contemplating the future of america’s youth….

Recently, Alex and I spent a week teaching fourth graders about botany. We experienced a variety of responses from said fourth graders, including excitement about the prospect of playing games, endless questions about seed formation, and even the occasional mid-lesson nap. The one question that has stuck with me past our week of serving as teachers came from a student on our last day. In the middle of hearing about leaf arrangements and divisions, he stuck his hand up and asked: “Why do we need to learn about plants?”

This question may have been typical fourth grade sass coming from a kid who would rather have been on his school sanctioned tablet than walking around on a beautiful September morning. But long after the school groups had left for the day, I found myself still wondering about the answer. Why do we need to learn about plants? These students are growing up in a world that spends most of its time inside, looking at a screen. Why should they value learning about leaf arrangement or how pollination works?

While thinking about these questions (and, admittedly, procrastinating writing this blog post) I fell down a rabbit hole of research on topics like plant blindness, botanical education, and the status of nature connectedness in kids today. I found countless studies attesting to the growing lack of knowledge about native plants- students of all ages are unable to identify native plants or even accurately describe what plants need to grow. One study showed that of a thousand kids (aged five to sixteen), 82% failed to recognize an oak leaf. Even more studies attested to the fact that kids are spending less time outside than ever before (worth noting here that race and income both have disparate effects on availability of green spaces) The disconnect between kids all over the world and their environment can feel startling at times.

But back to the question at hand- why does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t. At least, maybe it doesn’t matter if someone can tell you the name of a plant, or what kind of inflorescence it hosts. In the same way that I really don’t want to understand how wifi actually works, maybe it’s okay for that kid to not want to understand how trees store carbon. What does matter, however, is that we don’t lose our connection with our local environment. At the end of the day, conservation is motivated more by emotional connection than anything else. Equitable availability of environmental programming nurtures a mindset of ecological awareness and conservation with impacts far beyond plant identification. When we understand our environment, and our place within it, we can better communicate the needs of our local ecosystems and help combat environmental issues on a small scale. As we face loss of biodiversity from climate change and habitat loss, the effort we put into conservation will have to be greater than ever, and so our connection with nature and motivation to work towards preservation will have to be greater than ever. No pressure, right!

As I face the final day of this internship and consider the future of my career, I’m left wondering how much of an impact one person can make on the conservation of our environmental systems. On one hand, it feels daunting (there are so many problems everywhere all the time!). On the other hand, I spent all day yesterday reseeding disturbed areas on the Caribou-Targhee- those areas are now less susceptible to the spread of invasive plants and will better support native pollinators and be more resilient to climate change. Because of the efforts of Alex and I this summer, there will be a greater stock of native plant material available, helping maintain the diversity of native forbs on public lands in Southeastern Idaho. It may not be stopping global climate change, but it feels like something to be proud of.

Anyway, to anyone who got through this final blog post, good luck with whatever comes next!


ps- if you’re interested in reading further about ecological knowledge/nature connection/environmental education, here are some good articles:

Catching butterflies is harder than it looks….

Cleome serrulata with a visitor!

The destination: Curlew National Grassland. The mission: Find a Monarch. The crew: your favorite CLM interns (plus a few guests).

Alex with the tallest sagebrush in the world (maybe?)

As soon as we parked our trucks in the Twin Springs campground on the Curlew, I knew we were in for a good day. Alex and I were joined by our mentor, Rose, one of the botany interns, Carson, and an archaeologist, Ashley. We were waiting to meet up with the rest of our group for the day (a collection of NRCS, rec, and range people) when we noticed an absolutely massive population of Ribes aureum. If you’re unfamiliar, Ribes aureum (or Golden Currant) is a delicious native shrub, and it was out in full force. We quickly decided that it was time for our first opportunistic collection, and within moments everyone had a paper bag in hand and was carefully picking berries off of every plant in sight. The abundance was awe inspiring after months of waiting for a seed collection to complete, and the morning snack was much appreciated. About a half hour into our collection, Derek from the NRCS Plant Materials Center in Aberdeen, ID, showed us how the pros do it- racket in hand with a custom built canvas collection bag. Within mere seconds, he had out collected all of us combined.

you would not believe how good these tasted (or how many I managed to pick in a day)

While the Ribes collection was a great start to the day, it was not our objective for the day. We were all assembled to participate in the Monarch Bioblitz, a community effort across North America to collect data on Monarch populations. We were heading to a few known sites of Asclepias speciosa in order to look for monarch eggs, caterpillars, and adults.

Within minutes at our first site, we had spotted an adult monarch. An extensive survey of the milkweed in the area revealed many more of the beautiful iridescent eggs. Monarchs have a few distinct look alike species, but luckily none of the species that have visually similar eggs had a range that extended as far north as Idaho. Below are a few of the most common look alike species for Monarchs. While the Queen’s and Soldier butterflies have very similar eggs and larvae, the range does not extend to where we were surveying- that made life easier! The Viceroy adults are very similar in appearance to Monarchs, which can cause confusion, but if you look carefully you can see a distinct horizontal line on the Viceroy wings that is missing on Monarchs. Monarchs will also have a much slower flight pattern (flap-flap-gliiiide) while Viceroy has a much faster and more erratic flight pattern. These key differences are very important to note during surveys!

