I arrived in Southern California with my life condensed down to a couple suitcases and a feeling of excited anticipation that only comes from beginning a new adventure.  I had flown across the country for an internship with the Seeds of Success (SOS) project at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, California.  I was excited and a little anxious about beginning my new job in a place I’d never been before.  Like the majority of CLM Interns, I majored in environmental science in college.  The focus of my studies and previous employments was sustainable agriculture – researching methods to produce food that is both healthy for people and the planet.  I know a lot about the environment in controlled settings, like on a farm, but haven’t had much exposure to studying natural lands.  The SOS internship sounded like a prime opportunity to learn about an ecosystem that was completely different than any I had ever been exposed to and a chance to apply my background in environmental sciences off a farm.

Over the first few weeks on the job, I was inundated with new information.  For example, the preferred language of botanists is Latin; I had forgotten this wasn’t truly a dead language.  I had to quickly adjust to not using the common names of plants.  I sometimes had difficulty placing the plant I was looking at in the correct family I was learning, let alone using Latin to name it.  Rancho Santa Ana has a huge herbarium, which was also a new thing to me.  I had been in one once before, but never appreciated all the work that goes into to making a useful herbarium specimen.  Desert plants are obviously much different than those of the deciduous forests I lived amongst my whole life.  At first glance, everything seemed so spiney and prickley.  Once I learned to look beyond the defenses, I saw the wonderful beauty these beings exude .  For a while, everything seemed so new that I felt I hardly knew anything.

I’m now in the third month of my internship and I have happily realized I recognize a lot of the plants I see.  I even know some of the other plants I can expect to be close by.  And because I spend about 25 hours a week working in the field, I’ve also learned a lot of the reptiles, mammals, and birds that are fortunate enough to call Southern California home.

It’s been a refreshing change to apply what I studied in college to new landscapes and to ecosystems that aren’t manipulated by man the way agroecosystems are.  Now that I’ve began to make my way up the learning curve for Southern California botany, the HOT weather has arrived and the plants are drying up.  I hope I can maintain what I’ve learned and continue to build to it.  I want to be the type of environmental professional who knows how all the parts of an ecosystem are connected.  This internship is helping me connect some strings of the web of life and I am enjoying the experience.

Working for the BLM in Carson City, NV.

I have been at the Carson City BLM district office for about 5 1/2 months now and it has quite the experience.  We started seeding the grass Poa secunda in an area that had recently had a fire go through.  Then the snow came and we were inside the office for about a month and a half doing trainings and computer work.  Eventually were able to get back into the field where we finished the seeding project and started working on invasive plant control especially of Tall whitetop.  We just recently finished a long term project that called for our team of nine interns to plant and cage 21,000 bitterbrush seedlings for deer to graze on.  With the temperatures rising and the field season in full swing, we are starting to do some weed monitoring and surveys for multiple rare plant species.  The jobs change from week to week so there is always something new to do and new places to go see.

Northern California knows how to party

“It’s not your typical BLM field office,” was a common phrase upon first arriving to Arcata Field Office on the Northern California coast and I soon found out why. Natural resource issues here are vastly different than that of an average BLM field office and it took very little time before I could see priorities were more restorative focused for ecological preservation and conservation while much less focused on battling the usual issues with timber, grazing or mining. This is one of many reasons why this field office may be one of the most unique BLM offices I have encountered.

For those unfamiliar; Northern California is fortunate to host a variety of eco types, from the mystifying and distinctive beach dunes, to the BLM managed Redwood old growth Headwaters Preserve, from rolling, grazing hills of the Lost Coast and to the southeast, Red Mountain, the only high desert ecotype with a view of the ocean I’ve encountered. There is more than enough environmental variation for everybody and I continue to be surprised every new field outing.

The first leg of my field work was to measure the relative frequencies (as presence or absence) of native, non-native and endangered dune plants in some of the most unique and rare coastal dunes in the world. This field monitoring technique of relative frequency is very effective due to the short stature and low densities of dune flora. The methodology for data collection uses permanent 100 foot line transects, with 20 randomly selected points on the transect line. Each randomly selected point of the transect has a 2’x2’ line running perpendicular to the transect in which frequencies and canopy cover classes are measured within that boundary. While this technique can be very time consuming and I often only completed one line transect per day, I had no complaints about smelling the salty breeze air and enjoying the ambient sounds from the ocean all day.

