Adventures of Sage-Grouse Habitat Monitoring

The beginning of my internship in Cedar City, UT with the BLM entailed monitoring greater sage-grouse habitat. These birds are not listed as endangered by the IUCN, but populations have declined due to loss of habitat.

OUR MISSION: Habitat Assessment … and saving the world

Crossing a creek with some field equipment to get to one of our sites

Crossing a creek with some field equipment to get to one of our sites

We took our truck (a very large, white, Silverado named “The Queen Mary” due to its boat like ride) into the field. The adventures began here. My fellow intern, Nelson, and I did not have much experience operating large trucks or 4WD prior to this summer, but we made it in and out of every situation relatively unscathed. We became accustom to 4WD and asking for someone to spot us as we traversed a dry wash or nine, some days. A wet meadow may have caused mud to be thrown onto the truck’s roof, sides and passengers (the windows were down) one time. In the end, Nelson and I have not damaged The Queen, and we have not been stuck -I intend to keep it that way too.

A sample of the pictures taken at each site. Please also note Nelson's aweseome field worker tan line.

A sample of the pictures taken at each site. Please also note Nelson's aweseome field worker tan line.

After we parked The Queen as close to the sage grouse site as possible (which varied from 50 feet to 2 miles up hill, both ways), we would equip ourselves with the necessary field gadgets and navigate to the site using our Trimble (named Hank, after Henry the Navigator). Upon arrival, we set up a vegetation transect. Constructing the transect consisted of hammering two pieces of rebar into the desert ground and stretching a measuring tape between the rebar posts. Sounds straight forward and painless, but I usually hit four to eight rocks before finding ground that would support the post. Stretching the tape measurer, piece of cake right? Now always, some sites were comprised of dense sagebrush, bitterbrush and our thorned Rosaceae friends. Pictures and a GPS point were taken at each site. Then we began to assess

Measuring the height of the sagebrush while Nelson records the data.

Measuring the height of the sagebrush while Nelson records the data.

the sage-grouse habitat using line-intercept and vegetation height, which measure important factors such as vegetation percent cover and percent composition. These monitoring techniques allowed us to determine if the site was suitable sage-grouse habitat and if not what was needed to improve its habitat quality. Sage-grouse need some cover in order to nest and avoid predators, but too much cover is not optimal. Also the type and abundance of forbs was taken into consideration when assessing a site because forbs attract insects, which sage-grouse feed on.

The next step in the assessment was a pellet count. A pellet count is a fancy term for counting poop. Yes, I said it-poop. We got paid to count poop or scat if you prefer. We scanned a 50 foot radius around the southern positioned rebar pole. As we scanned the circle, we yelled out the number of pellet piles we found while another person recorded it. This usually resulted in dialog such as “eight rabbit, five cow, one canine”. Occasionally, we were able to shout “two sage-grouse”! I never thought I would be so excited to find sage-grouse pellets. When I did make this remarkable discovery, I honestly felt like I had just come across a hidden treasure I had been searching weeks for. We even found over 40 pellet piles at one site, an obvious sign of sage-grouse presence. Finally, we packed up our belonging and data sheets, hiked back to the truck and moved to the next site. We visited 60 sites in the course of a month and half. These sites were chosen by our mentor and all were within 3 miles of a lek. I loved monitoring sage-grouse habitat and it is rewarding to know that the data we collect will aid in future land management decisions.

Measuring the very tall sagebrush. An example of a site that causes some work when extending the measuring tape from one post to the next.

Measuring the very tall sagebrush. An example of a site that causes some work when extending the measuring tape from one post to the next.

Overall, my experience in the west has been nothing short of absolutely amazing. I have learned more than I ever thought I would about wildlife surveys, western vegetation, government policy and the BLM’s mission, “multiple use”. Besides learning things that will definitely be applicable to my career, I have met some wonderful people here in Cedar City. Nelson and I have worked over 570 hours together this summer and during those hours he has shared an ample amount of information with me. He has educated me about topics such as bacteria growth, video games and now he has me seriously questioning time travel. I know the next month of my internship will fly by and I plan on enjoying every moment of it.

Aspen in the Fall

Aspen in the Fall

Michelle Downey, BLM, Cedar City, UT

P.S. Check out the Aspen Fall colors. Being from Connecticut and all I was worried I would miss leaves changing, but I feel content now.

Fungi Encounters in the Pacific Northwest

Trillium sp.

Trillium sp.

It has been a little over a year now since I started interning in this stunning NW corner of Oregon. On any given day I find myself harvesting native seeds at a BLM seed orchard, attending meetings to coordinate the restoration of a decommissioned dam site, searching mistletoe for butterfly larvae, or adding data to a never-ending pile of spreadsheets. I’ve been fortunate enough to get two extended internships, within 60 miles of each other, which complement each other incredibly well. The first was based out of the BLM’s field office in Salem, and the majority of my work there focused on riparian restoration and native plant materials projects. I traipsed around the Willamette Valley looking for blue elderberry, cascara and nine-bark seeds one day and participated in a design charette for a new recreation day-use facility the next.

