Torts! Torts! Torts!

Howdy Folks,

The last few weeks in the Mojave have been an exciting and productive time for me. Following the monsoon rains we had in July and August, large populations of annual plants appeared and flowered all over our field office. As we have moved into early fall, many of those populations have been producing and dispersing seeds, which means that there has been plenty of seed collecting for me to do. And that is a good thing.

He's a little shy

He’s a little shy

But this blog will not be about seed collecting. The temperature has been dropping for the last few weeks (Hallelujah!), and as it gets cooler the plants have certainly been reacting, but they are not the only ones. The cooler weather has also caused an increase in activity for one of the Mojave Desert’s very charismatic reptiles: Desert Tortoises!


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Mojave Desert Tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) are a Federally Threatened species. So they receive much management attention in the Needles Field Office. Earlier this summer, I was able to go out on a tortoise-monitoring trip. We used radio-telemetry to track down and record data from tortoises (more affectionately called “torts”) that had already been tagged with a radio transmitter. Quite the fun trip.

This is a tortoise shell. I think it is rather beautiful.

This is a tortoise shell. I think it is rather beautiful.

But that is not quite as satisfying as finding tortoises on your own, so I have been thrilled to find five of them in the last three weeks! After the hot summer, during which the tortoises are fairly inactive, the cooler fall gives them a chance to spend more time searching for food before they head underground to hibernate through the winter. So the time is now for me to find them, and the tortoises have delivered. I’ve seen big adults, an adorable baby, and I even had to rescue a tortoise that was trying to cross a highway. It has been great.

"Hmm, if I walk really fast, could I make it to the other side"

“Hmm, if I walk really fast, could I make it to the other side?”

The Desert Tortoise is one of the most unique desert critters that I’ve seen in my time out here. Their appearance is probably familiar to you: a long neck with a beaked head on the end, thick scaly legs, and a hard, high-domed shell. The torts here in the Mojave can grow up to about 15 pounds and 15-inches long. I have heard stories about the impressive ages that tortoises can reach, perhaps even surpassing a century. 100 seems to be out of reach for the Desert Tortoises here, but they can get very old, living for more than 50 years in the wild, and perhaps approaching 80 in captivity. That may still be long enough to outlive me.

A baby tort. So cute.

A baby tort. So cute.

Tortoises have earned a fabled reputation as patient and deliberate creatures. That characterization is certainly appropriate. The tortoises I’ve seen have been content to take their time slowly ambling along the desert floor, unhurriedly taking in the shrubs and rocks that surround them. I think it is delightful to watch an animal moving at such a unique pace. I should mention, however, that they can turn the speed up a little bit. We have three tortoises that are kept at our field office, and when you have food the torts often will push the gas pedal all the way down and “run” to you. It is quite the sight.

Until next time,


Needles Field Office, BLM

Farewell Post

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Well, I’m wrapping things up here in Dillon, Montana and heading off to who knows where.  I have a couple job leads but nothing for certain yet.  Crossing my fingers about landing a term position job with the Fish and Wildlife in Texas. The work itself would be really cool, collecting native seeds and growing them out in a refugia, then using those seedlings to restore a river with several exotic and invasive species.  I love seed collecting and have been doing it now for three field seasons. But it would be nice to watch the seeds grow, and then plant them– the whole full circle thing.  Also, it’s a GS 5-7-9 term position, which means it’s not seasonal work and after a year as a GS-5 you can get moved to a GS-7 and so on.

And I must say, it would be comforting to settle into a little adobe for a while.  In the last year I moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Duluth, Minnesota to Las Vegas, Nevada and finally to Dillon, Montana–all in the name of field work.  I can’t even begin to process all I have learned, and with a gypsy-type spirit I love hopping around the country. That said, I am so ready to get a cat, a garden plot, and just maybe an actual bed.


Anyway, last night there was a hard frost here!  Winter is definitely approaching.  I am working a lot with the range staff to implement new studies in areas where cattle did a number on the streams.  The range staff will continue to monitor these areas, looking at the trends in these areas in hope for improvement.  Elk and Moose also can potentially rip up the stream banks and chew the willows down as well but (moo) cows come in vast numbers and can hugely impact a stream bank in a matter of days. That’s why sometimes we just build a big fence around the stream (riparian area) to let it heal for a while.  The water is the most valuable resource out west, and unlike where I’m from (the Great Lakes), there isn’t too much of it.