The goals of this on-going study are to determine the effectiveness of restoration efforts and measure native dune plant recruitment. Restoring dune habitat with the goal of preserving biodiversity is also critical for a beautiful Brassica, the endangered Humboldt Bay Wallflower (Erysimum menziesii ssp. eurekense) and endangered Beach Layia (Layia carnosa). The Wallflower is endemic exclusively to the Humboldt Bay area of Northern California and while populations remain relatively stable with human intervention by way of European Beachgrass and Iceplant removal, natural threats from climate change, dune blowouts, plant rust and seed herbivory are all significant factors that threaten the Wallflowers existence. As one might assume, measuring an effective “change” can be challenging when dealing with a naturally disturbed and constantly transforming ecosystem.

European Beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria) and Iceplant (Carpobrotus edulis) were introduced in the early 20th century for controlling sand movement, which has done exactly that and in turn, has prevented native species from establishing without the natural sand disturbance. In addition, European Beachgrass and Iceplant create a vegetative matting effect which can reach up to 100% canopy cover and easily outcompetes native dune plants.

Another slice of the restoration equation is socioeconomic factors; being that residents who live adjacent to some dune restoration areas with removed European Beachgrass are worried that property will be lost due to much more unrestricted sand encroachment. Addressing this issue with the public, land owners, recreationalists, shipping industry and the many special interest groups is another part of this internship that has given me a realistic dose of how important it really is to include all parties in restoration projects.

Thus far, I am absolutely thrilled to be working and living in Arcata and the greater Northern California region. I have already hiked and seen so many amazing places and look forward to everyday of my internship because I am gaining practical experience and working with an array of natural resource specialists who are truly excited to fill my head with knowledge. I realized that “work” feels like play and Im definitely fine with that.

My First Week with the BLM

This evening marks the end of my first week in Cedarville, CA.  Cedarville is a sleepy town in the top northeastern corner of California.  Much of the work conducted by the Cedarville BLM takes place in Nevada.  To move from state to state within many of my work days is a completely new experience for me.  I am currently still becoming acquainted with the region that the Cedarville BLM covers and the possible terrain that I will be directly working with.  Thus far my days have been filled with invigorating field work.  Today I saw my first baby rattlesnake.  Because I am coming from the state of Maine I am not accustomed to working in such a dry climate.  However Cedarville is experiencing an exceptionally wet year.  Many lakes that have been dried up for over five years have filled again.  I have been told that there is a lot more green landscape than normal for this time of the year.  The full moon shone on the alkali last night.  To view a full moon shining on such a majestic landscape was breath taking.  The vast sage-step ecosystem that dominates this area carries one of the most wonderful aromas.  The lupins here seem like miniature versions of the lupins we have in Maine.  There is a large Native American presence here and there has been for quite some time.  The archeologist working at the station tells me that this is one of the most archeological rich places she has ever experienced.  The ground is littered with artifacts, there is an endless number of obsidian flakes that are the result of the manipulation of stone by the ancient Natives.  In summary my days have been filled with entirely new experiences each and every day!  It has been a long day and a long week in the field and my brain is not quite recalling all of the amazing things that have happened.  However this post quickly sums up everything that has caused me to gasp!  I have not been here long and I have only given you a quick introduction to my experiences so far, but there is more to come!  So stay tuned!

Endangered species in the high desert of WY

I am excited to be working with the BLM this summer in Wyoming to update a programmatic biological assessment (BA) for the plant species Penstemon haydenii or blowout penstemon (BP).  BP was listed as an endangered species in 1987, and was originally thought to be endemic to Nebraska.  In 1996, my mentor Frank Blomquist, observed the species on sand dunes north of Rawlins, WY in the foothills near Bradley Peak in Carbon County.  However, this was a rediscovery of BP as historic collections were made during the Hayden expedition in 1877 from Casper to Rawlins.

Since its initial discovery in the foothills of Bradley Peak, other populations of BP have been observed in wind-driven environments, such as sand dunes and blowouts in Carbon County, WY.  Total plant numbers at each site fluctuate each year based on physical and biological factors including spring precipitation, vegetation cover and browsing by range animals such as pronghorn antelope and domestic livestock.  These factors make monitoring and surveying life-history traits challenging for biologists charged with the task to delineate protective measures for known populations.  Additionally, since BP habitat is unstable biologists must be vigilant in mapping and surveying wind-driven habitat throughout the state to account for new BP populations that may occur.

Blowout penstemon is listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act and as such the BLM is required to write up a BA for the species to assess how BLM management actions could affect known and potential BP habitat.  This BA must then be sent to United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for a “consultation”.  During the consultation FWS will draft a biologic opinion (BO), which is meant to ensure that protective measures and management actions listed in the BA by the BLM are ecologically appropriate and logically rationalized to protect BP habitat.

