Finding Beauty In The Badlands

When I arrived in southeastern Montana for the first time, it was obvious that this part of the country is very different from the northwest, where I had studied and worked previously. Most evident was the lack of large numbers of trees in most of the area; in addition, the geology is very different, causing the badland formations, marked by layers and layers of different types of rock. As the softer sandstone has eroded over time, what remains are columns topped by harder structures known as “hoodoos”. Quite scenic!

Since a significant portion of the BLM lands are badlands (so called because they are “bad land”, not suitable for cattle or farming), I have gotten to explore very interesting pieces of the landscape. To the untrained eye, the topography and vegetation seem very similar throughout many of the sites we have monitored. But just as I was beginning to describe this region as “all the same”, I began to stumble upon areas that surprised me with their beauty and diversity. While scouting for populations of buffalo berry, we explored a few areas around Fort Peck Lake. As we drove further towards the lake, I was surprised to see the pastures merge into forested badlands and rolling hills covered in lush vegetation. Although we didn’t find what we were looking for, we were amazed by the number of sego lilies! I also found a new perspective on eastern Montana and the beauty in its diverse landscape. And with any luck, we will get out there again to collect sego lily seeds later in the season!!

One thing I’ve learned from this experience so far? Never assume things about a landscape. You will always be surprised.

Greetings from the Windy City!

My name is Justin and I began my internship this week with the training workshop at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This week-long clinic not only teaches skills to succeed in a Federal agency, but is also a blast! About 50 interns attended the workshop, which provided a great opportunity to make friends and share experiences about life in a field office. Solidarity was evident immediately. Arriving from all across the west at O’Hare airport, we issued a collective sigh of, “ahhh, TREES.” Stationed primarily in arid Federal lands, the lush Midwestern ecosystem was a nice perk for the week. Days consisted of intensive classroom sessions on Conservation Genetics, Plant ID, Field Monitoring, Seed Collecting, Management Legislation and Field Safety, supplemented with outdoor activities. Evenings we were set free to enjoy the extensive culture of Chicago and the beauty of Lake Michigan.

Armed with new knowledge and connections, I am confident in my preparation for the BLM field office in Carson City, NV. Can’t wait to apply these new skills!

The shape of things are simple

Today marks the second month of my internship. I am writing
from the hotel, after proudly losing to a watermelon-smashing competition, and
I am wondering where the next month is going to take me. This last month has
been truly inspiring. Rolling over hills covered with Oak and Pines, standing
on top of a mesa where the first Navajo families settled, witnessing my first
New Mexico sunrise- all these simple things that one could do any day if
feeling so inclined, yet is apparently different and altogether unique from daily
mundane life. I am starting to get a sense of what this new land means to me,
beauty in simplicity.

The ball has started rolling; I spent most of the first half
of June monitoring populations whose seeds seemed to take forever to ripen,
then suddenly demanded our (Jamie and I) collecting the week prior to leaving
for the workshop. There was a sudden shift and we found ourselves
passing the day feeling worth and seeing yield in our work. I realized soon
after collecting our first population that there is something so therapeutic about
tuning everything out, focusing on the task at hand and enjoying the landscape.
I only hope for this to continue.

This last month of work has challenged my skills as a
botanist; being able to recognize the common plants in the area now has shifted
most of my attention on searching for target list species and determining viable
populations for collection. A nice change of pace if I might say, and one that can’t
come at a better time now that many species are beginning to take to seed.

It is near the end of the week and I fly back to Farmington
soon. This workshop has been more than amazing; it has been an absolute
pleasure to see the faces of this program and where CLM Internship came from/is
going. To be able to come out to the Chicago Botanic Garden is such a privilege
and I feel lucky the resources are available to do so. Now it is time to head
back and continue working my way through this internship. I am sure many more
species are ready to go and the workload is piling. The simpler life waits and
is only getting more beautiful. Enjoy!

