Officially loving the Sonoran Desert in the spring

So we have just finished our third week interning with the BLM in Phoenix doing rangeland and wild horse and burro monitoring.  The days so far have involved a healthy mix of office work with data management and venturing out in the field.  This week we spent four out of five days travelling slightly north of Phoenix through mountainous terrain full of spring blossoms and sunshine.  The rangeland monitoring involves a lot of species identification, so I am confident I will be a Sonoran Desert botany pro by September!

The most intensive part of our internship so far has been learning how to drive vehicles over massive boulders, through washes, and over rocky cliff trails.  The field driving has definitely been an experience!  We have come to respect the importance of a high clearance bed, seriously durable tires, and four wheel drive.  Also, on the off chance you find yourself stuck in a pit of sand, inserting large, dead branches directly behind the back tires and reversing is a great way to get out of a sketchy situation 🙂  I look forward to getting our ATV  certification so we can ride on even tighter trails… everyone loves an adventure!

I am very grateful we were able to start the internship in the spring so we could bask in the warmth and pleasant desert breeze before summer hits.  Hope you enjoy my desert pics!

Smiles – Emily M. with BLM Phoenix

Congratulations !

Congratulations Team Henderson! It has been a month since we started working together and in that time we have managed to hit our fist milestone. Within the month, we finished collecting all the samples associated with annual, as a result we got home from the field last night, a day early, and will be having a celebratory lunch today!
This is an especially important event in my eyes for two reasons. First off, celebratory lunches are an amazing morale booster for continuing to do hard work. It is a reminder to us interns that our mentors are impressed with our work and that they see us as human beings deserving of positive reinforcement. Secondly, for me, this celebration represents the end of the introductory period. Whenever you meet new people, start a new project, begin living in a new place, there is always an introductory period where you test out the water. You start getting to know your mentors, your roommates, the city you live in, you start making opinions on all the people surrounding you and deciding on how well you mesh together and how enjoyable the time together will be. After this month of adventures I know we have become a well oiled machine, unlike all of our personal gear after camping at the dunes, with no sand grinding our gears.
Though we work in the desert we have experienced some extremely cold temperatures. As a team we conquered the rain storms, sand storms,the grapple/hail storms, washed out roads, three flat tires, one broken jack, the unfortunate forgetting of our food bag, over 30 hours in the car, temperature fluxuating from 40’s to 80 within minutes and of course emergency improvisation of all the equipment that doesn’t work when you most need it.
Once again, team Henderson (we need a better name), I look forward to the following months with great pleasure knowing that we still have much more to learn about each other but thoroughly satisfied knowing that each and every person on this team is dedicated to quality research and will work together, and help each other out to achieve it!

Thanks go to Lesly, Sara, Mary, Carson, Elizabeth and Laura, team Henderson.

Lesson learned: Always be Prepared

The second week in the field yielded a very interesting week full of lessons. We began this week of field work at 6:30 am. It was a very windy morning, there was a haze being created in the distance as a result. As we started to drive to the field site the amount of cloud cover began to increase and before we knew it had begun to rain. I found it delightful because I love rain. I love the smell, sound, and the refreshing crisp air that it provides. Well, it WAS wonderful until we reached the field site and I realized that I was in no way prepared for the cold rain. I had packed no rain pants. I quickly thought that it would all be okay, I would just tough it out. I soon realized  that my soaked field pants provided no protection against the biting wind.
I am not entirely sure why I did not pack my rain gear, I may have thought… ” Well, I know it rains in the desert but there is no way that it will rain on me.” False

Lesson one: always pack your rain gear

As the week progressed the rains diminished but the cloud cover remained. My hands got chilled every time I took them out to pluck more plants from a plot. I would have loved a pair of gloves to keep my hands warm or hand warmers so that I could hold something warm periodically. Both of these things are normally in my pack even in the summer. For some reason I took them out of my bag and forgot to place them back in.

Lesson two: Always make sure you have something to warm your hands.

As the clouds began to leave and the sun began to warm the earth, all of our spirits began to brighten until we all realized that no one had packed the group food bag… we were all running out of food. We had no bread, peanut butter, Nutella, rice and all the other staples that supply carbs for continuing field work. Thankfully, I had packed my normal “just in case food” and I knew that I was not going to go hungry. I feared that the others were not as well off as I was.

Lesson three: Always make sure someone actually  packs the communal food bag before leaving.

All of these were lessons that I learned this week. All of these are lessons that I had no desire to learn about, that  is why I usually over prepare and over pack. Now that I know how horrible it is to be unprepared I will do my best to not get caught out in the rain without my pants again.

In the rain and cold


field season is here!

