Living and Working along the WUI

“The WUI?”, you ask, “what in the world is that!?”.

It’s the Wildland-Urban Interface, the transition zone between unoccupied land and urban development, an environment unlike any other. Here in northern California, not too far outside Sacramento, the WUI occurs between fire-loving chaparral habitat and multi-million dollar homes. Even after a month here, life along the WUI is full of surprises.

The other day I participated in the monthly Seeds of Success conference call while working in the field. Mid-call I was interrupted by a neighboring landowner wanting to know whether I was there to clear away brush and create fuel breaks to protect his property from wildfire. Although disappointed to hear I was in the area only to collect seeds, he told me of the challenges he faces living alongside native chaparral. He experiences the reality of living next to not only a fire-prone plant community but also the wildlife it supports. In the past month he’s lost two of his beloved emus to the WUI—one to a bobcat and another to a mountain lion.

The adventures continue inside our suburban office. Last week I was roused from my GIS work by an animated colleague’s exclamations. The “Snake Wrangler” had arrived in the El Dorado Hills Business Park.  Just across the street from our office they’d discovered several rattlesnake dens. Office workers gathered to watch the “Snake Wrangler” capture an angry 3 ½ foot rattler. One down, many more to go. With an average of 80-100 snakes caught each week, it should be a snap for our local “Snake Wrangler”. Not to worry though, the snakes aren’t being harmed—just relocated to some nearby Forest Service land with a rodent problem.

Though suburban California initially wasn’t (and admittedly still might not be) my ideal location, living along the WUI proves nearly as exciting as working here. I am minutes from the American River– a mecca for whitewater rafting, cycling, running, and hiking. With Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, San Francisco, and the Pacific Ocean all less than three hours’ drive away it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by everything I want to do! And who can forget the California State Fair happening right now. Anyone up for a maggot burger or deep-fried scorpion?

over and out

Sophia Weinmann, El Dorado Hills, CA

Prospects of all types



It seems like for the time being, our field office has come to a hump-like stand-still. We are straddled between two flowering periods. In Farmington, the late spring/early summer season brought a hoard of ripening seeds; in fact the week after we came back from the CLM workshop we made five collections. Now we have very little to find except a few species ending their flowering stages. We are waiting for the hump to ride smooth and give us more prospects with the start of the monsoon rains.

It was interesting coming back to the Four Corners after experiencing the workshop in Chicago. In almost every way I can imagine, the two places are exact contrasts of each other. Being able to meet the other interns and be with people my age and experience, visually digesting the intensity of green vegetation and walking through what seemed like a constant shower of humidity all reinforced the idea that I love constantly moving through changing environments. Even as I write this, we are experiencing thunderstorms that will make the average Seattleite quiver, and skies that even Monet might envy (so I’d like to think).

Basically, the last month for me has been in a constant flux in every way. Work, weather, friends and hobbies. What’s nice about this mid-point hump in work is that we have been able to take time away from SOS and aid other biologists with their projects. We were able to assist with a riparian assessment, conduct surveys for fuel loads associated with prescribed burnings and search for bird’s nests in sagebrush. For me this really is the mid-point of my internship; it has been three months, and I still have three more to go. The latter half I can tell already will bring prospects of all types. Until next time.

Anthony Wenke


The word monitor derives from the Latin monere “to warn.” As I find myself spending much of my time monitoring rare plants, I reflect on what we’re doing. At its core, I suppose that we are keeping track of these plants so that we can warn everyone if they start to decline. However, we are also watching them in order to celebrate population growth and even population stability, and, more often than not, in order to learn relatively unknown details of their life histories.

In the last couple weeks, the team I’m working with has traveled to an area outside of Kremmling, CO in order to monitor two different plants that only exist within a single Colorado county. Penstemon penlandii has an estimated range of only 5 square miles (NatureServe Explorer), while Astragalus osterhoutii is more widespread, occurring in an estimated 63 square mile area (NatureServe Explorer). Both plants were listed under the ESA when a reservoir was constructed within their range, flooding part of the Astragalus’ habitat and creating concern that an increase in recreation to the area would endanger both species. Further, that Astragalus plants are heavily preyed upon by a native species of blister beetle within part of their range. The plants suck up selenium (a stinky element that occurs in the soil) as a defense against herbivory. Unfortunately for them, the blister beetle has also found selenium to be an effective defense compound, so it eats the plants and stores the selenium. The beetles are immune, but any predators are in for a nasty treat. In fact, ingesting only a few accidental beetles can kill a horse.