Hard at Work: Johnson's Hairstreak Surveys

Hard at Work: Johnson's Hairstreak Surveys

Now that I’m in the Portland, OR, office, I work with the Forest Service on an interagency team of rare and threatened species specialists. My daily environment still varies wildly, from my lavender-hued cubicle in the heart of downtown Portland to moss-laden conifer forests and wind-whipped coastlines. Some of my favorite projects were surveying for endangered tiger beetles and Johnson’s hairstreak butterflies, the latter of which I got to do with a fellow CLM intern, Camille Duncan.

Over the last few months I have been working with crews to conduct surveys for a rare polypore fungus, Bridgeoporus nobilissimus. These fungi are associated with true firs, which grow at higher altitudes. The fruiting bodies can be quite large (some up to 5 feet across!) but they are often very inconspicuous, hidden under litter and duff at the base of the trees, and don’t seem to fruit very often. This brings up questions as to how rare the species truly is. Could it be that people often overlook it? Or is it much more prevalent in an ecosystem, but not in fruiting form? To tackle these questions, we designed a protocol to set up random sampling plots around known occurrences and take tree core samples of a variable number of true firs within these plots. The core samples are then sent out to a contractor and tested for B. nobilissimus DNA. The results of this will let us know how to survey for the species in the future, and how to manage our forests for it. Hopefully we can also glean more information about the range of this species, and better insight into its life history.

Our final survey of the season is tomorrow, and then I’ll be tying everything up in the next few weeks before I head off on new adventures. I’ll join the chorus and say that this job has been incredibly rewarding and inspiring. Everyone I have worked with has imparted some little note of wisdom or a new perspective, and my field work has reinforced a personal desire to always work with our wild areas and do what I can to protect them. Next step: grad school!

Candace Fallon, Forest Service Regional Office & BLM State Office, Portland, OR

Slow burn

I'm giving a ridiculous thumb up because my heart swells at the sight of deciduous trees.

I'm giving a ridiculous thumb up because my heart swells at the sight of deciduous trees.

The Cedar City Field Office handles 2.2 million acres of land.  Although much of that is desert, we have a few areas with real, proper trees — none of this juniper nonsense.  The problem is that these trees are often ailing on account of changes in burn patterns, usually less frequent burns than the region historically saw.  Unsurprisingly, human beings are largely responsible for the changes through fire suppression. You can hardly blame their logic though; fear of being burned to death isn’t entirely unreasonable.

The resulting shifts in vegetation are noticeable, however.  Our stands, groves, and the occasional forest tend to be too dense for their own good and the ground is choked with decades of debris just waiting to burn all too eagerly.  Not only that, but the lack of fire has permitted the spread of the dreaded Juniperus osteosperma into lands where we don’t think it belongs. Our office has a fuels management team which is responsible for try to clear up this whole mess and for which we sometimes survey.

The favored method of control isn’t to go and carefully remove by hand all the downed trees and flammable debris from the ground. Budget and manpower issues aside, no one really wants to do that. Instead the BLM tends to burn things which, to be honest, sounds like way more fun anyway. A controlled burn, unlike a presentation in a 100-level college class, is not something that you can just wing; our office recently executed a burn that had been 10 years in the making.

Up in the mountains where we inventoried sage-grouse breeding habitat, there are a few aspen stands. They’re struggling thanks to over-grazing by cows and wildlife and are being choked by an explosion of juniper. The aspen are growing in the middle of sagebrush which is itself threatened by the same juniper. Our office’s proposed solution is to burn around the groves and clear out the non-aspen by hand within the groves. We hope that the sagebrush will rebound quickly and that exclosures around the aspen should keep the saplings from falling prey to the ravages of elk and cows. The one catch is that we’ve seen plenty of sage-grouse in the aspen and surrounding sage which means that the burn will need to be very carefully controlled and timed to avoid driving off or outright killing them.

Michelle slipped on the loose groundcover while doggedly searching for a raptor nest.

Michelle slipped on the loose groundcover while doggedly searching for a raptor nest.

We’ve also been searching for Accipter gentilis, the northern goshawk in areas with struggling ponderosa which could benefit from a proper fire. Raptors are protected under federal law and so we get to make sure that any potential burns don’t interfere with nesting and breeding. When pressed to explain our methodology, I usually resort to Gwen Stefani: we’re wandering around with a boom box looking for ‘holla back girls’. In a show of inter-agency cooperation, the Forest Service has lent us a ‘kek box’ which can blast several different goshawk calls (including their characteristic ‘keks’) that the birds will normally respond to. Our job has been to hike slopes so steep and treacherous that we fear for our extremities — a fellow seasonal broke her ankle trying to fight through unreasonably thick curl-leaf mountain mahogany — while playing back the calls and listening/looking for responses. We’ve only found one pair and they had a seriously ramshackle nest on a tiny scrap of private land which means that burns will likely be approved.

With any luck, we’ll be able to sort some of these problems out. Humans broke the system and now we’re responsible for keeping it running and eventually repairing it. I’m still hopeful.

Nelson Stauffer, BLM Cedar City Field Office, Utah

“Up to the Land of the Midnight Sun…”

Rafting the Copper River and searching for invasives at campsites along the way

Rafting the Copper River and keeping an eye out for invasive plants and amazing sights along the way.