For the last couple weeks we have been collecting annual plant biomass on BLM land near Parashant National Monument. Today was the last day of collecting for this particular research project that our supervisors are working on. It has been an interesting week for us, hail in the desert just does not seem right to me! But despite a flat tire that took two hours to change at night due to a faulty jack situation, we still managed to get our field work done by mid-Thursday and make it back to the office for dinner. We have been learning plant identification and ecology for so many annual plants the last couple weeks, and next week we get to start all over, with perennial shrubs. It is so interesting to me to observe how desert grasses have adapted to the extreme environment they exist in. The purpose of this research project is to understand how Desert Tortoise habitat is being affected by climate change; and while it is still too cold to see the tortoise yet, we have seen and heard many other signs of desert wildlife, from coyotes, jack rabbits, snakes, and many other diverse forms of animals. As we march through the rest of April, I look forward to experiencing a warmer desert climate soon (wearing 3 layers during the daytime just seems so strange in the desert!).

Fun Times and Hard Work in the Jarbidge Field Office

The first three weeks here in the Jarbidge Field Office BLM, have been jammed packed full days with safety trainings and monitoring trainings. We planted 7,000 sage brush seedlings with the local high school kids. This was a collaborative rehabilitation effort with Idaho Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management.
Sage Grouse is under a microscope in the Western US and I have been checking their leks a couple days a week. I have to arrive at the first Lek a half hour before sunrise. So I am leaving the office at 4:30 to 5:00 am. It takes a couple hours to monitor the route; each route has approximately 6 leks. I count the males and females, temperature, wind etc… I have 4 Leks total to monitor and I will run each Lek 3 times during the strutting season. I am also being trained on Sage Grouse Habitat Assessment Framework (HAF) a multi-scale habitat assessment tool. This is great experience that can be added to my resume.

Going with the lava flow

The Alturas field office sits on the Modoc Plateau, a high desert ecosystem that rests on rhyolite and andesite based lava flows from the Medicine Lake, Lassen, and Cascade complexes.  Here, dramatic diurnal temperature swings keep life living on the edge. Day time temperatures can approach 70 degrees, while the night creeps down into the low 30s or 20s. Flowers such as Fritillaria pudica (Gold Bell) can yawn in the morning sun on Sunday, and wither in frost bitten Monday Blues the next day. The office is still buzzing with conservation plans related to sage grouse, but a much bigger problem seems to loom on the horizon, relatively unmentioned.

Here in the high desert water can be scarce. Springs, hot and cold, seep out of the porous volcanic rock near fractures caused by the countless faulting that has occurred in the area. The Warner mountains gleam in the sun, recent spring snow has refreshed the high peaks with one of Earth’s most efficient water storage methods. By the time this water makes it to the vast lava plains of the Modoc Plateau, it only exists in canyon bottoms and valleys. Rivers have been fed with enough energy to cut through the gradually uplifting rock, leaving behind meandering canyons, filled with riparian vegetation amid an arid landscape. Even in wetter years, perennial grasses fail to emerge and grow to their fullest potential. Annual grasses from Eurasia, such as Bromus tectorum and Taeniatherum caput-medusae, seem to capitalize on brief periods of moisture faster than any native bunch grass can. Here, water flows like gold towards the major rivers, the one thing all life needs, is more precious and overlooked than the minerals that are used for luxury.

So the challenges of management surface like an explosive volcano. Ranchers wish to graze their livestock on the precious lava plains, consuming young sage, Stipa occidentalis var. californica (California Needle grass) and Poa secunda (rush blue grass) leaving behind trampled fertile volcanic soil for the aggressive invasive species to thrive in. To complicate things, prolonged drought inhibits the growth native plants and prompts disease in the forest. Lack of fire and short wet periods at the turn of the 19th century promoted Juniper establishment, which has begun choking out sage. Change is on the horizon, yet we struggle to account for it. We thrive to manage the landscape as it was found, leaving no room for growth for fluctuation. We treat the ecosystem as if we govern it, failing to realize its independence and resilience. We fear the Sage grouse may be declining in NE California; we are probably right, so we invest thousands to ensure we understand we are right, when management may be impractical according to the science.

This brings me to the ultimate question looming in my research driven mind. How can you manage a continually changing landscape for the betterment of its health? In the constant tug-of-war between anthropocentric demands for ecosystem services and the long term health of an ecosystem it is unclear what the future holds. The great destructive force of volcanoes has bred fertile soil and life in the Pacific Northwest and other places of the world, yet we fear the chaos of destruction. How then do we play our cards in Nature’s tango between life and death? Should we convince the Sage Grouse that the Modoc Plateau is a nice place to live after all? Or should we let them chose where they want to live, as we did when we moved west?

From Modoc


Michael Remke:  BLM Intern