Using my time WYsely

I am starting to get low on these Wyoming puns. Haha. I officially have less than three months left in Lander, and am already feeling the pressure to see everything left on my Wyoming bucket list… and it’s pretty long. But! A couple weekends ago, Johnny made it back to WY and we started to make a serious dent in it. I had never been East of the Casper/Natrona County International Airport so that weekend we explored smaller cities that were past Casper, like Glenrock and Douglas. We made our way through Glenrock pretty quickly, after we stopped at their Paleon Museum for a short while. About half way to Douglas, we drove South off the highway to see Ayres Natural Bridge in Converse County. I saw my first herd of buffalo ever on the way into the park! I’m not sure if they were wild or not, but they were magnificent. Even from the road, we could tell just how massive they were. Once we got to Ayres Natural Bridge State Park, we climbed a small trail up the side of the bridge and found a huge rock pillar at the top of it. The rest of the view up there was really nice too. 🙂 After admiring the natural limestone arch, we made our way to Douglas. At this point we were about 3 hours from Lander, so we didn’t spend too much time here. Once we had walked through a couple of museums, we started our drive back home, but stopped at one last destination back in Fremont County called Castle Gardens Petroglyph Site. I had heard of petroglyphs being in Thermopolis, but hadn’t had time to go find them whenever I’ve visited in the past. When I heard there were some closer to Lander, I was thrilled! The petroglyphs at this site are rock carvings made by Athabaskan Native Americans from some time between 1000 and 1250 AD. They carved images of animals, plants, medicine, and other important cultural symbols into several of the outcroppings of rock there.

The herd of bison we saw grazing on our way to Ayres Natural Bridge. Their scientific name is Bison bison. Haha.
The tall rock pillar at the top of Ayres Natural Bridge, a naturally occurring arch formation made of limestone seen below.
The natural bridge, with La Prele Creek running underneath it. It was such a nice day out, that this shot was super difficult to get without any people swimming in the water! This is one of three natural rock arches in the United States that has running water flowing beneath it. The other two are in California, and my home state, Virginia.
The myth of the jackalope apparently started in the city Douglas when a well known taxidermist in the 1930s, named Douglas Herrick, grafted deer antlers onto a jackrabbit carcass and called it a “jackalope”. He and his brother made and sold many others before people realized it wasn’t a real species.
A cute selfie of me and Johnny during our walk through the Castle Gardens Petroglyph Site. 🙂 This site turned out to be managed by the BLM and I had no idea until we got there!
One of the several incredible rock outcroppings at the site. Like usual, I could not stop taking pictures here.
A bumblebee sticking its landing onto an appropriately named flower: the Rocky Mountain bee-plant, or Cleome serrulata. These are some of my favorite forbs to find out in the field. And luckily, they are one of the only flowers still blooming!
A picture taken at Johnny’s request — a female pine cone coated with sap from the tree it was attached to. The sun was peaking around it so perfectly in this shot.
Some more incredible rock outcroppings, and me, always camera-ready. 🙂
Some of the incredible petroglyphs carved by the Athabaskan Native Americans we found at the Castle Gardens Petroglyph Site. The large circles you see are carvings of shields, and the two human figures represent a medicine man and a hunter.

The next afternoon, we decided to go back to one of our favorite spots to watch the sunset at The Bus again. This is one of the most popular mountain biking/hiking destinations in Lander, and is known for that old wrecked bus Johnny found in a ditch about a month ago.

The sunset that night setting over Red Butte, a distinct rock structure you can see from almost anywhere in The Bus. This was the best sunset yet here!

The next day, we ventured back into Sinks Canyon State Park for the day. We started on the Popo Agie Nature Trail, and then after about a half mile, we veered right for the 1 mile North Slope Trail. This trail is only open once it is dry enough in the summer, and takes you from the Nature Trail, up a steep ascent up the canyon, and then back down. It passes right over the natural sinks that the Popo Agie River disappears into, and brings you right to The Rise trout pool. This was Johnny’s first time seeing The Rise, and we were lucky enough to see a muskrat feeding among the trout!

