A Seed Frenzy and Birthday Sunset

The view of Spooner Lake (front right) and Lake Tahoe (back left) from the top of White Hill in the Tahoe National Forest.

This past week, my field partner and I went on a five-day field tour throughout the Nevada Carson District in search of target plant populations to collect seed from. We scout for various target plant species common to the Great Basin within public lands that can then be used for research and restoration practices centering on improving native seed-based restoration. This week, our scouting brought us to the Pah Rah, Pine Nut, Carson, and Bald mountain ranges in search of late flowering/seeding forbs from our target species list. During this hitch, not only did we make four different seed collections, but I celebrated my twenty-third birthday.

The view from the Pah Rah Range of the Reno-Sparks area.

On our first day, we traveled to the Pah Rah Range to look for a population of Machanthera canescens, Hoary Tansyaster, to determine its phenology and whether or not we will be able to make a seed collection from the population. We found our population in a flowering stage and determined we will have to revisit for potential seed collection on the next hitch!

The view of the Carson Plains from Old Como Road on our ascent on Como mountain.

We then traveled south to the Pine Nut Mountains to check on populations of Machanthera canescens. The road was a rock climb the entire ride up, but we found that it was the perfect time to collect seed from our population! We were able to make a sizeable collection of seeds that will be sent to Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) to be used for common garden studies on native plant community restoration. We were also relieved to not have to travel on the rocky road again!

That night we camped on Mount Rose and traveled back to the Pine Nut Mountains in the morning to check on another population of Macanthera canescens. We were able to once again make a seed collection from our population to be sent for research at RMRS. After a morning of seed collection in the Pine Nut Mountains, we then traveled to the Carson Range near the California border and the Tahoe National Forest to check on populations of another one of our target species, Phacelia hastata or Silverleaf Phacelia. Upon checking on our Phacelia population, we realized the size and extent of our population was much larger than we initially thought. It was so large it required two days for seed collection! We were able to make a collection that can be used for both research purposes and for native seed-based restoration in the Great Basin! It was so exciting for us to be able to make our first restoration size collection from a plant species we have only been able to find in small populations throughout our district. This collection reminded us once again the importance of our positions. With every collection we make, we are working to progress and support native seed-based restoration within the Great Basin, which is under tremendous pressure from rising anthropogenic activity and global climate change. Within the past decade, the Great Basin has experienced increased frequency and intensity wildfires, with some summers burning over a million acres of rangeland. Currently, the Great Basin is challenged by increased fire occurrence and pressure on the landscape from cattle grazing and other anthropogenic activities. This has lead to a profound alteration in native plant diversity in some areas as invasives such as cheatgrass and western brome replace native sagebrush and perennial grass communities. By collecting native seeds to be used for restoration in post-burn sites within the Great Basin, we are working to disrupt the positive feedback loop created between noxious weed species and fire regimes in the Great Basin.

Phacelia hastata, or Silverleaf Phacelia, basking in the sweet sunshine.

On top of having a seed collection win in Tahoe forest, we also found a campsite with a breath-taking view of Lake Tahoe. For dinner, we made a campfire and watched the sun set on Lake Tahoe from our campsite. As I reflected on the day, I thought to myself that there was no better way to spend my twenty-third birthday. I traveled throughout the most beautiful parts of Nevada to collect seeds that will be used for native seed-based restoration within the Great Basin to remediate the effects of wildfires. I am so grateful for this job and all the life lessons + adventures it comes with. Even more so, I am grateful to be working to conserve life and land in the beautiful Great Basin for future generations to enjoy just as much as I am.

My birthday sunset view of Lake Tahoe from within the Tahoe National Forest.

The Difficulties of Grazing Management and Wild Horses

Managing range lands can be difficult. As far as my job goes; it can be difficult to get close enough to cattle to identify brands and to get clear photos of them (each rancher has their own brand), constantly finding cows that are in the wrong pastures, a.k.a. out of compliance, can be frustrating and require a lot of paperwork. For my manager, and other full time range technicians, it can be tough to tell ranchers to move their cattle in a pleasant, but not overly passive tone. Being told what to do can be frustrating, and frankly some of the ranchers really don’t like the Bureau of Land Management, and frequently resist cooperation. I met a rancher who came out to help our crew find some past monitoring transects. He seemed agreeable enough, and was obviously kind enough to help out some BLM workers. But near the end of the day he made some comment about how the ranchers would do well at managing the land without the BLM telling them what to do. This might be true for some ranchers, but definitely not all. The data that my coworkers and I have gathered shows that overgrazing is currently occurring.