This is where I fit into the picture.  A final BA draft for BP has yet to be finalized in WY as new concerns have arisen regarding the development of wind farms.  Unfortunately there is a lack of information concerning how wind farms might impact BP habitat both directly and indirectly.  A few studies have shown that wind farms create microclimates altering wind patterns and speed, which could then affect BP habitat through changes in the creation of new sand dunes and/or blowouts.  Further, wind farms could impact BP pollinators such as bees, which could have negative consequences for BP population stability in the long-term.  I will be working with both the BLM and FWS to update the BP assessment to include potential impacts to BP habitat from wind energy development in WY.  This will be a challenging task given the general lack of knowledge concerning wind turbine effects on the surrounding landscape and the rapid pace at which the industry is developing.

Next week I will be working with another CBG intern surveying BP for population counts.  I am very much looking forward to these field days as BP will be the first endangered plant species I have ever seen in person!  I will share this experience in my next blog post, hopefully with positive news (existing population increases, new population occurrences, etc.) and pictures of BP in flower.

Stakes and Stakeholders in the Uintah Basin

I’ve been living in Vernal, Utah for about a week now and thanks to a raggedy sombrero i have been able to weather the sun and heat pretty well.  Having worked for the BLM for four days now, i can say that a lot of the volunteer work that i did with my local botanic garden (the Chicago Botanic Garden) prepared me well for the type of wild goose chases and tedious work that is plant surveying.  Having to locate a 5 inch piece of rebar in a desert with FAIRLY accurate gps readings gives me a lot of respect for the people who came out into the field initially to located the plant populations that we are tasked with surveying.  I say wild goose chase and tedious, but when you are hiking around one of the most beautiful places on earth looking for your target plant, the hours seem to melt by and the tedium is replaced with a meditative state of mind (of course it’s not always fun and the mosquitoes can be a pain sometimes).

Since I’ve been here in the Uintah Basin, I have noticed an interesting interplay between the few distinct groups who live and work in the basin.  The groups i am referring to are the oil and gas workers, ranchers and farmers, blm employees, and flora and fauna of the basin (I’m sorry to not include the Ute tribe, i haven’t learned much about them yet but they definitely deserve to be mentioned, obviously, as they were here before any of us European immigrants). The interesting interplay i’ve noticed is how each party is in some way is vexed by another, but are also dependent on each other in order to live and work.  For instance, take the oil companies: their livelihood depends on the extraction of oil and natural gas from the Uintah basin.  You can imagine how they must feel when an employee of the BLM tells them that a well site cannot be located in a specific area due to the presence of an endangered cactus which is barely 3 inches tall.  However, it is also true that the BLM employee needs fuel to drive out to all their research sites and depend on the petroleum based products made from the resources that the Oil Companies extract. I would probably need a flow chart to completely describe all the interconnectedness and dependencies that occur in the basin, but an abbreveated version follows:

The flora and fauna provide forage for the ranchers and jobs for the blm, but can be threatened by the oil companies; The ranchers and farmers provide food and resources for the BLM and the oil companies, but their range could be impacted by the oil fields; The oil companies make petroleum based products possible and provide crucial fuel for the BLM and the Ranchers, but feel the ever watchful eye and regulatory hand of the blm; and the BLM provides proxy protection for the natural flora and fauna.

All of these parties depend on each other and their stakes in the basin should be considered when making policy decisions or moral assertions (e.g. oil drilling is bad!…well too much probably IS “bad” …but that’s a whole other conversation).  Like i said, this is an abbreviated version and I’m sure there are plenty of other ways that these groups can impact each other.  Being an environmental studies student, I am well accustomed to the clash of values when different parties have stakes in a shared area.

So all that being said, I am planning on taking a hike through Dinosaur National Monument tomorrow because, frankly, the land around here is stunning and awe inspiring despite any desolation or the unforgiving sun (a sombrero REALLY helps), as well as intellectually stimulating if you know anything about geology.  So I guess I’ll wrap this entry up by saying i actually can’t wait to go into work next Monday

Well Toto…

…I don’t think we’re in Massachusetts anymore.  And, somehow, I got a job in the most beautiful place I could ever imagine.  There was a whirlwind (otherwise known as graduation) that lifted me up over the mountains, and I somehow landed on the Wicked Witch…of the Eastern Sierra.