Monarch Life Cycle

The bright colors of monarch caterpillars and butterflies indicates to predators that they are not a great choice of meal… Because Monarch caterpillars exclusively feed on milkweed, they are full of a toxin called cardiac glycoside, which stops the sodium pumps in the bodies of predators that aren’t adapted to the chemical. Because of this defense, many species have evolved to mimic the bright patterns of the Monarch, despite not being toxic themselves!

Queen Life Cycle
Soldier Life Cycle
Viceroy Life Cycle- Notice the similarities between the wing pattern on the Viceroy and the Monarch!

At our second site, we finally got to put our butterfly nets into action. For first time catchers, we quickly learned that capturing butterflies is a LOT harder than it sounds. After tromping through a creek and many pricker filled plants, Cheryl used her bug catching skills to capture our first adult male monarch and demonstrated her superior butterfly catching form. Although we didn’t plan on tagging the butterflies we surveyed that day, we did take the opportunity of this first male to learn how to properly place the tag.

By the time we reached our third site, we had already surveyed around thirty monarchs. This site once again blessed us with a population of Ribes, which provided us a much needed snack. Although some of us (okay, maybe just me) got a little carried away with the berry foraging and forgot to look for butterflies, we did find two monarch caterpillars.

Caterpillars are classified into five different instars based on their development. The stages can be a matter of days apart and are determined by visual cues like banding or presence of spots. The instar stage was a hot debate every time a caterpillar was spotted, until we remembered the handy monarch guides that we had which described in detail several key differences between each stage. Go us for preparedness!

Map Photo
2023 Monarch Map- check out the live version, updated from citizen science reports, here:

So- Mission accomplished! We had a very successful survey of various milkweed populations, and are expecting to see the monarchs flourishing when we go survey again in a few weeks. Because monarchs are an endangered species, understanding the health of our populations is of extreme importance across North America! p.s. if you made it this far, enjoy the demonstration on how not to catch a monarch 🙂

Who knew catching butterflies was a team sport?

If interested, there are a lot of great resources for monarch biology, habitat, and monitoring efforts at these sources:

Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper

Monarch Butterfly Conservation | Xerces Society

Learning from the Alpine

“What are they looking at? They’re botanists! They should be looking at the ground!”

View from Mt. Jefferson

The botanists in question were standing on the summit of Mt. Jefferson, where we would be conducting an alpine vegetation survey for the Idaho Peaks Project. We had already seen a great amount of diversity on the four mile approach to our survey site; we passed Phacelia sericea, a relative of one of our target species (Phacelia hastata), Frasera speciosa, and a thriving population of Erythronium grandiflorum, which Alex and I were very excited to see.

One forb stood out from the rest during our hike to the alpine zone: Castilleja puberula. This species of Indian paintbrush is not only beautiful, but it is a rare species endemic to alpine zones along the Continental Divide and had previously only been sighted in Colorado and Montana.

This plant is especially interesting because of its relationship with surrounding individuals. Plants in the Castilleja genus are root hemi-parasites, meaning that they obtain water and mineral nutrients from a host plant using a specialized root called a haustorium. This structure connects the Castilleja to its host like a kind of suction cup and produce digestive enzymes to siphon away essential nutrients and water from the host. This evolutionary strategy has proven very effective: research done on eleven different species has shown that plants growing parasitically reach greater heights, show greater branching, and flower earlier in the year than non-parasitizing plants of the same species. But the benefits of this parasitism is not restricted to the Castilleja alone. When Castilleja target the dominant plant in an area, reducing its fitness, it opens up an opportunity for more plant species to move in, increasing the biodiversity of the whole area. The relationship between Castilleja and its host plant impacts the whole ecosystem.

Who says botanists don’t live on the edge?

As we move higher in elevation and closer to the timberline, we meet another noteworthy plant: Pinus albicaulis, or Whitebark Pine. Like Castilleja puberula, Whitebark Pine is one half of a fascinating symbiotic relationship.

Unlike most conifers, Whitebark Pine has indehiscent cones, so even when the seeds are ripe, the cones do not open to disperse the seeds. Why would a tree evolve to its seed stuck in a cone, completely inaccessible for reproduction?

Clark’s Nutcracker is the answer to this ecological mystery. It uses its shark beak to break open the hard scales of the pinecones and stores up to 150 of Whitebark Pine’s nutrient dense seeds in a sublingual pouch. The birds will then create seed caches of three to five seeds, typically in disturbed or open areas like a recent burn, burying them a few inches deep in the soil. Each year, an individual Clark’s Nutcracker can cache up to 100,000 seeds and rely on their amazing memory for finding their caches again later in the year- they will return to approximately 60% of their seed banks! The caches that are not returned to, and that survive predation by groundhogs and other scavengers, will germinate and grow into saplings in the years following their being planted.