IMG_5369Here are some photos from studies we implemented in areas that are quite obviously hurting.  We always put the pictures in the most beat-up areas, since they have potential to show the most improvement. The exposed soil you see is not ideal because the stream needs plants to hold up the stream bank, and prevent sand and silt from entering the stream.


I feel fortunate to have worked with and met all the nice folk here in Montana.  The range staff shared a wealth of knowledge with me about cattle, range-land health, hunting, horses, rodeos, Montana Flora, the list goes on.  Although culturally we come from very different places and backgrounds, I think we developed a respect and understanding of each other and that maybe they, likewise, learned a lot from me.

I will miss Montana dearly if I end up landing a job in a far off land like Texas.  I will certainly be back though, to the land where truly ‘the dear and the antelope roam’.

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It’s getting cold out there…

Whelp, field season is about over. Officially experienced the first frost and christened my fire place. Most activity has been drawn indoors, focusing on NEPA projects and sample design for SOS. I’m not sure how fruitful (no pun intended) my Seeds design will be. The idea is to use presence-absence data to prioritize collection areas. Once those have been designated, monitoring data from Assessment, Inventory and Monitoring (AIM) will be used to determine overall cover/density of target species. Seems good in theory, we’ll see if helps any, or if drive by botany is more effective. But what is critical to remember, is the relationship between soil and plant communities, hence in SOS, why we take into account the representative soil when making collections. Since SOS is new to the Taos FO, next summer will be a learning experience and to see if all this GIS work will actually yield something. In the interim, I leave you all with a recent article on the relationship between soil and plant diversity. Something to mull on until next month.
More plants. More dirt.

Back in Wyoming…not better, just different

Hello everyone,

Beautiful rural Vermont

Beautiful rural Vermont-foliar peak overlooking miscellaneous lake

Just visited Vermont last weekend for a wedding during its foliar peak.  I had left in May for my CLM internship after living there for 9 years! Beautiful colors, well-used hiking trails, and familiarity are all reasons I love Vermont. Comparatively, Vermont never offered me the wildness that Wyoming does! Even after hiking a section of the Long Trail (VT) for 10 days in October of last year, never once did I come across moose, deer, black bear, or other ungulates (only startled 2 grouse). What a disapointment!  Now, being in Wyoming, I can’t take a jog without coming across pronghorn, mule or white-tailed deer. Lovely bird songs seem to constantly be in choir when I’m outdoors. A hike in the Cloud Peak wilderness and I’m bound to run into more wildlife. I very much enjoy this part of the country.

Overlook at Grouse Mountain-3.5 miles up and what a lovely view, got to see it all over again on the way back down!

Overlook at Grouse Mountain-3.5 miles up and what a lovely view, got to see it all over again on the way back down! (Buffalo, Wyoming)

Originally, I moved to Wyoming for the seasonal work that the CLM internship offered, but now I realize it’s more than that. It’s not better than the northeast, as I had to explain to friends and family, it’s just different. I can’t emphasize that enough.

Jumping back into working for the BLM, after taking a extended break (10 days) from it, and the office is barren. Most people are out in the wilderness…hunting. The season just opened this past weekend. Mud cakes the Squeaky Kleen car wash from all the vehicles coming in after hunting. I know this specifically because I was there washing a vehicle today and the owner was complaining to me mid-wash. I assured him that the field vehicle was not a contributor.

Back in the office, I am catching up on emails and communicating with co-workers on projects for the coming weeks.  Currently working on a habitat restoration project for the Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocerus urophasianus) by conducting field work.  The field work includes; mapping Big Wyoming Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), Japanese Brome (Bromus japonicus) and Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) within historic wildfire perimeters.  The historic wildfires are found on GIS through an exisiting (out dated) layer.  Ground truthing is the focus right now, until end of October. Out in the field, mapping vegetation within the fire perimeters will be used to establish a vegetation layer in GIS.  A layer that will be available to the Buffalo Field office (BFO) and any other agency that may be interested.  The funding for this work came from the Powder River Basin Restoration initiative through the BLM, and pays for my internship with CBG.

The project began when my mentor, a former rangeland specialist, took on a new position at the BFO to restore the Powder River Basin.  After spit balling ideas with like professionals she crafted the project you read above.  With the help of the vegetation layer, which will cover BLM, state and private lands (within the BFO), we will be able to spray for annuals (targeting invasive) possibly 10+ years down the road.  The hope is that post spray the encroaching Bromus spp. will die off, which will give way to accessible bareground for native bunchgrasses to grow and out compete invasives. With native bunchgrasses back this provides desirable land for sage grouse habitat. Another implementation plan is to raise Big Wyoming Sage Brush and manually plant them in these historic wildfires to bring back habitat (post spray).  This has been very rewarding work, I am still in the preliminary stages. Please let me know if you have experience with this and what that experience was like in the comments section (thank you).