Anthony Wenke

My fist month in Montana

My first month with the BLM in Missoula, Montana has flown by! I have learned so much in the last month, and have seen some beautiful parts of Montana. The primary task that we have been working on is inventorying a sensitive plant species Keeled Bladderpod (Physaria carinata). This sensitive plant only occurs on very steep, south facing slopes so I have been getting a very good workout as well as finding the Bladderpod! One of our other main tasks is vegetation monitoring. We have mostly worked on pace transects and in a few weeks we will be doing Daubenmire transects. I have always thought that grasses are some of the hardest plants to identify and have wanted to be able to look at a grass and be able to identify it. Well I am almost there! I can identify most of the native grasses in this region. My co-workers have really been patient with me and have shown me some of the main characteristics to look for. We also had the opportunity to take a workshop on native grasses which helped as well.

Last week I had the opportunity to plant Aspen trees at Garnet Ghost Town, an old mining town northeast of Missoula. The BLM had done a thinning project in the past few years to protect against fire damage to the ghost town. They recently created an interpretative trail where the the thinning project had been, and wanted to populate the area with native trees. The seeds were collected a year ago and were sent to a local nursery to grow! A thousand trees were planted that day, and we have more to plant in the following weeks.  I am looking forward to seeing what it will look like in a few years.

Bitteroot in bloom

Bitteroot in bloom

I also had the opportunity to go back to a few areas where we found Bitteroot, Montana’s state flower in bloom! They are such small flowers you really have to seek them out. Once they bloom they loose their fleshy leaves and only the flower is present. We also found more Camas in bloom, a culturally important plant in this area. On our way to this area we were lucky enough to see a black bear cub and a great gray owl.



This experienced has already enriched my knowledge and life, who knows what the next months will bring!

Blowout Penstemon, post #2

In my last blog post, I wrote about the discovery of blowout penstemon in Wyoming. Briefly, blowout penstemon is a Wyoming and Nebraska endemic that grows only on blowout sand dunes; it’s federally listed under the Endangered Species Act. A big part of my internship is helping to find and document more populations or lack thereof.

Since I wrote last, I had the chance to do some field work documenting the number of individuals in the Wyoming type locality population and searching nearby sand dunes for more. I was in the field with several people who are very knowledgeable about the history and status of conservation of blowout penstemon. I learned that the populations in Nebraska face different threats than the populations  in Wyoming.  Land management in Nebraska has promoted “healing” of the blowouts by promoting vegetation growth in the sane and in some cases reshaping the dunes.  The blowout sand dune habitat is inherently unstable; it is subject to high winds that can erode some vegetated areas and bury others. Healing the dunes makes them more stable and deceases the chance that the dunes will shift and cover a road or otherwise interfere with development. This practice, however, significantly decreases suitable blowout penstemon habitat. This penstemon needs sparsely vegetated, relatively recently disturbed habitat to survive. Harsh weather and shifting substrates are barriers the plant has evolved to deal with, but competition is not. Habitat decline due to blowout healing is a major threat in Nebraska, but in Wyoming there have been no attempts to heal dunes. Because the populations face different threats, the effective management is different for each state.

I had a great time censusing one of the known populations with my mentor from the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, the Wildlife and Botanist person from the BLM, a Biologist from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and another CLM intern. We also looked for new populations but have found any more – yet. Here are a few pictures from the dunes:


In the land of endless sagebrush..

Hello from the land of sunshine, south-central Oregon. I had never been anywhere west of Wisconsin before coming to work at the BLM in Lakeview, so this month has been quite an adjustment. For the first few weeks, my sense of place and knowledge of botany was pretty confused. The high desert of Oregon isn’t a place that people in New York hear a lot about. Pretty much everyone who I told about my plans to move to Oregon talked about how gross and wet and rainy and green and beautiful it would be. And although I assured them otherwise, I still didn’t know what kind of things to expect. Once I got here, I only knew one or two plants, and marveled at the lack of trees and at the amazing huge wide spaces you have to travel through at least an hour in your truck to get anywhere. I’ve never seen so many livestock in my life. Or so many eagles. Being from New York, I have a lot of wildlife bragging points out here whenever I call someone from home. I remember the first week I was here I made a list of the animals I had seen already and it made everyone jealous… bald eagles, golden eagles, marsh hawks, sandhill cranes, 10 different kinds of waterfowl, qails, more quails, antelope, bighorn sheep, mule deer, not to mention the dozens of less charismatic fauna like all of the burrowing rodents and a bull snake that got sassy with us one day. It’s sort of unbelievable, considering all my life seeing an eagle was something really rare.  Also I quickly realized that most of our field sites would have almost no shade, but first I got some nasty sunburn. Only 2 weeks earlier, on Memorial Day, It snowed about 5 inches, and when the other intern, Diane, and I went to go hiking at Crater Lake National Park one weekend, it was under 12 feet of snow. The high desert weather was one of the hardest things to get used to.