Due to this herbivory, the plants in one site seemed to be barely getting by and some were bare sticks, from which all the leaves had been eaten. In our other site, the plants appeared healthy, and in both sites monitoring has shown that the populations are steady. The way that this is possible is because the species is extremely long lived. My mentor did her PhD research on this species, following in the footsteps of someone else who was also studying the population. Yesterday we found one of their old plots. Many of the old tags from the early ‘90s were still in place next to healthy, happy looking individuals. This means that some of these plants (which only grow up to 1 or 2 feet tall) are at least approaching 20 years old. This knowledge is extremely important for managing the population. We now know that it isn’t a crisis if no seed set occurs one year, or if blister beetle herbivory is particularly bad for 5 years. Instead, we simply have to make sure that nothing happens to kill the mature individuals.

I enjoy learning these details about different life histories, and about how a species is adapted for its own unique location and predators. I also appreciate that our data is used to make more informed management decisions. It seems that “to monitor” is in fact much more than simply to warn.

Sama, CO BLM State Office

Scouting for Seeds


Calochortus brumeaunis

Lupinus argentus var. argentus

So what does a seed scouting mission look like? Scouting for seeds takes a surprising amount of time and effort, and my technique for doing the scouting is an evolving process. Here’s what it looks like at the moment:
Monday, I went out scouting. I was scouting for two Crepis species, C. acuminata and C. occidentalis, two hours north in the Bodie Hills. At my first stop I found plenty of C. acuminata, and also stopped to key out and collect a specimen of Calochortus brumeaunis. My next stop was further up the highway. I was concentrating of finding Crepis occidentatlis, as I had not seen any sign of it at my first stop. While I did find lots of the other Crepis species that I was looking for, I could not positively identify C. occidentalis. Instead I identify a large population of Lupinus argentus var. argentus, for which I collected a few voucher specimens in case I decide to go back to collect seeds. My last stop was supposed to check out a population of lupine and prickly phlox further into the Bodie Hills. After surviving road construction delays, and bumpy dirt roads, I turned into the pasture through which I had to pass to get to these two dense clumps of plants. About a quarter of the way down the road I found myself at a stream crossing that had not been there the week before when we found the populations. But I had heard stories about people getting stuck at this spot in the mud. I got out of the truck to look at it. It was 18 inches deep. I could go through and have accomplished something with my afternoon, or I could get stuck, and have to call in to get someone to unstick me from the mud. I decided to back up and try to find another population.


Crepis acuminata

From the Midwest to the Mojave

The training in Chicago was a welcome change from the desert, and it was a lot of fun to meet the other CLM interns and hear about their experiences.

Giant Allium

In addition to the important things we talked about, like working for federal agencies and more about the program, it was wonderful to spend some time in the Chicago Botanic Garden!  Very different from the Mojave Desert, with gorgeous and unusual flowers, not to mention the abundance of water, but very enjoyable.

A tarantula hole

Since returning to Nevada, we have worked on perennial plots, mostly in Barstow, CA.  The hiking can be intense in the heat, but we get some amazing views.  Summer is definitely the time for animals to hide, but we still manage to find some lizards and insects.

An old miner's house, maybe?

Old car

We also come across interesting man-made objects, like old cars and abandoned buildings.  In the coming weeks, we will be working on entering all our data from the season, which will be interesting.  Hopefully we can get a little more time outside before we are done!