To give the ranchers the benefit of the doubt, it can be tough for them to keep track of all of their cattle while they roam thousands of acres of land, and moving the cattle seems like an ordeal that requires a significant number of people and resources. In addition to the inter-relational challenges of range land management, there are the effects of wildlife on the land. Cows are not the only animals grazing the public lands of south-central Wyoming. The presence of grazing wild animals can be a source of tension and ambiguity between ranchers and those monitoring the land. The BLM may attribute the degradation of the land to a lack of cooperation from ranchers and their cattle, while the ranchers claim that the impact of wildlife is to blame. Not all grazers play a role that directly competes with that of cattle. There is one animal that is of primary concern, that is horses. Namely, wild horses.

Horses feed in the same areas as cattle, and they share similar diets. One study suggests that the dietary overlap between horses and cattle during the summer averages 72 percent and in the winter increased to 84 percent (Krysl et al., 1984). And I would assume that since horses like riparian areas, their trampling of saturated, bare ground can have the same detrimental effects on stream banks as that of cattle. The population of wild horses is supposedly above carrying capacity, but there is no clear, ethical method to control them. Euthanasia can be viewed as inhumane, and thus, controversial, and rounding up horses and moving them to less populated areas is not enough. Adoption does seem to be a valid solution to controlling numbers of wild horses, but there is just not enough of it. Getting the word out to the public seems like a clear way to take a step in the right direction.

On a lighter note, the background of wild horses is pretty interesting. Horses are not really native to North America, at least not modern day horses. Horses were native to the continent but died-out after the last ice age. We can thank Spanish explorers and other European settlers for bringing the horse back to North America. But very few wild horses we see out west are descendants of those brought over by Cortez and Coronado. Most are descendants of horses that escaped from their owners only in the past 100-150 years. The term “wild” is not technically correct either. The horses are “feral,” like an escaped house cat that has learned how to survive without human assistance (Crane et al., 1995). But “wild” sound better, it’s more romantic…I doubt the Rolling Stones would have had a hit with “Feral Horses”.

Signing Off from Klamath Falls

It’s hard to believe our internship experience is over in a week! I’ve met people here who have helped to shape my future and have had professional and personal experiences that make me feel ready to roll into graduate school. I am so excited to be heading back to my fiance but I will sorely miss the Klamath River Basin and all of its natural beauty.

Through mid-August, we conducted surveys to compare night-time snorkel sampling efficiency against electrofishing for bull trout in Three Mile Creek near Ritter, Oregon. Besides getting a solid workout dragging myself across a creek bed, catching sight of a bull trout with my dive light and watching them interact with their environment from their perspective was one of my favorite experiences thus far!

On one of these night-time excursions, Brianne caught sight of a spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) that flew overhead and perched just beyond our car! It was a special experience and I hope our sighting helps the Forest Service pinpoint another nest.

Over the course of this internship I’ve received a crash course in fish hatchery construction and daily operation, had a chance to collect and care for larval fish as part of an endangered species rearing program, participated in bat mist netting in California, helped with passive transponder tag (PIT) fish telemetry surveys on Upper Klamath Lake, checked wildlife cameras for signs of wolves and found deer, elk, coyote, and bear (oh my), electrofished in the Gearhart Wilderness, conducted night-time snorkel surveys, worked through applied problems in R Studio and ArcGIS, transferred freshwater mussels out of dangers way for a future restoration project, and contributed research and writing to the field office knowledge base, and so much more.

I’m happier, healthier, and more knowledgeable than I was when I started this internship. And I have about 3,000 more pictures now than I had at the start – there is a photo-op at every turn here. On the weekends we explored this beautiful region by hiking and camping.

Thank you so so so much to my fabulous fellow interns and housemates, Brianne and Jessie, and our supervisor, Nolan. This experience would have been a fraction of what it was without them here. Nolan was always ready to line us up with a new work experience! Jessie, Brianne, and I had some truly epic times while we were here and I can’t wait to see where life takes both of them. I will truly miss working at the Kalamth Falls FWS Field Office. Thank you to Krissa, Chris, and everyone who makes these experiences possible at the Chicago Botanic Garden!



