Chasing Fall

Fall in Wyoming is beautiful, for its entire two weeks of existence. We’ve been lucky to have some warm days to spend in the field, soaking up as much Vitamin D as possible before winter sets in! While the snow slowly creeps down the mountain towards us with every passing storm, we’ve had the opportunity to go out with just about every department in the field office to complete last minute projects and learn more about each person’s role in land management. Highlights include: assisting the land survey teams, completing trail maintenance with recreation, visiting on-sites with the wildlife biologists, and talking to hunters about our public lands. Every day is something new, and it keeps things exciting, even as field season winds to a close.


Middle Fork Powder River Canyon

Snow on the Bighorns

Red Canyon near Kaycee, WY

One of the last sunny, beautiful field days!

From Observation to Prediction: Modeling Species Distributions in the Mojave Desert

As I’ve written before, my original internship period, which focused on developing priority species lists for restoration sites in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, has been extended into the fall in order to work on the next phase of this project. In this extension period, I have dramatically switched gears: from a mode of observation of how species in the low desert of southern Nevada and California operate to one of prediction. What is the scope of distribution for these species? What environmental variables impose limits on the breadth of their occurrence? And how can we make this information as accessible and useful to land managers as possible?


From the list of priority restoration species for the Mojave Desert, my Principal Investigators and I chose 50 species with which to take the next step: creating species distribution models (SDMs) to be incorporated into an adaptive management tool for BLM land managers. This tool would further expedite the restoration process by allowing BLM agents to create “seed menus” for recently disturbed sites. The idea is that land managers would be able to input coordinates for the site in need of restoration into this tool, and up will pop not just one, but a whole suite of plant species suited tailored for the restoration needs of that location, as well as viable seed source locations and information on ecosystem services (specifically for desert tortoise and pollinators) that those plants provide.


My main task in this endeavor has been to gather and vett species occurrence data to use as presence points in our models. My main sources for this information have been unpublished data sets from vegetation surveys taken across the Mojave and herbarium records from public databases such as the California Consortium of Herbaria and the Southwestern Environmental Information Network (SEINet). After a few weeks of gathering a robust number of points and giving them a thorough cleaning, we are ready to actually make some SDMs!

Ephedra nevadensis, one of the species for which we are producing distribution models for our Seed Menus project.


Our process involves three algorithms: 1) a General Additive Model (GAM), a crossbreed between General Linear Models and Additive Models, 2) Random Forest, which is basically a decision tree on steroids, and 3) MaxEnt, the famed maximum entropy algorithm. We first produce an equal number of pseudoabsences (randomly generated points from likely habitat) to go with our presence points. True absence data are rare in vegetation data, so generation of these pseudoabsences is necessary to provide a comparison to presence data. To reduce bias in the data, we thin the presence points to one per grid cell (size of grid cells) and weight ones that are highly isolated from any neighbors. A further bias test we do is cross-validation, in which different models are tested with 75 randomly selected points for a preliminary analysis of goodness-of-fit. After that, we go through each algorithm and formulate response curves of our points to different environmental variables – this helps us determine which variables best explain variance in the data. We then choose a few preliminary models of the best-fitting response curves, and take the mean of these models for each algorithm. After going through all three, we take our top model choices for each algorithm, and take what is known as an ensemble mean. Once this is done, we conduct a last evaluation of performance using the Boyce Index and mask any impervious surfaces in our layers. And voila! We have a robust distribution map for one of our species.

Models of sample data produced with GAM, Random Forest, and MaxEnt algorithms, as well as an ensemble model (the mean of the previous three outputs).

This one-at-a-time approach takes quite a while, but it’s worth it to get sound results for each species. There are alternative modeling methods that are faster (such as Canonical Correspondence Analysis), but the results they produce are not as robust in terms of individual species. Our method aims to produce the most accurate and useful information possible for land managers in the Mojave Desert. With more disturbance happening in the Desert Southwest than ever before, it’s imperative that we have the tools to make sound, on-the-fly decisions. I’m excited to see this tool be put to use in the coming years; to get a better understanding of its strengths and limitations.