Crater Lake with 12 feet of snow! No Hiking for us...

Working here is pretty illuminating though and I’m really enjoying it. The concept of localized ecosystem management is something I had hoped to understand better here because I came directly from a very theoretical ecology academic program. Everyone here at the BLM office has plenty to say about it, so that part is working out just fine, and I’m learning a lot about what it’s like to be in the middle of the social/cultural/economic playing field when it comes to environmental issues on public land.

Things I have learned here that I never would’ve thought would be so important to the career of an ecologist: riding an ATV, driving a 4-wheel drive truck up a mountain, changing that truck’s tire, learning to navigate using incomplete maps with roads that don’t exist.


Lisa VanTieghem

Lakeview BLM

Hanging out at 6,000 feet - Black Cap Butte overlooking Lakeview



Coming from the tall grass prairies of Nebraska, I was surprised to see how totally different the short grass/shrubland of eastern Montana was in comparison. Life in Miles City, MT is definitely different from Omaha, NE. This is great experience, though, and I feel like I’m starting over in learning to identify what grows in the area. After weeks of researching potential target species and then driving extensively to find big enough populations, we finally found a patch that met the requirements and picked our first batch of seeds (pasqueflowers). What a thrill! I am keeping quite busy exploring the area and checking out what it has to offer, so I will keep this short. I am grateful to have this internship because it has given me all sorts of opportunities and experiences I would not have had otherwise.

Get those suckers!

Unlike many of the other CLM internships, my work in Klamath Falls, OR began in March.  Sampling in Upper Klamath Lake and its tributaries for Lost River and Shortnose Suckers, two species of endangered fish, begins in the spring when snow still covers much of the landscape and icy winds make field work difficult. Despite these conditions, fish biologists at the USGS Klamath Falls Field Office are conducting mark-recapture studies using PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tags in order to determine recruitment and monitor the status of the fish species. PIT tags, also known as ‘microchips’, are a type of RFID technology which enable researchers to track individual fish. Based on recaptures, whether remotely with automated antennas or manually in nets, USGS has been able to estimate mortality and recruitment rates for Lost River and Shortnose Suckers.

The fish weir on the Williamson River in March

My role in this project has been to assist in capturing suckers as they make their annual spawning runs from Upper Klamath Lake to the pebbled shores of springs and rivers. Once captured in trammel nets or a fish weir, fish are identified, measured, sexed, and scanned with a hand-held antenna to determine if they are recaptures. Newly captured fish receive a PIT tag, injected under a pectoral fin with a syringe. Once the fish are released, many are re-detected at remote antennas, placed around spawning grounds and across the Sprague and Williamson Rivers. Helping to maintain these remote arrays was another of my duties.

A view of Upper Klamath Lake

Although I have participated in some field work for biology classes, this has been my first intensive field experience. Luckily for me, I have been able to jump head first into this new experience. The most rewarding aspect, both personally and professionally, has been the sense of competence that arises from absorbing new information and tackling new challenges every day. For example, battling the weather in March and April has been an incredible adventure. Since suckers stage in Upper Klamath Lake before their spawning runs, boats are used to set trammel nets to capture the densely packed fish. Through trial and error, fish biologists at USGS have determined that maximum catches can be attained after sunset, which means this work must be conducted at night. Often times temperatures would dip below freezing, icing up our boot laces and numbing our fingers. Despite the discomfort of the working conditions, it was incredibly rewarding to adapt to the conditions in order complete the task at hand.