NNIS Knockout

As two of four certified pesticide applicators on the Monongahela National Forest, my cointern, Abbie, and I have become an important part of boots-on-the-ground action against non-native invasive species (NNIS). 

In July, we started conducting trailhead surveys as a part of a forest-wide NNIS management project. There are sixty trails that Abbie and I are responsible for traveling to and checking for NNIS. To conduct these surveys, we look around the parking area/trailhead and walk a half mile into the trail, looking for high-priority invasives. When we find one, we double check our identification then take down information on both an iPad and paper data sheets about where it is, how extensive it is, and more. 

I love trailhead surveys because it gives us the opportunity to explore parts of the forest we likely wouldn’t have time to get up to normally- almost like we get a sneak preview of trails we might want to come back to in our free time! Check out the pictures below to see the beautiful places we find ourselves. 

One of my favorite places to survey was Dolly Sods. Dolly Sods is a broad plateau with an ecosystem I’ve never seen before- subalpine heathlands. It has a bunch of cool trails, and an even cooler history. In World War II, this area was deemed “The West Virginia Maneuver Area” and was used to prepare soldiers for the mountains of northern Italy. Mortar and artillery trailing occurred here between 1943-44, so there are signs everywhere to warn you about unexploded munitions you might find!
A colorful display of the variety of plants just in one tiny area at Dolly Sods. I can’t wait to come back in autumn for even more vivid colors.
Another unique part of the geography at Dolly Sods, rock rivers.
A stunning view of High Falls. This was an eight-mile trail that takes you through fields, old-growth forest, a railroad track, and more! I hiked this trail in my free time and was stoked to learn I’d be going back to survey for NNIS (as if I wasn’t already on the lookout the entire hike- a curse of knowing NNIS identification like the back of your hand).
Sometimes Abbie and I have to drive a couple of hours to get to our survey sites. Its worth it when you end up at the highest point in West Virginia- Spruce Knob, 4,863 ft.
No two trails are alike in the Monongahela National Forest. This trail in Otter Creek Wilderness had a suspension bridge spanning across a wide river.

Information from these surveys will help us know which areas to prioritize the removal and treatment of invasives on the forest. Speaking of removal and treatment, see the photos below for a glimpse at the hard work Abbie and I have been doing!

Abbie was a natural when we learned the “hack-and-squirt” or bark injection method. In efforts to give existing red spruce a chance to thrive, we do spruce releases where we inject herbicide into surrounding canopy trees or smaller trees that may grow to shade the spruce. The spruce we release are carefully chosen, then we use a hatchet to make angled cuts into the trunk. We carefully squirt herbicide into the cuts we made. It took me MANY tries to successfully hack at the correct angle, and I definitely had a sore arm the next day, but I felt so accomplished knowing the native spruce will have a better chance at survival because of my work!
Can you spot the spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa)? I’ll give you a hint- they’re in the trash bags! Abbie and I pulled several trash bags and several hours worth of invasive spotted knapweed on this hillside. They were already in seed, so we had to be extra careful not to spread the seed as we wrestled them out of the ground.
Is that another photo of Spruce Knob? Nope, just a giant pile of invasives! Off of the Highland Scenic Highway, there is a fishing pier that had been completely taken over by bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.). Before we worked on this area, you couldn’t even see the Williams River. Abbie and I joined forces with some coworkers including our Youth Conservation Corps crew to cut and haul all of this honeysuckle out of the area. Its looking exceedingly better now and locals have told us how much they appreciate it- a great feeling.

Summer has flown by, filled with rewarding work and fun adventures. I’m excited to see what autumn in West Virginia will bring! 

Signing off,

Tara McElhinney

Marlinton District Ranger Station


Our Last Weeks in the Klamath Basin

Clara marvels at the view over Upper Klamath Lake
Sunset in Klamath Falls

As we turn the corner from August into September here at US Fish and Wildlife, Brianne, Jenny, and I are soaking up our final bittersweet moments spent both in the office and out in the field. The last few weeks we’ve spent electrofishing and snorkel surveying Threemile Creek in the Cascade foothills. Our snorkel surveys entail a new work schedule of 6pm to midnight to keep in line with studies that have suggested night snorkeling is more effective for censusing of Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus). We were laughing as we drove to work last week when Brianne pointed out that we’d finally come full circle—with this new night schedule we’ve officially worked every single hour of the day during our time with USFWS.

