August 8, 2011

Staring at the ground
Can reveal minute details
Often unnoticed

Greetings from Las Cruces, NM! It is still dry as ever down here, which means we only have two seed collections so far. These conditions have allowed us to switch gears and focus on rare plant surveying instead. We have spent a few days out in the boot-heel region searching for Peniocereus greggi, or Night-blooming Cereus. These cacti have very short lived flowers which are moth pollinated. We have been mapping the population in an area where the range department will be spraying herbicide to kill the creosote that dominates the landscape. Unfortunately, these plants are restricted to living in the small hummocks that creosote creates. By eliminating the habitat the population will be threatened, not to mention the direct threat of the herbicide itself. It raises the question of whether the benefits of killing the creosote, a widespread and dominant species here, will make much difference in the large scheme of things and if this benefit outweighs the negative effects on such a rare and beautiful cactus.
A more recent project we have been focusing on is mapping the population of another cactus, Escobaria duncanii, or Duncan’s pincushion, which is listed as state endangered and BLM sensitive. This population is found in the Mud Spring Mountains outside of Truth or Consequences, and is geographically isolated from its southern counterparts. It is a tiny cactus which can be very difficult to notice, as it blends easily into the gray rocks where it lives. However, we have been successful in finding the plants, along with other illusive cactus that grow with it such as Epithelantha micromeris or button cactus and various Escobaria species. We have been getting a lot of GPS experience with this project, and once the mapping is complete we will be writing a full report on our findings.

Branching Out

Eriogonum visheri

Work at the BLM continues to go well, with a few more seed collections in spite of the fact that the landscape is in transition to the hotter, drier season. Fire is starting to become a concern – which is hard to believe after this spring’s flooding! – but soon the fall plants will set seed so we can collect from those.
While in Miles City, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to experience several other botany -related activities, apart from my job. In late June my awesome mentor, Mel Schroeder, encouraged me and my co-intern to attend the MT Native Plant Society annual meeting in Ekalaka. That made for a very enjoyable and informative weekend; I got to do a rare plant survey of the native Visher’s buckwheat Eriogonum visheri, under the guidance of Scott Mincemoyer, botanist with the MT Natural Heritage program in Helena.
I have also spent two days helping out at the Special K Ranch, near Billings. Their mission is to provide a place for adults with developmental delays to learn life skills by working on the ranch raising livestock, growing bedding plants in the greenhouse, and caring for trees and shrubs in the nursery. I enjoyed transplanting some of the native plants, like sagebrush seedlings, that they are growing for revegetation.
Finally, I was in Glacier National Park for the July 4th weekend and stayed an extra day in order to participate in the Native Plant Nursery’s summer volunteer program. I helped transplant Oregon grape, rose, and other seedlings and helped weed some of the existing cells. It was fun meeting the employees and the other volunteers and sharing watermelon with them at lunchtime.
It’s hard to believe that my time in Miles City is halfway done; I am looking forward to all the things I will get to do and learn in the upcoming months!

Happiness in precarious places

Juniper Mountain HIke

Not this particular canyon, but another one of my favorite hikes and favorite views. The tiny white dot on the right is our vehicle

For this post I’m just going to outline one of my favorite days at work so far this summer. We have been past our seed collection quota for a while, so our recent initiative has been to continue periodic censuses for sensitive plant species. Today, we planned on surveying a 2-mile long canyon that seemed fairly straightforward.The plants we were looking for should be clear on the rim of the canyon, growing on the uppermost rock outcrops. So we hiked up the first ridge. Took about an hour. Onward, towards the target rock outcrops.They were slanted almost, and all along the inner slope of the canyon. Count plants, try not to slip on the “skree”, feel like a mountain goat, get rattled at by a rattlesnake, run away. We continued to climb and hike up and down the slope, counting thousands of individuals, for another few hours until we finally reached our end point – for the first side of the canyon. The sun had begun to emerge from the clouds, high in the sky, the humidity dropped, we slid skillfully to the bottom of the canyon. Found peace and wild mint in the strip of flat ground until climbing up the south slope. This has been one of the most challenging hikes I’ve ever been on. Once we get to the top, I think, easy stuff, beeline for the mouth of the canyon, toward the truck, toward the water. We follow the ridge for a while, see a rattlesnake skin, start to talk about watermelon and other high-water-content fruits while we become drier and drier. Walk another two miles through sagebrush and spiny shrubs. Rationing water, seems like we will never get to the beginning. We see the truck, still another mile down the ridge at the mouth, trying not to slide down the loose gravel and staying on deer and cattle pathways. We’re beat once we finally arrive back to our beloved vehicle. Five hours of intense and difficult hiking, multiple dangerous situations (I’m a little dramatic when it comes to snakes), a field notebook filled with data, scraped hands and knees. For some reason, even though at first I was fearing for my life, I began to appreciate this day more and more as I sat in the truck sore and thirsty and restful, traveling back to the office. I am in love with the fact that out here the abilities of navigation, driving to remote locations, endurance hiking in the desert in places where people haven’t been perhaps in several years on volcanic rocks that really do not facilitate hiking, these are the essential and expected activities of a botanist and that all of this work and struggle is necessary for the completion of a simple census.