A Plethora of New Opportunities

Over the past month, I have had the opportunity to work on many new projects. The first being a hike through Sweetwater Canyon. This hike occurs every year when the Aspen and Willow leaves just start changing color. We were split into two teams; each team taking half of the canyon. The goals for the hike were to document changes in vegetation along the greenline, find, re-take, and GPS record location photos, and to find any stray cows that may have been missed. Though challenging, finding old photo locations was fun (we only had old photos to go off of) and rewarding. My team also looked for signs of Boreal Frogs in the canyon as we hiked and salamanders on some riparian areas outside the canyon where they had previously been recorded. Sadly, we didn’t find any.

After the canyon hike, we had a few days of not so pleasant weather. With that came a lot of office work. Office worked involved filing (which I enjoy a few good hours of filing), creating a master allotment file for the Wildlife people to use, and assisting with billing catch-up. Billing was an interesting task. We ended up having to redo a bunch of letters we had made because we were informed we did something wrong through no fault of our own. The person teaching us how to make the letters forgot to tell us about a portion so we ended up spending an extra day fixing our letters. This was no problem at all since the field was inaccessible.

Snow…. I was not expecting you so soon.

Once the weather cooperated, we made our way back out into the field in search of cattle! By this time, most cattle had left the allotments in which we worked. We did find a few stragglers but they made it home. In searching for any cattle that may have been forgotten, my partner and I noticed many more horses. We couldn’t tell if we had just never noticed them because of our fixation on cattle or if more had shown up. Seeing them in such large herds was beautiful.

We came across a huge herd of horse while searching for cattle.

Looking out across one of the pastures scanning for any left cattle.

Scanning for the ever elusive cattle. None were to be found!

Currently, we are finishing up some final measurements in our key riparian areas, making some new fences safe for Sage Grouse, and starting an Environmental Assessment (EA) so we can get more experience with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). I look forward to the last month of this internship and all of the continuing education and experience I shall gain.

Seed to Flower

The last three months of my internship has been focused on Seeds of Success and a plethora of other seed related activities!

My team was able to collect 43 species and had a great time scouting, keying plants, taking herbarium vouchers and processing the collections. The Medford, OR district BLM has been involved with the program since the founding of the program in 2010 and has one of the largest number of collections, currently at 1068! This posed some difficulty for us but also lead to opportunities to find unique collections such as a succulent and riparian species.

We were also able to work in two Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). French Flat and King Mountain and collected seeds of two federally listed species Hackelia bella (Greater showy stick seed) and Sidalcea hickmanii ssp. petraea (Neil Rock sidalcea – We hiked up to the only know endemic population!) One of the collections I really enjoyed was Xerophyllum tenax (Bear grass), here is the plant and one of my favorite pictures I took this summer.

Xerophyllum tenax at King Mountain Area of Critical Environmental Concern

Hackelia bella (Greater showy stick seed) collected from the Cascade Siskiyou Monument. Vouchers can be so beautiful!

Along with SOS, we participated in various other seed activities.  For a few days we filled seed orders for fire remediation and restoration projects. We would go into huge seeds coolers to search for the seed lot then weigh, mix and packaged seeds. We mixed orders up to 950 lbs in a kiddy pool! (Deschampsia cespitosa seeds are one of the softest materials I have ever felt!)

I also attended a Nature Conservancy restoration volunteer day at the Agate Desert preserve. In the spring they did a control burn across the property and have been spreading seed in vernal pool communities this fall. The day I helped we spread 19 lbs of federally-listed endangered Lomatium cooki (Cook’s desert parsley). I hope to stay around the area and see how this bare land blossoms in the coming year.

Federally-listed endangered Lomatium cooki (Cook’s desert parsley) at The Nature Conservancy’s Agate Desert Preserve.

I also had the chance to help out this week at the USFS J. Herbert Stone Nursery. The nursery is 311 acres, including 240 acres of native plant production! We helped package one-year old tress to be sent out around the Pacific Northwest and got a great tour of the facilities. Many of the seeds collected through the SOS program are grown out here for seed increase to be used in a variety of projects from restoration to fire remediation.

Another cycle is coming to an end, for me and the seeds. Cant wait to see how we blossom next season!