Critters of the Wyoming Wilderness

The high desert district of southwest Wyoming may seem like a barren land, but in reality it is host to a whole cast of interesting critters. While mapping Mountain Plover habitat, our paths were constantly crossed by quick-footed prairie dogs (or p-dogs) and ground squirrels. P-dogs not so anxious to get across the road ahead of us sat on their burrows, Buddha-bellies inflated in front of them. More excitingly, we were lucky enough to spot three Burrowing Owls in, which had taken over two former p-dog abodes. Burrowing Owls take advantage of the many burrows created by p-dogs. Burrowing Owls are shy when approached by humans on foot, but surprisingly remain sentinel by their burrows when approached by trucks, which allowed us some pretty good views and photos. We had an opportunity to learn about other neat owls in Wyoming when we did an owl survey late one clear night during a full moon. We spent that time with members of the Forest Service working in Bridger National Forest. Three sensitive owls live in southwest Wyoming, including the Boreal Owl and the Great Grey Owl. We stood under the stars and broadcasted the calls of these owls from what looked like a small stereo with two speakers in hopes that any nearby owls would return with their own calls. Being late in the season for owl surveys, we were fortunate to hear a Great Horned Owl.

We’ve spent much of our time continuing Mountain Plover habitat mapping–for which we have covered approximately 25,000 acres. We have also participated in Multiple Indicator Monitoring (MIM) to assess stream quality and Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) assessments for streams. During all this time we’ve spotted multiple species of raptors, including the Ferruginous Hawk (a.k.a. ferroog), Red-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Kestrel, and Northern Harrier. The nest below is a nest made by a ferroog. They typically build their nests on cliffs or rock ledges. We saw some recent Golden Eagle fledglings, who were taking frequent rests on ridges.

Another disheartening, but enlightening wildlife find would be the multiple dead fawn we have found throughout our travels. Wyoming experienced a particularly harsh winter, and it took its tole on the mule deer population. It has indicated that only 16% of the newborn fawn survived through the winter and spring months. Luckily the mule deer that have survived look hardy and healthy.

The highlight of the last couple weeks would have to be the spotting of the rare light morph Greater Sage Grouse hen and her six poults of normal gray coloration. No one in our field office had seen a sage grouse of such coloration and our photo below was added to the office wall of fame.


-Larry Ashton and Kira Hefty

From East to West

With less than a month to go and a variety of enlightening experiences, it can still be hard to put the thoughts to ink, so…In lieu of the week long CLM training workshop for many interns, I participated in a grassland monitoring techniques workshop sponsored by the California Native Plants Society in Grass Valley, California. The class was taught by the charismatic John Willoughby, former BLM botanist for over 20 years. The workshop was helpful because he gave real-world monitoring research examples of success and failures from BLM, Fish and Wildlife, as well as, across the agency board. He continued emphasizing how critical establishing a practical and cheap monitoring technique would be to save headaches and still give valid results. Simple is often better! After John’s class, the most general but important take home message would be; most real world vegetative monitoring is qualitative, NOT quantitative. This is because many qualitative methods are extremely time and labor intensive, accounting for a sometimes a giant range of variables. When working for a federal agency, many vegetative related projects will involve installing an enclosure, sign or taking a pictures annually in order to monitor the overall status of the plant population.

King Range

Monitoring grazing allotments

The next endeavor was field work in the King Range Conservation Area conducting coastal grassland surveys, which I found fitting since I had just been to a monitoring techniques workshop. The goal of this project was to acquire baseline grasses population data before a controlled burn, using the releve plot method. Releves measure density for all vascular and non-vascular species within a 10mx10m plot and then estimating each species’ total percent coverage from a birds-eye view. Identifying and estimating percent coverage is a tricky task when some grasses are a mere 1 inch greenish stem with no inflorescence and little else to work with, however, keying a mystery grass is always an enjoyable challenge. While needless to say, this time consuming process is not without its benefits. Grazing allotments and surrounding grasslands alike have been heavily encroached in the last 30 years by Douglas-fir, eliminating grassland productivity by altering grasslands into forests, to the point where controlled burning needs to be re-established. This area had been burned in the past by native coastal tribes at times to increase grassland productivity. While the benefits of a burn are numerous, determining what plant species are present pre and post-burn could help future restoration efforts for establishing native perennial grasses.