Jenny, Brianne and I prepare for our snorkel survey of Threemile Creek

Our surveys began with our usual recording of temperature and conductivity of the water in Threemile Creek. As soon as 8:45pm rolled around and the last remnants of the golden hour left the sky, we suited up into dry suits and broke off into groups of two, beginning our surveys at the downstream block net of a section of stream. I found night surveying to be pretty overstimulating in that 6°C creek — especially when my dry suit started to let in a significant amount of water about halfway through our survey — but by the end of the night, I couldn’t tell if my chattering teeth were a product of temperature or excitement.

Many of the undercut banks are finally accessible when you’re in the water!

The moment you army crawl yourself into a deeper pool and find yourself in the midst of a staring contest with two 200mm Bull Trout — one of which you’d marked the caudal fin of the day prior — you realize what graceful creatures these fish are. More than once I needed to gently touch a trout hidden between rocks in order to discern whether it was a recaptured fish, at which point it would casually wriggle one way to reveal itself as if we had an understanding that all I wanted out of that gentle poke was to record the state of its fin.

Our spotted owl discovery!

One night as we were suiting up and simultaneously swatting away the plethora of mosquitoes Threemile Creek has to offer, Brianne noticed an owl had swooped down to the tree next to our vehicle. As we shown our dive light on it, we realized it was a spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) and proceeded to take pictures and a waypoint to pass along our discovery to our wildlife biologist at USFWS who focuses on ESA terrestrial species. Elizabeth confirmed our finding, informed us that this might be one of only one or two mating pairs left in the vicinity, explaining that she hadn’t seen a spotted owl in the area in ten years!

Overlooking Fort Klamath from the National Forest
Sometimes we needed a little extra hand at work, South Fork Sprague River, Fremont Winema National Forest, OR
Measuring fork length and weight of bull trout in Deming Creek

But alas, all good things must come to an end, and as I write this, I’m reflecting on the wide array of skills I’ve honed, memories I’ve pocketed, and hurdles I’ve overcome in my five months here at US Fish and Wildlife in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

The Rogue River in Prospect, OR

I’ve captured and counted thousands of endangered larval suckers, I’ve electrofished threatened species of trout to ascertain population survey productivity, I’ve sampled an endangered species of milk vetch (Astragalus applegatei), I’ve helped set up camera traps for wolves (Canis lupus), and I’ve estimated fecundity in nonnative Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). I’d never handled a fish before starting this position, so the learning curve was steep, but not without support along the way.

Counting Brook Trout eggs to measure fecundity Photo credit: Brianne Nguyen
A stormy sunset in Bend, OR

That list doesn’t include the times I’ve cried for fish we lost at the hatchery, or sworn expletives as I’ve slipped and fallen in a creek, but those less glamorous experiences shaped me in some way too!

Biking in the snow with Lassen Peak in the background
Crater Lake Century Ride!

The weekends I spent camping, biking, and swimming in every cardinal direction around Klamath Falls gave me a respect for and indebtedness to southern and central Oregon I didn’t have when I first arrived here in April.

Fort Klamath, OR looking north towards Crater Lake National Park
Klamath Falls with Mt Shasta in the background

The friendships I’ve made with Brianne and Jenny I’ll hold onto as we all head off to our next adventures in California and Washington respectively. I know that we’ll always have a home in Klamath Falls, whether we’re just passing through or hoping to stay a while.

Jenny, Brianne, Jordan, myself, Greg, and Lindsey
Jackson F. Kimball State Park

We are so grateful to Nolan Banish, Zach Tiemann, Joel Ophoff, Michelle Jackson, Josh Rasmussen, Elizabeth Willy, Jeanne Spaur, Christie Nichols, Margie Shaffer, Evan Childress, Akimi King, Sara Miller and everyone else at the Klamath Falls USFWS office for the valuable lessons they taught us in and outside of the office.

A rising moon over Klamath Falls, OR