Lakeview, OR BLM


In a prior entry (22 June 2011), I wrote the following:

“Our eyes can deceive us. We may see something and develop a desire for it, but until we actually experience it, we cannot know if our desire is for what it is what we’ve actually seen OR if our desire if for what we have perceived that something to be based on our knowledge and past experiences. [Examples] It can be the same with a career. I grew up thinking I had wanted to be a teacher. After a few years of teaching high school biology, I learned that I love to teach but that my childhood desire of being a teacher by profession was based on an incomplete, experience-lacking perception. Through my CLM internship with the BLM, not only have I been learning both the hits and misses of my pre-experience perception of working in land management, but I am also learning how to adjust to the misses and capitalize on the hits.”

I continued to share how my perception of desiring a land management career had a couple of flaws as well as several misalignments with the way I typically “do work” and most effectively function. However, reality has also proven that not every part of my pre-experience perception of and associated career aspiration in land management was off base for me.

The most obvious hit is threefold: I perform “hands-on” tasks [1] involving nature (namely plants) [2] outside [3].

Planting a propagated Ceanothus roderickii (federal status is endangered; California state status is rare)

First of all, I appreciate and enjoy working directly with the land and the resources of the land. Although there are some things I refuse to touch because they are too gross, I love to get my hands dirty when it comes to plants and soil in natural habitats. I keep in shape by exercising 3-5 times a week so, in general, the physical activity required for managing land is attractive to me, especially after an office job in which I sat in front of a computer at a desk every day (some days I was glad for it; other days i got quite antsy). The physical activity involved ranges from crawling through tick-infested, thick chaparral vegetation as a means of surveying for rare plants to pulling yellow star thistle along trails, from tromping through poison oak or blackberry shrubs to monitoring plant populations and recording data, from hiking a mile or more to or through a project location to collecting seeds and voucher specimens.

Counting stems of Galium californicum ssp. sierrae (El Dorado bedstraw) (federal status is endangered; California state status is rare)

Secondly, I absolutely love working with nature and in nature. Nature never ceases to amaze me; there is always  more to learn and to understand in regards to biology, ecology, botany, genetics, conservation…and the list goes on. As for me, I’m hooked on plants: the anatomical and physiological adaptations of many fascinate me; the beauty of some captivate me. And the interactive complexities within the plant communities and the ecosystems in which they exist either puzzle me or astound me. When I participate in monitoring, sampling, or inventorying or any kind, I believe that I may be contributing to something important, not just collecting data for the sake of science but for the practical implementation of effective and adaptive land management. And there’s just something humbling and wholesome about working directly with the ground and plants which serve as foundations for our physical lives and the natural world as a whole.

South Fork American River flows through the Pine Hill Preserve

Thirdly, having an “office” in the “great outdoors” is definitely a plus (at least on most days). The “office” aesthetics are undeniably unbeatable. (Considering that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this may not ring true for all. But really, who can create anything as incredible as nature?) And the health benefits of all that make the outdoors a low-stress (if not stress-free!) environment–including the fresh air, adequate space for moving around, calming sounds (i.e. leaves rustling in the wind, flowing streams, etc.), and breath-taking scenes–are a priceless perk.

Perhaps the all-encompassing factor resulting in a match between my prior perception of land management and the reality of land management based on what I have been learning through first-hand observations and experiences has been the rich variety that accompanies this type of career. It’s certainly not that I am unable to handle routine (on the contrary, I have the ability to focus on one task of a long time and strong relate to the structure of routine as i function most efficiently and effectively with logical order and organization); I just prefer to engage in more than one basic type of activity if I have the opportunity to do so.