Originally, I thought there wouldn’t be work at BLM BFO this winter, but I was wrong. There is plenty of field work and plenty of office work too! I look forward to a Wyoming winter because it’s different from my native northeast and New England home base, and there is work to be done!

goings and stayings

The month of September has been filled with various goings and stayings. I continued going out in the field for the first three weeks of the month. When the massive Buzzard Complex Fire was put out, which roared through Eastern Oregon burning around 400,000 acres, I began traveling all over Harney County to take initial monitoring photos and notes at trend sites. Many of these plots are way out in the boonies and required several hours of travel over rough roads to get to. It has been interesting to see the variation in the intensity of the burns at different plots. Some plots were scourged bare, the black stumps of sage and rabbitbrush thrusting despondently from the soil, a few brown bottoms of burned perennial grasses here and there, but no green showing. Other plots had burned much more lightly and patchily, showing unburned clumps of vegetation and grass with seed heads intact. In many plots a little green had returned, only weeks after the fire. Rabbitbrush seemed particularly good at regenerating, and there was green at the base of the scorched bushes. The non-native perennial grass, crested wheatgrass, was also regenerating in many plots.


Burned plot within the Buzzard Complex Fire. This one has almost no vegetation left.


Something green is coming back!


Surveying the burn.

I also got to attend a tour of the Buzzard Complex Fire. This tour was to give members of other organizations a chance to see the scope of the fire. The hope was that seeing the fire and hearing members of the BLM and researchers from the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center speak would help them understand why particular rehabilitation efforts are important and gain their support. Mainly, they explained why it is important to use non-native species (mostly crested wheatgrass, perhaps forage kochia) for rehabilitation. Crested wheatgrass has shown a much higher rate of successful growth with aerial seeding than natives. The BLM staff emphasized that they are not against using natives, and if they were effective they also would prefer to use natives, but that since natives are not effective, it is important to get something that will seed successfully on the ground in order to prevent annual grasses from coming in and soil erosion. Having annual grasses come in and soil erosion creates another sluice of problems. There was a lot of discussion back and forth between the scientists, the BLM managers, and the guests, which was very interesting to listen in to. I think most of the guests were on board with the need to use non-native plants to rehab. Some of them seemed to be putting on battle faces to go back to their organizations and convince those dead set against using non-natives for rehabilitation.


Touring. You can see the burned hillsides in the background.


Dust cloud in the Buzzard Complex Fire. This is how erosion happens. Get some rehab in there!

As part of the tour, the researchers from the Agricultural Research Center showed us one of their research plots. Consisting of five subplots, the research is focused on understanding what treatment and vegetation is most effective for post-fire rehab. There was a control plot (no herbicide, no seed mix), a plot that was only sprayed with herbicide, a native only seed mix (herbicide, then seed application), a native/non-native, 50/50 ratio seed mix (mostly crested wheatgrass; herbicide, then seed application), and a seed mix with a higher ratio to non-native to native seed (herbicide, then seed application). There was a drastic difference in how the vegetation in each plot did after the fire swept through, and you could really see that the seed mix with the higher ratio of non-native bunchgrass seed had both more vegetation per square meter than the other plots, as well as having had greater fire resistance.


You can see the herbicide only plot in the forefront; without seeding the undesirable Russian thistle filled the open space. Behind that is the native/non-native seed mix with 50/50 ratio.

Besides all of the above, I have spent a significant amount of time staying in the office to complete paperwork. Along with getting all of our collected data organized, I have been helping the Rangeland Management Specialists enter data and organize it in file folders. Some of the data is from last year, so I am glad to help them catch up on it all. Everyone has a lot on their plates now, what with all the paperwork needed to secure funds to rehab this year’s burns. Settled at the computer in my little cubicle, I often hear bodiless voices drifting, expounding about the recent difficulties in getting the paperwork done. Clearly, there is a lot to be done and a lot of subtleties and complexities to contend with. It is not always easy working within such a large organization as the BLM. I have been amazed, however, by the integrity with which the members of this office approach their jobs. Despite setbacks and bureaucracy they really want to move forward and make progress by doing what is best for the land even if it is not the easiest to accomplish.


Getting work done in the cube. Even indoors, plants abound.

I am looking forward to the last month of my internship! I have absolutely no idea what I will be doing next week. 😉