Pseudotsuga menziesii saplings at Stone Nursery

The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sienna M. Grants Pass, OR – BLM

Putting Seed Collections to Use

There is an old site called American Flat

That was once an old building infested with rats.

BLM tore it down just a few years ago

And now it’s an empty cheatgrass-covered plateau.

We’ve been there a few times already this year

To pull out the thistles that always appear.

It was the very first field trip we took as a team

When the snow was so white it still let off a gleam.

In spring, we cut tops off some new willow shoots

To be buried in bags hoping they would grow roots.

And hooray! That they did! To new roots they were bound

And my co-interns planted them right in the ground.

For a while we forgot about this little site

While distracted by fruits, weeds, rare species, new sights…

Just last week, though, we opened our GIS map

And unearthed pounds of seed we had stored in burlap.

We calculated seed mixes for each polygon

And even though a few species were already gone,

We brought what we had to measure, mix, and pour

And then picked up the nifty hand seeders we wore.

They dispersed through a field dominated by weeds

But the first mix we used was just super light seeds.

Those wee particles just got caught and got stuck

But we had an idea! The seed bag must be struck!

As one intern turned the seed wheel with a wrist

Another walked beside, punching it with a fist.

Alas, not all of our mixes required this tactic,

But after two days we all needed chiropractic.

We’d set out native seed, a few hundred pounds,

Then we headed on home on the road back to town.

That was all we could do for those small plants-to-be

Now all we could do was sit tight, wait and see.

Maybe next year, or later, they’ll sprout and they’ll grow,

The restoration process is nothing if not slow.

But we have high hopes for our small weedy plot,

And someday it could be a quite different spot.

Cattail, rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, squirreltail

They’ll make good habitat for the hare and the quail.

It might not be quick and it might not be neat,

But with just enough time, all the weeds can be beat.


Brand New

The end is finally here. When I started this venture in June, I had no idea that it would fly by so quickly and that I would grow so much.

Throughout this internship, I have witnessed myself become much more independent, more experienced, more confident, more thoughtful, and more informed about my personal interests and future career goals.

Some of my favorite memories and most rewarding experiences include:

National Trails Day, the second annual release of the black-footed ferret, National Public Lands Day and increasing accessibility at our Hogan and Luce Recreation Area, Great Dam Day, and of course the solar eclipse.

One of the finished camp sites at Hogan Reservoir. This project was probably the most challenging one. It required a ton of collaboration, equipment, materials and physical work. I am very happy that I got to contribute and be a part of it from start to finish.

Many of the projects I worked on this summer provided me with new skills such as installing signs and trail guides, installing bear boxes, installing fire rings, installing picnic tables, digging trenches and installing timbers to delineate campsites, installing livestock tanks, increasing recreation site accessibility to meet ADA/ABA requirements, mixing and pouring cement, and spreading and compacting gravel. I also learned how to use a variety of tools that I had never seen before. These include a post pounder, an auger, a chop saw, a sledge hammer, a Pulaski, a rock bar, a tamper, a gravel compacter, a york rake, a power washer, and the list goes on and on. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed using them all. Except for maybe the tamper when I accidentally tamped down on my toe. Ouch!

I wish I had taken advantage of working with our GIS Specialist a bit more because I hope to keep building on those skills in the future. However, I did gain many new experiences and skills working in the field that I never expected to learn.

Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned:

I am not a botanist, nor do I ever want to be.

Don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re doing the best you can. Learn to give yourself some credit and reflect on how far you’ve come.

There is something you can learn from everybody you meet.

You can’t please everyone, nor should you try. Some people aren’t going to like or understand the goal that you are trying to achieve, and that is okay.

As one door closes, another door opens…at the end of October, I will be taking over as the new Administrative Support Assistant for the BLM Cody Field Office. I am sad to end my CBG internship adventures, but I am very much looking forward to all of the new opportunities this position will bring now and in the future. I am also very excited to call Cody, WY my permanent home and continue exploring beautiful Wyoming and the Greater Yellowstone Area.

In the words of Tom Petty “you belong somewhere you feel free”. For me it’s Wyoming…for now 🙂

Melissa Higley

Recreation Intern

Bureau of Land Management ~ Cody Field Office