The start of the Popo Agie Nature Trail, the 1 mile hike that leads to the North Slope trail. This bridge always reminds me of a similarly-structured swinging bridge my family built in the Pocono Mountains. We have a beautiful piece of land in Pennsylvania that is easiest to get to by crossing the Lackawaxen River, over a bridge almost exactly like this one above. It was so cool to find this bridge in Sinks Canyon because, before, I had never seen another like my family’s.
The trailhead to the North Slope Trail after about a half a mile’s hike on the Nature Trail. This next trail really challenged us in elevation gain and altitude, but was really such a fun trek.
Our first time seeing an adorable muskrat swimming at The Rise trout pool! This species’ scientific name is Ondatra zibethicus.
On our way back to the parking lot, we stopped by the Sinks, and noticed how incredibly low the water levels had dropped. I can’t wait to show the before and after pictures of the water, once it gets low enough to explore the cavern a little bit more. I found a quote online from 1895 that reads: “The natural bridge of Virginia is quite insignificant in comparison with the great Sinks of the Popo Agie and no one visiting Lander should fail to see this great freak of nature.”

My next week was spent with Jon keeping up with our usual rangeland monitoring studies, as well as contacting one of our permittees about unknown cattle brands. This was one of the last weeks Jon and I spent together before he went out in the field with Grant, our newest Rangeland Specialist, to teach him about the huge allotments he would be in charge of. During this week, our whiteboard broke into shreds, as you can see in the photos below. I couldn’t stop laughing at ourselves and our supplies we were working with, but nevertheless, we got the job done as usual. When I contacted one of our permittees, I was communicating with a very nice rancher named Travis Clyde. We had been trying to decipher about five pages of cattle brands I had put together, for months, so we decided to try asking somebody who may know more about it than we did. There were at least two to three dozen brands we just did not have records of, so Travis definitely helped us in validating them.

Just after our whiteboard broke into (what seemed like) a million pieces. We use the whiteboard at all of our Photo Points to mark where we are, the date, orientation, etc.
Me, still laughing at our situation. This happened at one of our favorite riparian transect sites, called “East Arapahoe Creek,” in Magpie Pasture.
One of the beautiful herds of wild horses we saw out in the field that week. This one was on our way to the “Baby Antelope” upland transect site, in Eagle’s Nest Pasture.

The next weekend, we went to the town of Ten Sleep, which is about two and a half hours North/Northeast from Lander. There was a really fun volunteer opportunity I had heard about through the BLM for trail maintenance at Salt Lick Trail just outside of downtown Ten Sleep. We camped out Friday night nearby, then woke up early Saturday to help out. We spent the morning digging out steps and tossing loose rocks over cliffs, all to make the trail a bit more safe for visitors. Afterwards, a very nice couple that lived at the bottom of the trailhead invited us to their home and made all of us burgers and endless picnic food. Johnny and I headed back home a little while after lunch, and made a quick stop in Thermopolis so he could enjoy the free Bath House in town, and learn about the “World’s Largest Natural Mineral Hot Spring”.

The awesome sunset we saw on our way to get dinner in Ten Sleep, Wyoming. We ate that night at the Ten Sleep Saloon, a cute little place downtown.
Getting to work on the Salt Lick Trail! Behind me you can see one of the Recreational Specialists from the Worland BLM field office holding some rebar in place, and three other volunteers helping out with the trail work. This photo was taken by Sarah Beckwith, another member of the Worland BLM field office.
The view at the top of the trail. It was a beautiful way to wrap up all the hard work we had done that morning.
Me and Johnny at the top of the trail. This photo was also taken by Sarah Beckwith, Worland’s Public Affairs Specialist. This was my first time meeting her, and she was the nicest lady. She even knew my mentors out here in Lander! It was really fun to connect with her while in Ten Sleep.
Most of the volunteers that helped out at Salt Lick Trail. A small group of people worked at getting these trailhead signs put into place at both entrances to the hike. This was impressive, since most of the ground was rock here. This cute photo was taken by Sarah Beckwith as well.

The rest of that weekend was spent resting and taking a hike around Frye Lake, one of my favorite places to visit in Shoshone National Forest. I had never made a full loop around the lake so Johnny and I were excited to try it. We ended up walking about 2+ miles around it straight into the woods. Eventually, it started getting dark, so we decided to turn around, witnessing a pretty incredible sunset on our way back to my car.

The sunset that night at Frye Lake, in Shoshone National Forest. It was a beautiful night and we had perfect weather for our short trek.

