Fire and Flood in Kern County

Over my first eight weeks at the Ridgecrest office, I’ve slowly grown accustomed to the procedures of making SOS collections. And thankfully, with some help from Sarah De Groot (a field botanist from The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden), my fellow intern and I have gained some competency in local field botany. But, happily, just as I’d begun to settle into the process of scouting and seed collection, new tasks and challenges appeared, maintaining the pace of learning and adaptation that was set by the first few weeks of work here.

Two weeks ago, I felt as though I was just first coming to grips with the process of making Seeds of Success collections, when Sarah De Groot took me and two other interns along on a collection trip in the Amargosa Range, near Death Valley. However, while she instructed us on exactly how to make a collection of either seed or tissue, Sarah didn’t necessarily stress the importance of always being prepared to make an SOS collection. As I’ve now experienced on multiple occasions, upon setting out to scout for populations, I won’t necessarily find the plants that I need. However, I may find a large, healthy population on a day which was initially set aside for range land health assessments, or for monitoring a listed species. While herbarium and database consulting was useful in the first weeks here, overall, the most productive strategy has been to simply keep my eyes open and be prepared to make voucher collections while going about other business.

Our camp for the night, near Twelvemile Spring, at sunset.





The most recent work that has come my way is the task of monitoring a few State listed plant populations in our field office. In particular, my fellow Ridgecrest intern and I were met by another working botanist from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Naomi Fraga. She did her Master’s work on the Kelso valley region of Kern County, near Weldon, California. As such, she was interested in joining us for a quick estimate of the Mimulus shevockii population in the area, which was subjected to a burn during last year’s Erskine Fire.
Luckily, the fire appeared to burn relatively cool in the area. Although the area covered by the burn was large, it didn’t appear to affect the seed bed of M. shevockii, which bounced back in even higher numbers than were found last year just before the fire. We estimated that the region supports around 1,220 individuals total, with about 55% of them in the fire-affected area. Since the Erskine fire was widely hailed as one of the most destructive in Kern County’s history, it is nice to see that some of the local plant life has managed to pull through. And, on another positive note, it would appear that like the local plant life, nearby communities affected by the Erskine fire have also begun to reclaim areas lost to the blaze.

The Kelso Creek area, one year after the Erskine fire.

A rather large example of Mimulus shevockii Heckard & Bacig.

Ironically enough, many other areas of the Ridgecrest field office have been subjected to flooding this year, due to uncharacteristically heavy rainfall. That rainfall ended the five-year drought which contributed to the intensity of the Erskine fire, but it has also been responsible for flooding throughout the state. We need to make significant policy changes to combat the effects and causes of this volatile weather, in order to protect both ourselves and the environment around us. As we saw many times this year, we cannot always insulate ourselves from the effects that severe weather has on the landscape. Human lives are also tied up in the balance.


The Cubicle Chronicles: Pt 2

As spring begins to slowly creep into Anchorage, AK, so does the summer 2017 field season. New software installs for field PCs, digital and physical data clean-up/organization, equipment inventories and government training courses begin taking up a considerable chunk of time. Lucky for me, I already went through the wringer last season with government fieldwork-related training standard to RM positions in Alaska. So the training workload is much lighter this time around.

My recent worklife, among other projects, has been primarily focused on QA/QC of the past 4 years of Forest Vegetation Inventory Surveys (FORVIS) to assure it meets all of the requirements specified by the FORVIS protocol, and also compatibility with the Forest Vegetation Simulator (FVS), which has yet to be established in the state of Alaska. Consolidation of this data has proved tricky, and I am happy to have finally started wrapping up the project. Ironically, the entry of our data could not have had better timing, as the inventory system is soon to be decommissioned this month and plot data transferred to the Ecosurvey database and transferring to it everything collected with FORVIS and its associated protocol. I cannot say this is particularly saddening for AK, as we have yet to actually submit any data to the mother database, Informix, which will no longer be the final resting place of the forest inventory data. It’s both impressive and incredibly frustrating in realization of how quickly technology becomes outdated and must be replaced. I just hope that the FORVIS data collected in the past is properly integrated into the new system. In the meantime, I am producing ArcMap feature classes for all our existing data based on the lat longs I have been able to track down, and hoping this spatial data can be utilized for cross reference once everything has been migrated into Ecosurvey.

Looking forward to the next month, we have AIM training in Billings, MT, ATV/UTV training and bear safety coming up shortly. Before I know it, I’ll be getting dropped out of a helicopter to conduct ecological site descriptions in the boreal forest. Boo-ya!

Best of luck to all to all the new CLM interns soon to relocate all over US in the name of conservation! You are soon to become part of this exciting effort, and surrounded by the passionate individuals that facilitate its development.