For the following month after my grasslands monitoring, I have been working intensely with C.C.C. crews on removing a plethora of species of invasive plants on various BLM lands. I have spent many field days surveying for invasive plant populations in remote or inaccessible BLM land holdings, the latest being over 60 miles along the California Eel River. This trip took over four days, from East to West, with more wildlife sightings than human. This was a unique experience as the only access to these BLM holdings was; you guessed it, floating down the river! This was my first back country, white water rafting experience, with class 3 and some class 4 runs. I not only gained an immense amount of knowledge about the importance of planning for such an excursion, but also being able to go with the flow, I mean, we were on a river and all, so take in the scenery while you can.

The Eel River gave me a real opportunity to work with other BLM specialists outside of the botanical realm, an archeologist, forest ecologist, law enforcement and engineer, each with a different objective for exploring these newly seen lands. While surveying on this trip I was fortunate to see California’s third largest watershed in all its glory, including bobcat, deer, and bald eagles galore. The opal blue waters of the Eel have exposed me to a river with very few roads and therefore, very few noxious plants!

With this position, I continue to appreciate the beauty of our natural resources more each and every day. I imagine tomorrow will be no different.

What a whirlwind these past weeks have been! After a brief week working with my mentor in the BLM , it was off to the Midwest to attend the CLM training workshop at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

I arrived in the Windy City as one of fifty interns who traveled from their positions out west to attend the weeklong workshop.  Our training was based out of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plant Science Center.  Nestled among beautiful gardens, the building is a recent addition fulfilling the dual purpose of scientific research and outreach and education — showing the public that scientists are real people too!  Throughout the week our curriculum covered everything from the history of the Bureau of Land Management and plant taxonomy/ identification to proper seed collection protocol and mitigating field hazards.

Although training entailed several powerpoint presentations, we were also able to put our new skills to the test in the CBG’s nearby gardens and habitat preserves. I was given the first-hand opportunity to encounter the frustrations of using a dichotomous key to identify unknown plants and face the difficulty of determining the proper plant sampling technique.  Although challenging at times, with our instructors’ knowledge and support at our side we were able to master new skills and even have a few good laughs along the way.

Training was not only a great opportunity to brush up on skills vital to my new internship, but also to meet many of my fellow interns.  I had a blast hearing about the beautiful scenery, management projects, and general ridiculousness that others have experienced during their positions.  It’s nice to know that regardless of how challenging my job may be at times I’m not in it alone.

There is always something new to see in the desert

Near China Lake

The desert has a surprising variety of landscapes. The only downside is that you have to travel far and over some truly rugged terrain to see them. Even after several months working all over the Mojave Desert I am still struck by how few people have the opportunity to see the places I have been.




5 minute rainstorm

Often the weather can be unpredictable, but this can lead to some very interesting scenery.

Red Rock Canyon

Rainbow Basin















Every week I still see something new, leaving me with the sense that I could never truly see all that is out there. Which is fine with me, I hope to never run out of new places to experience.


Desert grafitti

I have been in my internship for about 4 months now, which is primarily collecting seeds for Seeds of Success. My team and I have been collecting like crazy, for almost all of the time we have been here, and have made about 40 collections total thus far. While I have learned a lot about the plants and landscape of the Mojave, and knew my work was important for restoration, I didn’t fully understand why…didn’t get the “big picture”. Until now. I recently attended the CLM training and, shortly after, a Desert Restoration Workshop, where I learned how important native plant materials programs are. I also learned how programs like SOS are highly valuable for ecological restoration, as there is a “need for seed” in the Mojave (and elsewhere). Arid ecosystems in general are slow to recover from disturbances, which include land use for solar and wind projects, recreational uses, exotic species, and waste dumping, just to name a few. And things are also shifting due to climate change. Often the balance of these ecosystems is upset beyond the natural point of return, because the rate of change far exceeds the speed of ecological adaptation capabilities. This is where active restoration comes in to place, as well as a preventative-like type of restoration with the creation of adaptive communities. Native seed collecting, over a wide range of habitat in order to match specific plant types to their matching microclimates, is really at the basis of these restorations today. And this is what Seeds of Success is all about. I am excited and proud to be a part of such a movement.

Monitoring a site in Darwin Hills

Krascheninnikovia lanata (winterfat)

Pleuraphis rigida collection

Sunset over the Kingston Ranges