The following week, Jon and I finished up our rangeland monitoring duties in our second allotment, Antelope Hills. We also got a chance to go out with several Rangeland Specialists from the Lander field office that week to learn the Utilization Training method for our allotments. Every year, around September when the pastures get emptied of cattle, the BLM goes back into them in order to record how much the grasses were actually grazed/utilized in each allotment. These data are very useful for short-term, and longterm, monitoring of the lands we have to manage. We used the “Landscape Appearance Method” to do this, in which we studied the grasses in several different areas of the allotment, to estimate a percentage, or color, of grass utilized. This means we drove and walked around almost the entire pasture, running transects and recording whether the grass in the area was grazed at 0-5, 6-20, 21-40, 41-60, 61-80, 81-94, or 94-100 percent. These seven categories were split into five larger categories in order to make our job a bit easier later. This is because after we get these data recorded, we take a huge map and literally color it with five different colors: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Red represents the most utilized/grazed areas of a pasture or allotment, and goes all the way up to the cool colors where blue represents almost no grazing of an area of grass. These maps are great for the specialists to compare year-to-year, and to find patterns, when necessary.

I have still continued to learn so much from the BLM, and I’m confident I will keep doing so. I can’t wait to see what other kinds of opportunities I get to experience with them, and I can’t wait to keep using my weekend time WYsely to enjoy all the other magnificent parts of Wyoming. 🙂 There is never a dull week here, and I am so fortunate for that.

Invasive Species, Caribou Habitat Surveys, SOS!

August and the last week or so in July have been just as adventure filled as my first 4 months with the BLM in Fairbanks, Alaska. Invasive species were getting awfully close to seed by the time we made it out to pull along the Steese and Taylor Highways in the Eastern Interior; and though we only saw a dozen or so Caribou, we had to fly out in a helicopter to access areas in their range not disturbed by humans; thankfully the only SOS signals needed on any trip were related to Seeds Of Success. Barring a very windy night up in the White Mountains that caused one tent collapse, and a near sleepless night for everyone up there, that is.

White sweetclover infestation at disturbed site along the Taylor Highway.
Seeds of Success site for collecting Kinnikinnik.

Even the most conspicuous and damaging invasive plants in Eastern Interior Alaska are somewhat limited in their impact to date. I say this with caution, however. In most of the lower 48 states and much of the colonized world, invasive species are only given serious attention once their eradication is nigh impossible. In other words, it’s almost too late. This isn’t to say invasive treatments aren’t worthwhile in those places, just that they cost billions to manage because of the damage done to crops and native habitats – in the US $120 billion a year to be exact (Pimental et al., 2005). In Alaska, at least from what I’ve seen, invasive plant populations are limited to roadsides and cities – of which there are relatively few. What I do see because of this, is a great opportunity to make an impact on removing these species before they become a more serious problem; and even more time, resources, and money have to be thrown at tackling it. Without intervention, it won’t take much for seed to be carried away down streams and rivers, and plants like Melilotus alba (white sweetclover) and Vicia cracca (bird vetch) to begin overcrowding riverbanks as they do on the highways we targeted.

Getting to that, our ‘weed’ pulling began on the Steese Highway at various BLM managed waysides such as those at the Upper and Lower Birch Creek. We stopped at each wayside along the way to monitor, but there were only a few that had infestations of the most damaging species. Interestingly enough, the furthest wayside from Fairbanks had the worst white sweetclover infestation of any! They must have hitched a ride from an unknowing driver, or perhaps in gravel used for the lot. These guys produce an average of 9,710 seeds (Klemow and Raynal, 1981; Klemow, 1982), though some estimates suggest as high as 350,000 per plant. The most concerning factor is that each of those seeds can remain viable for up to 81 years (Crocker, 1945). The picture below is one of the bigger white sweetclover I pulled. They grow in thick patches, sprouting early to overshadow their competitors and developing tap roots that quickly drain moisture from the soil.

Uprooted White Sweetclover.

The following week we drove up the Taylor Highway toward Chicken, stopping along the way to pull more white sweetclover on BLM land between mile-markers 4 and 6. I was lucky enough to have a previous CLM intern’s notes to go off when planning our invasive trips this summer – it was a huge help! After pulling those weeds we drove further up the Taylor to the Department of Transportation (DOT) South Fork Station. This sits at the South Fork of the Fortymile River – the same section of river I floated on earlier this summer – but just across the road. Between the road and the fence, and following the road up to the wayside, is BLM managed land. But on the other side of the fence is state managed land – the DOT Station. In what turned out to be a dichotomy here and perhaps representative of more issues than I should dive into, I found an interesting lesson in land management.