“walk a simple path a simple way”

For my third and final CLM internship I am in our nation’s floristic gem. I’ve been reeling in excitement since spring’s arrival, so many plants and so little time! I was very worried about starting work in the California Floristic Province due to the number of plants, I felt pretty rough from not being able to botanize over winter. However, a lot of my fears have been allayed- and while I’m definitely not back at even close to full ability yet, I am on the upswing.

Vertic clay soil community, Panoche Hills

I am working in the Central Coast field office with botanist Ryan O’Dell. For the last month and a half we have largely been working in the San Joaquin Desert ecosystem. It is a rather interesting system and while a part of the CFP has a very strong Mojave desert (Dmoj) affinity. As I always like to think about it, why learn one flora when you can be a geek and work on learning two floras? The area has allowed me to start to learn about the hot desert, and annual plant life. I have actually had very little experience with the annual life cycle so this is very valuable experience. In particular I am very interested in inconspicuous low statute annuals, especially when they are ‘understory’ (of other annuals!). I’m finally seeing a lot of stuff I’ve been reading in Venable papers, especially about year to year co-existence dynamics. I have a whole slew of questions stemming from these topics now, but am having difficulties designing experiments to test them.

In principal our work tasks are simple, to survey and document the diversity of plant life across our field district. Our area, which is mostly in San Benito county is a pretty incredible natural laboratory. Their is a diverse range of geologies (e.g. Sandstone, Marine shale, and Serpentine) generating a number of soils which foster distinct edaphic endemic plant species. Due to a lot of this area being poorly accessible due to steep topography, private ranch ownership, and few roads, the area is shockingly under-botanized, for any Western state, let alone California. Accordingly, many of the plants which occur on these unique soils have been seldom collected historically and are believed by many to warrant some type of conservation status.

sandstone conglomerate ‘fin’, with marine shale in foreground

So we survey extensively, and share information regarding the number, location, and general size of the local plants and their populations. Fortunately, due to Ryan’s understanding of the relationships between geology, soils, and plants, we have been able to find many very large populations. Furthermore, what’s awesome is that due to their edaphic habitats these plants are not being encroached upon by noxious weeds, and their habitats are generally undesirable for human usage (eg. mineral or fossil fuel extraction, and cattle ignore them), and so the plants must only adapt in the face of climate change. In my budding professional opinion, a great deal of these species are safe for a long time to come! I anticipate that they may have rather infrequent above-ground showings for a couple hundred years, but will be fine. Fortunately knowing this will allow Conservation efforts to focus on other more deserving of immediate attention taxa.

Caulanthus inflatus (Brassicaceae), interesting study plant for mulling over water dynamics

This job is pretty incredible so far. We basically camp out and spend four days of the week botanizing all day. Then we both split up and spend the next three weekend days botanizing and then tell each other about it during the week. I’m learning a lot, I’ve already collected about 300 specimens for herbaria collections and keyed nearly all of them, and I anticipate that I will keep up to that rate of about 8 plants/day throughout the next few months. As you could imagine I am becoming pretty OK at identifying plants. Most importantly to me is developing my understanding of the relationship between geology, soils, and plant life; and being able to identify soil and minerals types for make astute botanical observations.

As always current readings: closing out on Crawleys Plant Ecology and starting up on John Thompsons  the Coevolutionary Process. I am reading a lot less these days, and well I guess doing science now. I am spending most of my free time collecting and studying specimens. I’m also getting a lot more into plotting, and graphing, my field observations and am slowly warming up on doing more theoretical matrice and mathematical modeling of them and hypothesis derived from these observations.

Assessing reproductive status of disjunct, and slowly recruiting Astragalus pachypus var pachypus

“Not to run away
Just to live a day
To carry my load on my back and walk
On the Crest running next to the sea
The Crest running next to the sea”

-the Crest by Hot Buttered Rum String Band

Greetings from Arcata!

My last few weeks have been filled with dunes, dunes, dunes, and more dunes!  I’ve got one more transect left, and I’ll admit that I’ll miss doing these surveys.  After a bit of a rocky start learning all of the new species, I’ve become quite familiar with the regulars!  Many of the plants are now blooming as well, and put on quite a show on a sunny day.

My favorite dune plant – Claytonia perfoliata ssp. perfoliata – also known as miner’s lettuce! These guys were hiding under a big bushy lupine!

Dune survey at Mattole Beach! One of the most beautiful places I have ever been!

A pretty patch of Platystemon californicus (cream cups) with a few Plectritis congesta (sea blush) mixed in!