So what kind of variety am I talking about? Sounds like a great topic for another blog entry…

One of the eight rare plant species at the Pine Hill Preserve: Helianthemum suffrutescens

To conclude, my pre-experience desire to serve in a conservation and land management career included both misperceptions and on-target expectations. Additionally, this type of career is not a perfect match to my personality and functionality, but I do enjoy the work and have a passion for the purposes and goals. I participate in projects for which I have been well-educated and trained (not to mention will continue to learn about because of my interest in botany, ecology, and conservation) and contribute to causes which matter to me while engaging myself physically, mentally, and socially. As long as I can manage around the “misses” (how this career clashes with my personality and functionality) and focus with a positive attitude on the “hits” (the reasons and ways this career does work for me), I’ll be doing just fine (if not great!) and believe I will achieve success in this career field.

Everything is simply happy

“Look at the trees, look at the birds, look at the clouds, look at the stars… and if you have eyes you will be able to see that the whole existence is joyful. Everything is simply happy.”-Osho

The last month has been one of the most busy and rewarding times of my life. I’ve seen and done so many things and experienced opportunities many will never get to. The other seasonals and I have continued to work on our vegetation studies to determine suitable breeding habitat for the Greater Sage Grouse. We should finish our plots this week and I couldn’t be happier (mostly for the sense of accomplishment, but also because we have done so many that I am beginning to recite the scientific names of all the plants in my sleep.)

Recently, I have also been able to work on several projects in coordination with other agencies. Three weeks ago I went out with the Forest Service to conduct a trout population study in local streams using electroshocking.  Not only did I learn the names and characteristics of both native and non-native species, I also learned that trout are way more slippery that the fish I’m used to back in Missouri.. and… I’m not the most graceful in waders. Two weeks ago I traveled to the Virgin River to work with the Department of Natural Resources on a seining project to help eradicate Red Shiners which have managed to work their way back up the river into Utah during this last spring.  This was one of the most rewarding experiences and even though I fell into the river on several occasions and returned to my apartment smelling like 12 different sorts of stink, I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

Like many other interns, I have reached the halfway point in my internship and while it is kind of sad to come to the  realization that it will all come to an end soon, I anxiously await all the new experiences the next two months have in store for me. Everything is simply happy… and so am I 🙂

Silver buffaloberry cash crop!

The past few weeks have been exciting- we’ve been busy trying to hit the timing right on many of our target species because they all seem to be in full swing with seed right now! One of our most exciting collections so far has been of silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) . This is one of our high priority species because it provides good habitat in woodland and riparian sites. After scouting for this shrub throughout our field season, we were losing hope on it being a viable collection because we could only find small stands of it, and those seemed to have little fruit. Two factors which make buffaloberry of particular difficulty are that this species is dioecious- male and female reproductive structures are found in different individuals (meaning not all individuals have berries), and also typically there is only a good seed crop every 3-4 years. So it was a difficult chase, but we were finally able to hunt down a large stand of buffaloberry in a nice green ash draw, and there were tons of berries!!! We spent several days collecting the small, bright red berries (and trying to avoid the thorns!) and collected quite a lot! We had plenty to cover the 10,000 seed needed by SOS and will have plenty leftover to use for reclamation work!
After work yesterday I attended the opening of my very first county fair! I went with my mentor to the Eastern Montana Fair, which is in Miles City through Sunday. It was fascinating to see all the homemade entries and the livestock; I plan to go back this weekend when I will have more time to fully enjoy the experience, including my first rodeo, and to get another funnel cake!

Brooke Stallings, Miles City, MT BLM

Therese and I collecting berries of Shepherdia argentea

Land of enchantment

I am well into my fourth month here at the Farmington, New Mexico field office,  and I am starting to realize why they call this place the “Land of Enchantment”. The thunderstorms, the night skies and early mornings all bring a new light and different perspective of the landscape. Living here you become used to those events, but I still seem to gain something new from each.

In terms of SOS, we are doing okay. Farmington, which is situated in the NW corner of New Mexico, is an oasis compared to most of the state. We are slightly higher, cooler and experiencing a decent amount of monsoon rains (even though we aren’t getting as much as we would hope). To break it down, New Mexico is very dry and plants do not want to invest all of that energy making flowers and seeds so they can be aborted soon after, which makes it a little frustrating for us collectors knowing the plants are out there as well as those dark rain clouds. Not much happens.