The fence between State and Federally managed land.

From the same notes I mentioned before, the previous intern and now retired biologist had discussed their frustrations at pulling bird vetch on the BLM side of the fence whenever they could because on the DOT side the same invasive species persisted. Talk about futile efforts. I can’t imagine spending a day removing an invasive plant from one side of a fence only for the same vine-like shrub to wrap its tendrils around the wire and have its seed blown onto where you just pulled a few weeks later. When I read this, I remembered a meeting I’d attended earlier in the summer about invasive species management on the Dalton Highway (this road runs through a different field office than the one I’m assigned to but I thought it would be worthwhile to go). At that meeting was someone from the DOT – perfect, I just needed to get hold of them and of course they’d help us eradicate bird vetch from both sides of the fence! Right?

Well, kind of. After exchanging a few emails, I was told that while they couldn’t support the invasive pull with staff or resources, they would allow us to come and pull weeds on their side of the fence. It just had to be approved by a few higher ups, and they needed to know what day we’d be there to do the work. While this wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, I thought great, at least we can get the work done and maybe next year we’ll get a bit of help! Inter-agency collaboration between the state and federal government is a work in progress, but I’m hopeful.

When we arrived to pull, the staff was happy to let us in and get to work. Bird vetch is a tricky plant to remove as it reproduces both through seed and through rhizomes. This means you need to remove as much (ideally all, though not usually possible) of the root system. Yanking the plant out the ground is thereby ineffective because it simply snaps at the base. A more effective, albeit more time consuming, approach is to slowly pull from as close to the ground as you can and work the root system out of the ground. Naturally this became a competition to see who could remove the longest root!

Craig Townsend, BLM Wildlife Biologist, holding an uprooted Bird Vetch clump.

Following several other weed pulls, I was off to help out a different BLM biologist conducting caribou habitat surveys in the Fortymile and the White Mountains. In partnerships with PhD students and the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), the project has several goals oriented around improving our understanding of caribou impacts on native arctic alpine vegetation, and mapping biomass of plant functional groups with drone assistance. Because of the limited road systems in Alaska, and perhaps one of the most fun things I’ve been lucky enough to do this summer, reaching remote locations for studies such as this one requires travelling via helicopter!

Just about to take off from our Fortymile Caribou Herd site!

Once we arrived at our randomly selected site, it was straight to work setting up the plot. I say that but often the plots were already set up upon my arrival – I had to fly alone because of something to do with weight limits in these little helicopters! My helicopter diet started a little too late apparently. You can see below some of the beautiful views we got to work above:

Rachel Pernick, Drone/Biological Technician, and Jim Herriges, BLM Wildlife Biologist, estimating species cover in the White Mountains.

Caribou tend to eat a considerable amount of lichen among certain shrubs, graminoids, and occasionally mushrooms. As such, lichen identification was a huge part of this project – something I have had relatively limited experience in. Jim, Katie, and Rachel were super helpful in getting me up to speed nonetheless, and after a few days of staring into quarter meter plots identifying, estimating cover, and then trimming biomass of all vegetation, I had them just about down.

Myself in the foreground estimating species cover and Rachel in the background setting up the drone path. It was chilly!

After a site was completed, which took most of a day, the helicopter would fly us to our next site where we’d set up camp, make some dinner, and chill out before starting a new plot nearby the next day. Weather dictated a lot of what we could get done with the need for a drone flyover prior to trimming any biomass. In the mountains that we surveyed, where weather is about as unpredictable as can be, this meant for a couple of days spent waiting in the tent for openings in clouds or fog. The drone can’t capture usable imagery without clear line of sight to the ground.

Jim trying to keep his hands warm while working with the dreaded metal clipboard. Visibility was limited, and the fog disappeared as quickly as it moved in.

