information to take in and a lot of discrepancies in the small details as compared to other places. These small differences are easy to become acquainted with once you’ve become acquainted with them, and especially when you have kind and patient coworkers to help you along.
The same can be said for the plants. They are similar everywhere you go. You can see in most of them some familial resemblance that ques you into their relation. You remember the general trends and fashions of things, but it is the tiny details that can trip you up. Each key has different breaks that can cause trouble for us botanists. Of course each plant presents it’s own set of genetics that may or may not allow it to hybridize within its community and so on and so forth. The troubles you can run into are endless and all part of the “art” and the FUN of keying as many botanists, including myself, would tell you.
It turns out that much like becoming acquainted with coworkers, one can quite quickly become acquainted with the surrounding plant life. Running through the key each time we see someone on our list is incredibly fun. What is even more entertaining, and confidence-boosting is being so familiar with these individuals that we know which features to look for which set them apart from others. This also allows us to be more efficient with our time spent in the field, if we can pinpoint those key features. Many plants on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests so far have been kind “coworkers,” if you will. Geum triflorum has three pronged leaves that make it obviously “triflorum.” Green gentian has green flowers as opposed to the white flowers of the other Frasera in our area. And Geranium viscossissimum is quite sticky and the only pink-flowered perennial geranium around, and G. richardsonii is the only white-flowered perennial geranium, so those are both simple enough to get to know.

I cannot say the same for Penstemon albertinus. Penstemon albertinus is like that person in the office who is incredibly shy and reserved, yet you know they’re REALLY cool, so you invite them to every party, but they are always busy doing other things and so you never get the chance to actually know them. Oh, and they have a twin named Penstemon attenuatus who often shows up to your parties, but you think upon first seeing them that maybe, just this once, it could be albertinus. The anthers are glaborus, the verticillasters are open. You note the acute tips on the stem leaves and hope it’s just a morphological difference. But as you get closer, you find the basal leaves to be quite thinner than Albert’s and you know you’ve again been fooled by Attenuatus.
When this occurs over and over, it can be quite frustrating, and makes you question your abilities as a budding botanist. In this case, we asked the botany techs based out of Helena. They so kindly invited us out for a couple days together in the field so they could share some of their experience and knowledge from four years on the forest. During this time, we did spend some time with Penstemon. Both Dayna and I were relieved to find that we are not the only ones Penstemon rejects. In fact, Nate mentioned there are many conversations had over the exact differences between the two species, and even with his four years of experience in the area, he still has to return to the details each year to refamiliarize himself with the need-to-knows. So we’ve begun to accept that we may just never be on very good terms with Albertinus. We may just have to take a key to this particular individual each and every time we meet in order to truly ensure we’re accurately identifying. Which is great practice and it makes you appreciate the more “firiendly” and straightforward plants all that much more, and forces you to really hone in on those botancial skills and instincts. I’m looking forward to finding more challenging individuals throughout the season, and hope to learn a lot from them!

A Land of Extremes Indeed

Well. This week, my first, went about as well as I had hoped it would. Despite the majority of the week being set in necessary trainings, I had a wonderful time getting to know my fellow co-workers. One thing I really enjoy about field work is its attraction of transient folks coming from all different kinds of places. Through the lens and experiences of others, I feel like I am traveling from each story I hear. Towards the end of the week, I was able to find time between all the trainings for a field day with my co-intern here in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests. She has been here for approximately a month longer than I, which means she is an excellent guide and resource to me as I get started here. I am incredibly grateful for this fact and for her patience with me and my various questions. I am curious about the plants (of course!), the landscape, office ins-and-outs, potential populations to collect from, her personal experience so far, habitat typing and how it relates to seeds, and many more questions surely to come.

As we make our way from the bunkhouse towards Monarch, MT and down and around various Forest Service roads, we get to know each other through light conversation. We make our way through Douglas Fir forests, Lodgepole pine forests, before the forests open up to a beautiful and lush meadow. Here, we note Geranium viscossissimum, or Sticky geranium, which is fully in flower. It has a beautiful pink-magenta colored flowers, and because it is a perennial species, it seems to stick out just slightly above its surrounding counterparts. It’s a wonderful addition to the landscape and I am happy to be on the lookout for it.

Suddenly my co-intern is stopping and safely pulling to the side of the road. She’s spotted a rocky outcrop that could house another one of our target species: Phacelia hastata. She hops out, dutifully dons her Forest Service issued radio and bear spray before making her way to the outcrop, a procedure with which I will have to quickly become acquainted. “It’s here!,” she shouts to me as a scramble up the slight rocky slope to join her. The silverleaf scorpion weed. What a beauty. It’s low-growing and on an otherwise mostly barren hillside aside from some distant roses. It’s hard to believe that this rocky, seemingly nutrient-deficient place is where anything would choose to grow. Then again, I guess a seed doesn’t have too much choice in where it is grown.

We make our way through this long meadow and again through some forested areas. The habitat seems to change every few miles as we ascend and descend, loop around and back down, etc. Suddenly, we are bumbling up and along a narrow, steep and rocky road that made me forget to look around completely! As the road widens and flattens out, I am drawn again to my surroundings and find the trees up here on the hilltop are much smaller and more sparse…Ponderosa pines. Wildflowers here are abundant and my co-intern again is very helpful in pointing out new ground-dwelling friends, along with some features of each that set them apart from look-alikes. We are on the hunt for a specific set of 40 or so wildflower friends from whom we will hopefully be able to harvest their babies in the coming months… Kind of weird when you put in that way.

We continue down down down, then up and up and up until we come to a the top of a peak. Something pink flashes from the corner of my eye and triggers a memory of Pedicularis, commonly known as lousewort or Elephant’s head because of the shape of it’s flowers. It’s a gorgeous and striking little plant and I seemed to remember, from the brief look I’d had at our list, that there was one on it. I ask to stop, and we both get out to take a look. The guide to Montana vascular plants comes out. Not our guy; however, with the sun shining up above, the gorgeous view in all directions, and it being just after noon, it was a perfect time to stop for lunch. Another perk of the job.

After lunch we switched drivers and made our way around a large loop of mostly Forest Service land to continue scouting populations. As we made our way, one common theme repeated throughout the journey from peaks to rivers to meadows to dense forest: this area, the Little Belt Mountains, a small section of the Rockies, is as Victor, our mentor here at the Forest Service, put it, “a land of extremes.” It is evident from the drastic and sudden changes in vegetation, from the blown out tops of thick-trunked trees, the varying waterlines in creek and from the way seeds are willing to germinate in even the most destitute of places. Not only this, but if the weather I’ve experienced here in the Little Belts thus far in this the least extreme part of summer, is any indication of what might be imminent in the more harsh parts of summer and winter, I would say the plant life here must be prepared for all varieties of weather, and for changes at the drop of a hat. This is all a convoluted way of saying this is a land of extremes, indeed, and my interest is thoroughly peaked.

More next month!