For the past 3 months, my CLM internship has placed me in Alaska, specifically Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, our largest national park and a land of superlatives within this gigantic land.  As a member of the Exotic Plants Management Team (EPMT) for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, it has been my duty, along with the 4 other EPMT workers in the park, to identify, prioritize and weed populations of invasive plants throughout this 13.2 million acre park (about 2.6 million acres per person!).  Luckily, Alaska is somewhat ahead of the invasive species curve, compared to the majority of places in the lower 48, and the immensity of this park lends a few perks to my job.  For example, it is unreasonable to survey large swaths of the park from headquarters on foot, so this summer I have had the opportunity to tag along on a 5 day raft trip, multiple day hiking trips, and multiple flights into the backcountry, all while inventorying for invasive plant species and learning the native plants and animals throughout this park’s many ecosystems.  When we find a population of invasive plants, we use Trimble GPS units to take GPS coordinates, describe the population, and, when manpower allows, weed it.  The most common invasive plants encountered this summer have been oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), narrowleaf hawksbeard (Crepis tectorum), white sweetclover (Melilotus alba), lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum), and the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).  Not all of these species are actively weeded by the park’s EMPT program, particularly the common dandelion, but it is still important to monitor all invasive species populations to determine their potential to negatively affect these nearly pristine Alaskan ecosystems.

inventory for invasives

Inventorying for invasive plants on the Jumbo Mine Trail among the blooming fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)

The immensity of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park makes it inaccessible to most visitors, and because invasive species usually arrive in new areas with the help of humans, we have focused on inventorying and weeding more highly visited areas, including backcountry destinations, airplane landing strips, campsites, trails into the park, and town centers.  Wrangell-St. Elias National Park differs from many other parks in the US because there are private inholders within the park.  In fact, there’s an entire town located in the center of the park—McCarthy, Alaska—which is where I have been stationed this summer.  Before arriving, I was told that the ‘nearest’ grocery store to McCarthy is a 7-8 hour drive away, comparable to the drive from my home in Ohio to Chicago—and just for some groceries!  The reality has been a bit easier (a general store in town does stock a limited and expensive selection of food), but the people of McCarthy definitely live a different way of life from the majority of Americans.  For the past three and a half months I have lived in McCarthy and traveled around the park, but during the remaining month and a half of my internship, I will be stationed at Copper Center, on the western edge of the park, since McCarthy is shutting down now that tourist season is over.


Porphry mountain in fall, bordering McCarthy

Thus, my internship has challenged me not only in learning the plants, animals and processes of new ecosystems (boreal forest, alpine tundra, glaciers, and temperate rainforest!), hiking for days to inventory invasive species populations, and honing my GPS/GIS and report writing skills, but it has also challenged my way of life.  In McCarthy, many people live out life from a different time: when homes were heated by wood stove, water was hauled from nearby creeks, and people lived off the land.  Cell phones and television hardly exist here, internet is slower than dialup, and mail comes only twice a week.  Yet it has been extremely rewarding to see this way of life, experience some of it, learn about these Alaskan ecosystems, and realize that real wilderness still does exist in this world, an exciting thought for someone who grew up in the Midwest.

Overlooking the Root Glacier moraine

Kennecott, an abandoned mining town four miles from McCarthy, overlooking the Root Glacier moraine and bordering mountains

-Joe Donohue, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

The (actually very) exciting world of data reorganization

One of the best things about having a GIS-based internship is that it’s such a widely used program nowadays that I’ve been at least minimally exposed to what every department does here in the BLM Rock Springs Field Office. Officially I’m here to work on updating and restructuring the GIS database, which I often liken to cleaning out and elderly relative’s attic: there’s tons of stuff, you’re often not quite sure what it is, and you’re constantly uncovering fascinating tidbits of information. There’s no such thing as a “typical” day in this process–the majority of my time is spent asking questions, rearranging and renaming data, hunting down layers from other agencies, and updating, editing, and creating new data where we have gaps. So far I would say the take home message for me has been to always write metadata (records of what information is, who made it, when, how, etc.) for any GIS data I produce in the future. Here’s a great website if you want to know why it’s just about the greatest invention since sliced bread:

A few days a week I get to go out into the field to get my hands dirty, literally:


This was on a (very sappy) White Bark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) pine cone collecting trip with Victor Biasotti–a former two-time CLM intern for the Seeds of Success program who’s currently working directly for the BLM.

Using a GPS in the Adobtown Wilderness Study Area on a field trip with the Minerals and Lands Department:Tetons,_White_Mtn,_Adobetown_022

Discovering Wild Blue Rye (Elymus glaucus) on a scouting expedition in the Bridger National Forest:



Unfortunately the seeds weren’t ripe and we got frosted on, but the scenery was spectacular on the 8-mile hike in—we saw two moose, sand hill cranes, Clark’s Nutcrackers, and at 9,200 feet above sea level, breath-taking views, especially at our campsite (below):


This internship has been an amazing experience to date and I look forward to seeing what adventures my last month and a half has in store!

Aiko Weverka, BLM, Rock Springs, WY