A couple of days in the tent out of seven waiting for clear skies weren’t the only times weather worked against us either. On our second night in the White Mountains we knew there was a chance of strong winds and rain, which is why we camped down off one of the ridges in what looked like a well shielded valley. Unfortunately these winds were stronger than expected. That, or our campsite was more exposed than we had anticipated. The work tent I lent to Rachel only lasted about half the night before the guyline snapped under the force of the wind (likely the guyline that a squirrel had partially chewed into earlier this summer!). Shortly after, one of the tent poles snapped as well, ripping a hole in the tent and collapsing it all at once. She managed to grab her belongings, find her way ou tof the fallen tent, and run down into the gear tent– a fortress of a dome tent which went relatively unphased by the gales.

Meanwhile, I was wrapped up in my sleeping bag hoping my tent would make it through the night. The wind didn’t blow constantly, nor did it always blow in the same direction. There were moments where only the pitter-patter of rain could be heard. Then a sudden crash blew into one side, followed by a smashing of wind into the other. I probably slept a total of 2 hours that night. Periods of sleep would be interrupted by the tent pole above my head collapsing down onto me under the force of the wind – not exactly conducive to quality REM. Thankfully my tent made it through the night and so did Jim’s, none of our gear got terribly wet either. All in all it was a wild night that we laughed about in the morning over coffee in the dome! The next day wind and rain continued, though at a much gentler pace. We moved our tents down even lower into the valley below another plateau. Thankfully this was one of the days spent in the tent waiting for clear weather, and occasionally napping as we recovered from the prior near sleepless night!

Original camp set up – dome tent central
Post-storm set up – remaining tents concealed

Compared to the invasive species work and caribou habitat surveys, collecting seeds for the national Seeds of Success program went off without a hitch! One of the targeted species was Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, otherwise called Kinnikinnik, or Bearberry. There’s a huge population of this low growing shrub near the small town of Tanacross, Alaska, so that’s where we drove to gather seed. The goal of 20,000 seeds per species sounds quite daunting at first, but considering there are multiple seeds per berry makes the task more manageable. I’m sure many other CLM-ers have been out collecting too, and hopefully in good conditions! We had a beautiful sunny day to pick berries and collect a couple of herbarium samples, and quite enjoyed the relaxing pace of doing so. The only thing that could have made the day any better would have been if the berries were more edible – Kinnikinnik have the texture of lint if you bite into one! A native group called Gwich’in would eat the berries mashed up and mixed with dried fish or roe in a sort of pemmican, while the Dena’ina would mix them with oil or lard. They preserve quite well and maintain their nutritional value this way. Apparently the berries were also important as a food for survival when Alaska first became colonized, though I’m thankful not to have had to depend on them for sustenance. Trying one was more than enough!


Crocker, W. 1945. Longevity of seeds. Journal of the New York Botanical Garden. 46:48.

Klemow, K. 1982. Demography and seed biology of monocarpic herbs colonizing an abandoned limestone quarry. Syracuse, NY: State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 228p. Dissertation.

Klemow, K.; Raynal, D.1981. Population ecology of Melilotus alba in a limestone quarry. Journal of Ecology. 69: 33-44.

Pimentel, D.; Zuniga, R.; Morrison, D. 2005. Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States.
Ecological Economics. 52:3, 273-288, ISSN 0921-8009.


Sunset at Shirley Basin

We began the month doing Wyoming Toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) surveys once again. However this time instead of breeding surveys, where we were looking for tadpoles and egg masses, we surveyed for the adult toads specifically. The procedure is mostly the same with the exception that the plots we were surveying extended farther from the waters edge. When we captured a toad we measured lengths and mass and took a sample for chytrid fungus. This fungus causes an infectious disease in amphibians called Chytridomycosis which is believed to be a factor in the global decline in amphibian populations and is possibly a factor in the decimation of the Wyoming Toad population in the mid 1970s.

Wyoming Toad (Anaxryus baxteri)

After toad surveys, I assisted fisheries with their seining surveys. Seining is a method of catching fish using a seine, which is a net with poles fixed to either end, a weighted bottom and buoyed top. The net is dragged along either side of the shore and many of the fish in the river get trapped inside. We were doing a depletion removal study to estimate the actual abundance of fish species. This consists of three successive passes done with the seine per site and the number of each species of fish that was caught was recorded. If done correctly each pass should yield less fish then the last and the rate of decline can be used to determine species abundances. I also had my first experience electroshocking which is another method to determine fish species abundance. In this method, one surveyor administers a non-lethal shock to the water with an backpack electrical generator to temporarily stun the fish so the other surveyors can net any observed fish. Again three successive passes are done per stream section and actual abundance can be determined.

Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes)

One of the most compelling things I did this month was Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) surveys. These remarkable animals are North America’s only native ferret and were once considered to be extinct until one was caught by a farmers dog in Meeteetse, WY in 1981. Since the discovery of the extant population, many breeding and reintroduction efforts have been underway to save the population and have been considerably successful. Black-footed ferrets main food source is prairie dog and they use their burrows to hunt, sleep, hide from predators, and reproduce. The ferrets historic range coincided with that of the prairie dogs. The project I was helping with is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and we were surveying the Shirley Basin population. The goal of the surveys was to attempt to determine population size but also to tag and vaccinate as many ferrets as possible. Surveys took place from 7pm until 6am as the ferrets are nocturnal. Everyone was given a section of land to survey and spotlights were used to locate eye-shine. Black-footed ferrets eyes appear an emerald greenish blue when light is shinned on them. Once a ferret was located it was followed until it entered a prairie dog burrow and then a trap was set in the entrance of the burrow and all other exits from the burrow were plugged. The trap site was then checked once per hour for any trapped ferrets. When a ferret was capture it was transferred to a tube that resembled the inside of a burrow and it was brought to the processing trailer where measurement were taken and vaccinations were administered. Once processed, the trap set up was disassembled and the ferret was released where it was captured. Over three nights of surveying I caught four ferrets, two female kits, a male kit, and a young adult male. Between the 10 survey areas 16 ferrets were captured and processed. We also observed many incidentals, including badgers, swift foxes, red foxes, coyotes, pronghorns, jack rabbits, and ferruginous hawks. Getting to work with and observe such an iconic species in the wildlife conservation world was an absolutely incredible experience and I couldn’t be more grateful that I got to assist in the conservation efforts for the species.

Note slightly visible eyeshine of Black-footed Ferret
Moments before releasing this female kit to her burrow

For the last half of August we completed our second round of trapping for herptiles North of the Ferris Mountains. This trapping period was great for garter snakes (Thamnophis elegans) as we trapped around the time that females were giving birth. Many of the garter snakes we caught this period were young of the year. We also caught our second Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipens) which was an excitement. My most exciting opportunistic catch this period was a three foot long bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi)! I also had the opportunity to tube and process a Prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis), which was an incredible learning experience. The rattlesnake was a small female caught outside the office so we relocated her to one of out trap sites. Unfortunately we couldn’t count her in our data but fingers crossed we can catch her again later in the season. We added some sherman traps to three of our sites in an attempt to trap more mammals but they were much less successful then I was expecting based on past experiences. Only one deer mouse was captured who unfortunately had succumbed to the environment. Overall for mammals we caught plenty of deer mice and voles, plus a hand full of shrews. Overall it was a good trapping period but I am hoping for an increase in diversity for our next, and last, trapping period.

Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipens)
Young of the year Greater Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)
3 foot long Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi)
Wandering Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans vagrans)

-Keri – BLM – RFO

Murphy’s Law

The day that my crew now knows simply as “Thursday” started like any other day. We were scheduled to do monitoring on two long-term range plots northwest of town. The drive out there was going to be about an hour, so we got to the office and headed out right away. Driving to the first plot, we were about 10 minutes away according to our GPS, and we hit a huge ditch in the road that we weren’t confident driving over. We weighed our options and decided to load up our packs and try to hike to it. After about 5 minutes of walking, we reached a tiny road that we realized connected back to the highway and could take us to our plot. Rather than walk 4 miles round trip, we walked back to the truck, hopped in, and made it to our plot via a small two-track road. We finished our protocol, had lunch, and were ready to tackle the next plot.

The second plot we planned to complete that day was only 2 miles away as the crow flies, but of course in order to drive there, we had to drive over an hour on roads with boulders and rock slabs. In the Carlsbad Resource Area, roads are constantly changing and moving because of the oil and gas development, so we had to turn around two times to follow roads that were not on our map. The road that our second plot was allegedly on had completely disappeared, so we took a gamble and followed a road not on our map to get as close as possible to the plot. At this point, it was already 4pm, there was a thunderstorm fast approaching, and we were on an exposed ridge.