When it has just been too rainy to go out into the field, I’ve been working on my ArcGIS skills, attending meetings, getting ready for SOS collections, and planning out the rest of my internship! Last week I attended the North Coast Botanical Meeting, where biologists from all sorts of government agencies and private industries got together to discuss what they think are the most pressing issues in the Northern CA botany world.  It was really interesting to see what everybody was working on, and a great opportunity to meet a lot of folks I’ll probably be working with in the next few months!



Eaters of the Purple Sage

Last Friday, I woke up before my alarm.  This in itself wasn’t unusual—even for me—but the fact that I’d jumped the gun on an alarm I’d set for 4:00 A.M. was.  I was due to meet my mentor, Destin Harrell, at the Cody BLM office, and ride shotgun with him to count grouse.

Both species of sage grouse—the “greater” found across much of the west, and the “Gunnison’s” limited to Colorado and a sliver of Utah—gather at sites called leks in the spring, where dozens or hundreds of males display and occasionally clash in the hope of attracting mates. Continue reading

Field Season Preparations

Getting prepared for the start of the field season means more forays out onto Public land to dust off my Botany skills. This included a trip down to the Organ Mountains Desert-Peaks National Monument outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. This is a stunning BLM-managed Monument which provides an intimidating jagged ridge line (see photo below). Although most well known for the abundance of beautiful granite and rhyolite formations, the Organ Mountains are (arguably) the most botanically diverse range in New Mexico, including several endemic species.

Sunrise creeping over the Organ Mountains from my campsite

My little jaunt into this Monument took me up 4000 ft to the highest peak in the range, the Organ Needle. As I hiked creosote desert shrub-land transitioned into fields of wildflowers, oak and juniper woodlands, and ponderosa pine forest. At the summit I was rewarded with an outstanding view north in White Sands National Park and south into Mexico and Texas.

View into White Sands National Park from Organ Needle peak

Of course the hike took me twice as long as it should since I was stopping every few minutes to admire/key the myriad forbs, grasses, shrubs and trees that accompanied me along the way. My favourite of the day was the beautiful (and delicious) Desert Onion as seen below.

Allium macropetalum – abundant on the footslopes of the Organ Mountains

As well as botanizing to my heart’s content I have also been preparing for the upcoming AIM training in Grand Junction, CO next month. One of my responsibilities as an instructor is to gather and process soil samples for the 70 participants to train with. While this does involve exciting expeditions out into the field to source these soils, it also requires hours of tedious sieving and quality control. Below is my makeshift workstation.

Sieving soil for the upcoming AIM training

Working with the BLM in Bishop

Three weeks have passed since I made the big move out to Bishop, CA. My first week here was full of training videos and driving tours of the land. My mentor and I spent a couple days in the field together that week, I was armed with plant lists and ready to learn the native flora. It’s crazy how many shrubs are out here, distinguishing among the Atriplex species is still driving me crazy. I’m looking forward to honing in on my shrub ID skills though- lots of studying to be done! I have mainly spent my time surveying the land the Bishop field office manages (meaning I get to go off-roading all day in big trucks!) for any wild flowers beginning to sprout. My aim is to find large enough populations of plants to collect seed from when the time is right. There are so many beautiful cactus and bright yellow annuals popping up currently. So far I am anticipating a seed collection of a Lepidium flavum population and maybe a Mentzelia population. Other flowering plants popping up include species in the Eriophyllum, Syntrichopappus, Phacelia, Cryptantha, and Amsinckia genus. I spent a few days last week camping in the Amargosa Valley with Sarah DeGroot, the Seeds of Success coordinator from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. We went over how to properly collect seed in the field and how to do tissue sample collections. It was a very useful and fun experience.

Besides the Seeds of Success program I have been involved in the Sage-Grouse study our field office does. I’m looking forward to learning more about these funny looking birds as I have more opportunities to participate in the lek counts. I’ve heard the counts take place around sunrise when the birds are the most active, which means I will need to be out of bed around 4 am, the joy! I have also heard about bat surveys which take place a little later in the summer and I’m hoping I can tag along for some of those. I love the variety of work I am able to participate in, it makes the days go by fast and I absolutely love learning new things.

Working with the BLM has been great fun so far and I’m looking forward to all the new experiences to come.

Brittany Betz

BLM Bishop Field Office

Back In The West, Utah Edition

For my second CBG stint, I have been sent to the Salt Lake Field Office in Salt Lake City, Utah. Instead of focusing all my energy on AIM, I now join the vast league of interns who have and who currently are participating in the Seeds of Success program. I have been here with the other SOS intern, Theresa, for about a month now. In that time, we’ve tried to educate ourselves on our focus species, other species that our office has a particular interest in, and some opportunistic species that we may have the ability to collect.