I am an optimist. Well into this month we have made two collections: Penstemon angustifolius and Erysimum asperum (which has gorgeous orange seeds)- all of which we happened to stumble upon at the right time to collect. It’s a great feeling, going on weeks of no collecting, and then one day BAM! SEEDS! GRAB THE HORI HORI! GRAB THE BUCKETS! TURN THE TRIMBLE ON!!!!

Another great thing about this dip in seed production, is that our supervisor has been keeping us busy with other projects. We have been conducting PFC riparian surveys,  attended two workshops (one in Santa Fe with the Native Plant Society and the other up in Mesa Verde National Park, CO looking at Fire Succession-which is tooootally my cup of tea). Among those we have also been able to take the downtime and tidy up around the office and do a couple GIS training courses. All in all, we have stayed busy and work has been constantly changing.

Looking back on these past four months, I am so grateful to be a part of this internship and to have the resources to become familiarized with the Federal system, and how my interests lie within them. This sounds very corn-bally, but seriously, going to school and learning about reclamation/restoration is one thing, it is completely another to see my interests/education working in an practical setting. Everything about this job is very bureaucratic. Rightfully so.

*UPDATE! Earlier this week we stumbled upon a gorgeous montane meadow in the San Juan National Forest and found three more populations we can collect from in the next couple of days. I am looking forward to the next couple of months; the summer is dwindling down, seeds are ripening, temperatures are dropping and the work will only become more interesting. Until next time.

Anthony Wenke


Classic Rock and Rocky High Desert Hills

While the radio sits stubbornly on one clear classic rock station, we bounce along the high desert countryside on two-tracks rarely traversed by any other vehicle. Our mission has varied over the past month, from exploring raptor nests, mapping plover habitat, and searching for springs, seeps, and reservoirs.

We spent two days exploring raptor nests on ridges in an area called the Hogsback. Raptors like Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles like to make their nests on cliff sides and ridge tops. A few Golden Eagle nests we found were greater than five feet tall, situated on high ridges. The nests are no longer inhabited this late in the summer, as full-grown fledglings clumsily flit from ridge to ridge. However, when we climbed up the ridges to peer into the nest cups we found various things such as antlers, feathers, and small mammal skeletons. We also nearly stumbled across Northern Sagebrush Lizards as they scampered across the rocky hillsides, blue bellies so distinct against a background of gray and brown. One large raptor nest had recently been taken over by kestrels, who were flitting in and out, scolding us as we climbed up the hill.

So far this summer, we have collected roughly 70,000 acres of Mountain Plover habitat–nearing our goal of 100,000. The Mountain Plover remains relatively elusive, however. At first glance, we often confuse Mountain Plovers with Horned Larks, which are similar in size with similar markings. Some days we come back with a mere 500 acres of habitat after searching for six hours, and other days we can search for three hours and come back with 13,000 acres. The pickings are becoming slim as we continue to search for habitat and we have begun looking in areas we never thought would have before for plover habitat, giving us glimpses into neat country we had not yet explored.

Springs and seeps are of particular interest to the BLM. There is little water in the high desert region of Wyoming, making any stretch of water very valuable, and the unique riparian vegetation that inhabits these areas even more valuable. Desert animals depend on these water sources and when they are not managed for correctly, cattle can destroy them. The BLM takes these areas into special consideration when monitoring active grazing areas. Many of these springs do not hold water all summer long, but can be identified by the vegetation that surrounds them: willows, beak sedge, and Nebraska sedge. Other springs are subterranean, only coasting above ground briefly before disappearing beneath the surface. Some other springs are considered developed, meaning their water is being directed to reservoirs or troughs for livestock.

Reservoirs in the high desert of southwest WY are important for a few reasons: they slow water flowing into the larger Bear River, hold sediment back from being dumped into the Bear River, provide habitat for waterfowl and other creatures, and are a more consistent water source for livestock and other animals. Reservoirs are simply man-made lakes with taller berms to prevent water and sediment from washing out quickly and back into streams. During our exploration of reservoirs we have seen Northern Harriers and several species of ducks with their growing ducklings. We have also found snake sheds and Sage Grouse sign, including cecal tar. Cecal tar is a black substance that Sage Grouse puke up in the morning–remnants of the tannin-rich sage they could not digest. However, not all of the reservoirs that we have found still hold water this late in the summer. Unfortunately, some reservoirs have naturally–or from cow trample–blown out, allowing water from streams to rush through, carrying heavy loads of sediment. It is difficult for the BLM to repair these reservoirs because they are many and money is short.

We hope to have our plover habitat complete by the next posting! So long for now.

Kira Hefty and Larry Ashton