Driving home from work

Before  I started in the Bishop BLM office two weeks ago, people would ask me what I was going to be doing.  It was still a little unclear to me at the time.  I knew that  I would be doing some seed collection for the Seeds of Success program – but how could collecting seeds take up five months of time? So, I would make something up. “Oh, I’m going to be counting sagebrush”.  I imagined the Great Basin  filled with sagebrush — only sagebrush. Its a desert right? So, not very diverse – its pretty much just sagebrush?


Indigo Bush

Indigo Bush along HWY 168





Yeah, right.  Like Dorothy in Oz, I had (and still have) a lot to learn about the cast of characters that make up sagebrush scrub.  First of all, there are the three different subspecies of “regular” sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), and then there are other species, like Artemisia spinescens (budsage), and Artemisia arbuscula (low sage). But I already knew that there is some sagebrush around here; it’s the multitude of other shrubspecies that has flabbergasted me. There is rabbit brush, bitterbrush, cheesebush, and indigo bush to name a few.  Indigo bush is a particular favorite of mine, with it’s spectacular blue flowers and speckled seed pods.  I really love the whole Fabaceae family, in fact.  I’ve spent sometime looking for and IDing lupines, have beautiful spikes of flowers, and the more cryptic milkvetches – of which there are several rare species in the area.  Let me tell you a little something about the month of June in the Great Basin – it is wildflower beautiful central.  Having never been much of one for flowers – driving up a gully which opens out on a patch of blooming scrub with the white peaks of the sierra in the background is one of the most phenomenally things that I have ever seen.


This is my job? Driving around looking for and collecting seeds from wildflowers? What could be better than wandering around looking at wild-flowers all day?  Unlike Dorothy, I am not going to tap my heels together and whisper “There is no place like home”.   I’m staying in Oz for as long as I can.


Alabama Hills

Alabama Hills arch

Bodie Hills

Bodie Hills

No Desert Is Lifeless

Horned lizard flattens out to be difficult to eat.

Coming from Minnesota in March to the Mojave Desert was like driving straight from winter into summer. Having never even been to the desert, I was uncertain what I would encounter but I was willing to find out. Now, after a couple months working for the USGS I have seen far more than I ever expected.  Before I arrived, I was under the impression that the Mojave would be nothing but sand and mountains. I never expected to encounter such an incredibly diverse and abundant landscape. From dozens of different reptiles, to hundreds of species of plants, I still see something new every week.

Sidewinder Rattlesnake hiding in the sand.

Working at the USGS I have been involved in a project that has taken me all over a large region of the Mojave Desert around and on the Army base Fort Irwin. This project is primarily concerned with the Desert Tortoise and helping to study their habitats in order to keep them healthy when moving them off the base. I have been collecting data on annual and perennial species of desert plants using techniques both old and brand new. Some of the new methods involve using Infrared NDVI cameras that photograph the UV and IR wavelengths reflected by chlorophyll. The opportunity to use new technology and be one of the first people to develop its application has been very satisfying.

Baby Desert Tortoise ~8 yrs old.

While this project has been interesting, the USGS also provides the opportunity for working on other projects. Recently working on the Nevada National Security Site, where the first Atomic Bombs were tested, was a unique experience that few people have. There I had the chance to work on perennial plant plots that have been studied for many decades, one of the longest running studies in the entire Mojave desert. It was a great experience being part of a study that will continue for decades to come.

A field of annual flowers in the desert.

I look forward to the rest of this internship and I am sure I will have many more amazing experiences.

Data Days (or, Adventures in Curation)

I type this post surrounded by stacks of archival paper, towers of herbarium boxes, and dozens of dried out bryophyte and lichen specimens. Dust and spores swirl around my monitor and I squint at the lines of data filling the boxes on my screen. I’m sitting within a wealth of Pacific Northwest forest fragments. Each specimen tells a story about a different forest or grassland, adding to a continuously growing body of knowledge about what exists on federal lands in Oregon and Washington.

This is mostly what I do as an interagency team member in the Portland state office: sort through bits of natural history, sleuth through slightly legible data sheets, and transfer information to our herbarium database. We use this information to inform management decisions and create protocols for our field teams.

When I’m not admiring bits of dried plant matter I also help my team manage the state lists of sensitive species, another tool we use for directing field teams and other offices. These lists are constantly being reevaluated and updated, which can be a lengthy and tedious process. Right now my internship is pretty much all about data. It’s amazing how much there is to keep track of!