A bald eagle flying over a spring along the shore of Upper Klamath Lake.

And on those rare days in early spring when the weather cooperated, I was often rewarded with some incredible sights; bald eagles perched along the railroad tracks, the sun setting over the lake, or a sky full of stars. There are many times over the course of this internship when I pause, take in the incredible environment around me, and can’t believe that I get to do this for my job.

Sunset over the lake- time to get working!

Living The Eastern Sierras

Oh my, what a beautiful place to be living. I moved to Carson City, NV back in February so that I could start my work with the Carson City BLM field office. On the road for 8 days and driving my Vermont registered Subaru Forester; I finally rolled into town just as the sun had sunk below the mountainous horizon. I was taken back as I gazed at the enormous snowcapped peaks of the eastern sierras. The sun danced and played off of the snowy summits, giving true value to the color of gold.

When driving west, out of Carson City and into the sierras, the road is instantly engulfed by the craggy hills, winding upward to Spooner Summit. Rounding over the top and into the Lake Tahoe basin you can feel yourself flowing down to the bluest, most captivating lake. The waters are beyond clear; it felt as though I was at some ridiculous high alpine Caribbean sea.

Working for the Chicago Botanic Garden out here has been quite a treat. The true treasure of Carson City is not its Casinos or the high statured state buildings; it’s the remarkable location that, for the time being, makes this a place to call home.



Expectations, First Impressions

The initial excitement of accepting the intern position in Lakeview, Oregon, accompanied a feeling of ambivalence about moving to a remote town with a population of 2,500. I am in no position to feel superior to a rural lifestyle. I was raised in the country, attended high school in a town of 4,500 and spent the past four and a half years of my life in a Brookings, South Dakota, a university town of 20,000 (not counting the students). I am from South Dakota; a state with more cows that people. What I actually felt nervous about was leaving the life I had established in South Dakota, leaving my friends and family, and venturing out west on my own.

Although I was anxious about the move, I was absolutely stoked about the job. I recognize that I am one of the fortunate college graduates entering a paid position in their career field. I would just like to thank the stimulus money (ARRA), the SOS program, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the BLM and the Academy for this great opportunity. I have been given the chance to apply the knowledge that I have so laboriously crammed into my skull the past four and a half years. In addition, the whole making money instead of spending money part appeals to me.

Fast forward to my first month in Lakeview. Every day I find a new reason to like it here. The establishments in this town are classic; from the Adele convenience store filled with more animal heads than a Cabela’s to the local diner complete with mismatched chairs and homemade carrot cake. The people are classic too. Friendliness is not an optional personality trait in Lakeview: it’s a requirement. Strangers will literally yell something out to you on the street, if they think it’s pertinent, and pertinent is a relative term. For example, one day I walked past an old man washing his car in the heat of the afternoon. He offered, “a shower“ from his water hose. I politely declined. He muttered, not too softly, “chicken” and sniggered at me.

My job has turned out to be as wonderful as I had hoped. To put it simply, I get paid to walk around and identify plants all day. As I am one of those rare souls who enjoy physical labor, and keying out plants, I can’t wait to hike the field sites each day. The sagebrush steppe of eastern Oregon is a completely new ecosystem to me, and the landscapes are breathtaking. There are flat basins with lakes that exist one month, and the next are a torrent of dust devils, plateaus of solid sagebrush that seem more like forest than steppe to my 5’2” frame, distant mountains, pine forests, exposed fault lines and sassy creeks that wind through jagged valleys. This job has me excited to go to work each day.

I know this job won’t be all unicorns and rainbows forever. But lets hope the novelty doesn’t wear off too quickly. My mentor had a great response after the third day when I exclaimed, “Getting paid to be outside all day? Geez, this job is awesome!” He replied, “Yeah, it’s great. Let’s hope you’re still saying that by the end of the September. “ All I could do was laugh and agree.