In addition to learning about these grass and forb species, we have been fiddling around on GIS trying to make adequate maps for where we can potentially find some populations. Theresa and I have the unique experience in being the first official SOS interns this field office has ever had. While that is exciting, it’s also kind of difficult at times. Compared to the last BLM office I was in, this office lacks a lot in materials available to us. Luckily, we have a substantial budget that gives us the ability to order all the supplies we think we’ll need this season. The most valuable thing to us so far has been a copy of Utah Flora and a small grasses booklet.

The best key we have to use

I can’t help but compare where I was last year in Buffalo, Wyoming to where I am now. For being neighboring states, there is already a whole bunch of new vegetation and landscapes to get to know. Luckily, there’s some old favorites that I can recognize as they start to pop up in the warming weather. Technically I am in the West Desert district now, so it’s going to get super dry before I know it!

When I’m not attempting to be a botanist and also not on the hunt for housing (SLC is notorious for a large housing demand it can’t keep up with I have learned), I’m trying to explore the area as much as possible. SLC feels more like a big town than a city, and it’s not a bad thing. There’s plenty of cool hiking trails in the Wasatch Range in the city’s backyard that I’m eager to check out and there’s plenty of museums and other things to occupy my time. I’ve never lived in a place so dominated by one religious sect, so that’s been a new and interesting experience for me as well.

Overall, I’m looking forward to this field season and contributing to the SOS network of native seeds!

-Corinne Schroeder

Concerning the need for a distant horizon in a biologist’s education

Freedom, though not necessarily ease, of movement over expanses of land allows for a far more visceral understanding of the lives of wild animals and plants than could any amount of reading. The two ways of knowing are, of course, deeply and necessarily complimentary, but not until a student of nature has moved for a time across a landscape wide enough to allow them to experience and negotiate a variety of environments and conditions will they have more that an abstract understanding of the lives and histories of the place’s inhabitants.

(The Clan Alpine Mountains, Churchill co., NV, from the floor of Dixie Valley)

A student of biogeography, one interested in the peculiar distribution of a montane species in the the basin and range province offers a useful illustration of this complimentarity. A review of the literature concerning this hypothetical species shows that it hasn’t been recorded beneath about 7000 feet in elevation. Strangely, though, not all areas above 7000 feet in the region harbor this species. Why? Clearly the hot, alkaline basins surrounding montane areas in this region are insurmountable barriers to migration.

(Equisetum sp., in Ash Canyon, Carson City, Nevada)

A long hike or drive on dirt roads from ridge to ridge via an intervening basin, taken with plenty of water but with no books, lays the foundation for this abstract answer to become a visceral understanding of what is, of how things operate. The mountain air where the species is found cools the sweat on the brow while the basin’s hot wind leaves skin dry and with an accumulation of gritty salt and dust. The distances involved, easily laid out on a map, are more comprehensible from the point of view of a wild thing after half an hour of bouncing across a dirt road brings only a small change to one’s view of a distant ridge.

(A violet in a a sunny ponderosa pine woodland)



Bumbling Towards Becoming A Botanist

This week marks the first paid position I have had as a scientist.  In my confusing middle twenties I tried a lot of different jobs and walked a winding path towards where I am now.  I have always been curious and appreciative of the outdoors, but it wasn’t until I stumbled into a job as a summer school teacher, which eventually led to an “outdoor fun” position where I got to take kids hiking everyday, did I consider doing it as a job and career.  I kept this job for the next 4 summers, while I eventually went on to get a Master’s in Environmental Education.

While studying I bumbled towards another realization that as much I loved and still do love sharing and experiencing nature with students I became interested in other aspects of our interaction with the environment.  Along the way farming and agriculture took ahold of me, and I spent a year helping to manage a mixed organic farm.  Farming likewise will keep a part of my heart, but my favorite part of it was the idea of land restoration and conservation and understanding the native plants in the area, and again felt drawn towards another opportunity.

Now I feel like I have arrived at a new window and opportunity in my life.  Taking on changing career paths from a Business undergrad towards a Biology based career took an intense amount of time, effort, and self-discipline to take extra classes and go a bit above and beyond to feel confident and competent in my abilities to change.

I have often felt worried and self-conscious about my wandering jobs and interests, and watched as friends pass me in their development of their jobs and lives as I felt I was moving sideways.  However, the joy of starting a job I know I am going to love, and of finding a milestone through a string of big and confusing decisions, really brings me a sense of contentment. Plus it also brought me to some flowers.

Cat’s Ear Lily, a common flower that is in the same genus as a lot of endangered lilies in the area

One of the federally listed endangered plants in the Rogue Valley of Oregon