The Journey Begins: 5 Months in Carlsbad, New Mexico

In May my life went through its largest progression so far.  On May 14th 2011, I finally received an undergraduate degree in Biology from Northern Illinois University.  Gone now are the days of cramming for exams or writing papers at dawn to insure they are turned in on time.  Gone are the ridiculous parties you only get to see/participate in while in college, and gone are the days of little responsibility—hello adult life!  Along with graduating I received the great honor of being able to participate in the Chicago Botanical Garden’s CLM internship program, which was sending me to the Bureau of Land Management office in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  With such a competitive program, I was ecstatic to be chosen for the position, but in all honesty was very nervous to be heading to New Mexico of all the states.  You see I have lived in Illinois my entire life and have never even seen a desert in person, let alone lived in one for five months!  While doing some research before the move, I saw that the weather here in Carlsbad would average around 105 for the month (yes the whole month!) of July!  This was a very large concern for me, as I had never dealt with even one day with the temperature over 105, but at the same time it had me very excited, as I would soon be experiencing a place/climate not many have seen or experienced!

The move was a very hard one, as I have many close friends in Illinois, some that I rely on for support and others that rely on me for the same.  I also had to cancel many of my activities for the summer including bowling, basketball, and beach volleyball leagues that caused me to feel as though I let some friends down since I couldn’t make good on my promise to play.  These same friends were very supportive however and were happy/excited to see me get to pursue my goals as a biologist that I had been talking about for the last few years.  The hardest part of leaving was leaving my home, it has always been a place of refuge for me when things got tough, and it has never been this far away from me for so long!  I have the most supportive parents in the world though, and they made it easier for me to leave, by helping me pack, and even putting a down payment on my new car!  When it was time to go I said my goodbyes and started on my 1600+-mile journey to Carlsbad.

The drive was a long one, over 22 hours of driving, but I was so excited to get down there that I made the whole trip in less than 2 days (no speeding tickets either :-))!  Along the way I got to see a few places I had never been; St. Louis along with the Gateway Arch, Oklahoma City, and Amarillo, Texas.  Along with the sites I also finally got to enjoy the food from Jack in a Box (they always show the commercials in the Chicago area yet there are none around there!), and Dyers BBQ in Texas, which of course was served with some Texas sweet tea lol.  The trip was a fun one, but I was glad to finally be in Carlsbad when it was over!

Carlsbad is a small town that is fairly isolated from any other major city in New Mexico.  The culture here is completely different from that of the Midwest, as everyone here is much more laid back, easy going, and approachable.  Though it is a small city (population of less than 20,000), as far as necessities go, everything can be found in the small town.  A major change that I am trying to get used to is the nightlife scene, because in Carlsbad there really isn’t one at all.  This is really hard for me to get adjusted to, because back in Chicago the bars or clubs is where I would go to hang out with friends, meet new people, or just kill time off.  Without it, I figured it would be much harder for me to find stuff to do or make new friends, but luckily I have made plenty at my workplace, the Bureau of Land Management.

As this is my first job working with the government, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from day one.  I was very nervous heading out the first day, all sorts of questions where running around in my head; what if I hate it, did I choose the right career path, if I hated it did I just waste the last couple years of my life in college, the list went on and on.  Luckily all those questions were gone after my first week, and now after three weeks I truly know this is where I belong.  My mentor, Johnny Chopp, has been nothing short of amazing since I have come down here.  He is not only my boss for the next five months, but my best friend down here and is always willing to help me with anything, even outside of work (last week he even took me to Roswell to buy a couch!).  His enthusiasm in the workplace is contagious, and it has rubbed off on me to where I love coming into work each day.  Along with Johnny I work with 11 other interns at the moment, all of which are still pursing a degree in college.  These interns have become my good friends down here as well, and we get together at least once a week, outside of work, to hang out and just enjoy each other’s company.  Each person lends their own expertise to the work we are doing, and it is humbling to find out how little I truly know about some parts of biology!

Right now our main work is focused on the Sand Dune Lizard, Sceloporus arenicolus.  This particular lizard is endangered, and is in threat of becoming extinct because of the destruction of their habitat by oil and gas companies down in New Mexico.  It will take your breath away to see the awful sight of the damage done to all of New Mexico’s public land by oil and gas companies, but is something everyone should experience so that things can be changed.  I want to go into more details about how we catch the lizards, but I will save that for another post, one that will contain pictures of everything I’ve seen and experienced so far while being down here (hopefully I will be buying a camera this week!).  Along with the Lizard, we do many other studies that, once again, I will write about very soon.  For now I hope you were able to sit through the ramblings of my first post, and can’t wait to write about everything else I experience over the next five months!