Clark’s Nutcracker sighting- spot the many Castilleja in the foreground!

Whitebark Pine populations rely on Clark’s Nutcrackers as the only animal to disperse their seed. As WBP faces increasing pressure from threats like blister rust and beetle infestation, their relationship with Clark’s Nutcracker is more important than ever. As a keystone species, they are crucial members of Idaho’s ecosystems, providing nutrition for countless species of wildlife as well as soil stabilization and runoff regulation. Conserving both species is essential for the protection of western ecosystems from irreversible changes.

Our journey up Mt. Jefferson gave us an invaluable look into the diverse and beautiful plant communities present in southeastern Idaho and the wildlife species that they rely on and serve. Working with several experienced botanists to complete an intensive botanical alpine survey and help fill gaps in our understanding of alpine plant communities and Idaho’s rare plants was an immensely rewarding opportunity and, although I didn’t think it was possible, I came out of the experience with an even greater love for the wildflowers we are working to conserve every day.


A Month of Adventure on the Caribou Targhee

While the extent of our work for seed collections has been mapping potential population areas and scouting around the Caribou-Targhee, my co-intern Alex and I have been lucky enough to help out on a number of different projects, as well as spending a lot of time getting to know the plant populations here in Southeast Idaho. While working with a variety of resources across the forest, we have learned about riparian restoration, soil surveying, field photography, burn restoration, environmental education, and horsemanship. Every day is filled with opportunities to meet new people on the forest and pick up new skills.

View from Snakey Canyon while learning about NRCS soil/vegetation surveys

One of my favorite projects we worked on had us in the field with the Palisades wildlife biologists doing goshawk surveys on various project areas in the forest. Goshawks are considered a sensitive species by the Forest Service, so any project that might alter the habitat needs to undergo monitoring to determine if there are any nesting individuals present in the area. After spending hours bushwhacking through the forest, surrounded by swarms of mosquitos, we were rewarded by seeing a male goshawk circling above us. When we returned to the area hours later, we once again spotted a male goshawk. Chris, the lead wildlife biologist, told us that this behavior likely indicates that there may have been a nest in the area. The next day, we went out to a different section of the forest to monitor a known nesting site of a female goshawk. Goshawks may build several nests in a given area and can return to the same nest year after year, so they had known of a few potential nesting sites that this hawk may have returned to, and earlier this season the wildlife crew had found the nest that she chose for the season. Joe, the wildlife biologist we worked with that day, told us how this hawk’s mate had been killed last summer at a local ski resort and that they weren’t sure if there would be any signs of reproductive activity at the nest because goshawks sometimes mate for life. After arriving to the nest site and settling down into the undergrowth to watch the nest, we noticed her eyeing us (I can say with certainty that I now understand the expression “watching like a hawk”). Goshawks are notoriously defensive of their nests, and I had heard from several coworkers that we should be on the lookout for divebombing birds- some even suggested sitting with a large stick on top of our heads to give the hawks something other than our scalps to aim for! Luckily, this female opted to keep a sharp eye on our group. After sitting in captivated silence for a while, we noticed motion underneath the female, and spotted the fuzzy white bodies of at least two chicks in the nest. Going out with the wildlife biologists was a really cool experience as it gave me a chance to understand a bit more about all the steps a project needs to go through before action can happen on the forest. Even though a management plan may be as simple as removing fuels from the forest floor, it can have serious unintended impacts on the sensitive species in the area and ultimately damage the ecology of the forest.

Female goshawk in her nest

Another highlight of my time on the CT was helping out with a botany walk that my mentor set up for a group called Great Old Broads for Wilderness. During this botany walk, I got the chance to show off what I have been learning for the past month and help teach a group about plant identification and some of the native species present in the Teton Valley. The ladies that attended the walk were very enthusiastic and asked a lot of great questions about the plants in the area and some of the disturbances they were seeing along our hike. We got to tell them about the work we are doing for our seed collections, and they were very curious about what the point of seed collection was, the process of finding and collecting seed for various plants, and what they could do to help our project. I have worked in environmental education and outreach in the past, so it was fun to get to work with the public and educate a group about the work we are doing, especially because this group was so excited about learning new plants and exploring the forest with us.

While the first month has been filled with a ton of great experiences, it hasn’t come without its challenges. The first weeks of waiting for the field season to kick into gear definitely left me feeling a bit useless around the office, especially with the various difficulties I had in my Forest Service onboarding process. We have also faced many technical issues with Fieldnotes, making it difficult to document the work that we do with surveying for our target species. This, combined with our late start to surveying work, made it feel like we weren’t doing enough work for our seed collection project. Hopefully, as we move later into the season, we will be more able to make progress towards our seed collection goals!

Alex at Fall Creek Falls after a day of surveying