Fortunately, we found the plot rebar, collected our data, and were back to the truck before the storm got too close. The road we had been on looped back to highway, so we decided to continue the direction we were going rather than try to drive over the horrible roads we’d already driven on. We messaged our supervisor that we would be late and started making our way back.

Initially, the road seemed great. Not as many rock slabs, easy to follow, and we even saw a javelina (small wild pig) run down a draw right in front of our truck. Once we got about 5 minutes from the highway, we hit a roadblock. In front of us was a 12 inch drop into loose gravel at the bottom of a draw, an uneven hill on the other side. At this point, if we had to turn around, we wouldn’t be back to the office until about 9pm and would have to drive horrible roads in the dark and potentially the rain. We weighed our options, and decided to get out of the truck and see what we could do. As we looked at the draw, before we all decided to get out, my crewmate Alex said, “Snake? Rattlesnake!”. Off the driver’s side corner of the hood, curled up behind a rock, was a beautiful rattlesnake. It uncurled itself and slithered off the road into the bushes, all 4 feet of it disappearing into the brush.

We still didn’t want to turn around, so as my crewmates Alex and Catherine got out and began moving rocks into the draw to lessen the drop, I kept my eyes on the surroundings, making sure the rattlesnake didn’t come back. Before we made the move to drive over the draw and our makeshift road, we noticed a house up on the hill by the draw and noted that if something went horribly wrong, we could go to the house and ask for help. We heard a dog barking, so we knew the home was inhabited. Then we started the truck. Apparently my crew has secret roadbuilding skills, because our truck made it through the draw and we continued down the road toward the highway. Then we saw a gate.

I got out of the truck to open the gate, which was unlocked and blocking the county road we were on that went through to the highway. As I walked up to the gate, I heard an engine start. Up drove a man in an ATV. It was perhaps the strangest encounter with a person I’ve ever had. He repeated, “It hasn’t rained out here in 3 years” in a slow Southern drawl about 3 separate times in our conversation. After about a 5 minute talk he drove away and we proceeded through the gate, drove 3 more minutes, and hit the highway. We got back to the office unscathed and only an hour and a half late.

Just about every safety talk they give you at the Carlsbad Field Office came to our minds that day – horrible roads, roads not existing anymore, thunderstorms, rattlesnakes, strange men living in the middle of the desert. We maneuvered around every challenge and ultimately I think our crew became closer because of it. And we went to get ice cream afterwards, so at least we ended the day on a high note.

Monarchs + the Curlew

This past month we have been spending a lot of time at the Curlew National Grasslands for a very special reason: Monarch butterflies.

The Curlew is a grassland managed by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and is composed primarily of agriculture land that was retired decades ago and now serves as expansive, rich habitat for a whole slew of species. It is a very special place whose location in southeast Idaho gives it the unique ability to serve as part of the highway for western populations of monarch butterflies during their yearly migration to California. Monarchs flock to the Curlew to rest, mate, and start a new generation in the shade of its riparian areas that are chock full of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).

Unfortunately, loss of habitat and food sources have caused monarch populations to plummet. The western population is really struggling and where thousands upon hundred thousands of monarchs used to pass through the western United States now only a few hundred or thousand are seen.But the Curlew hasn’t given up on Monarchs yet! It still welcomes them with the promise of shade, food, and a possible mate in the area. For that reason, monarchs are still flitting through the expansive grassland.

The Curlew supports lots of nectar plants and the riparian areas have some awesome shading trees-Eastern monarch populations do not like shade but the hot sun of the West has taught Western migrating monarchs to seek out shade!

As interns on the Caribou-Targhee we had the privilege of partnering with state agencies and citizen scientists to document the monarchs passing through the Curlew this year. (Here I was, thinking I would never see or experience what it is like to see monarchs migrating when suddenly I am thrown right into the science behind tracking and monitoring them!) Monarch surveys occur all over the United States and are fueled by the research and work of people like Dr. David James and organizations like the Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program-thankfully, there are a lot of people that care about monarchs 😊

Preforming monarch surveys means gearing up with butterfly nets, data sheets, sunscreen…and lots of water…and then getting to work. And let me just say, catching a butterfly is not as easy as it seems…but when you do finally catch one you cannot help the smile that spreads over your face, it’s the best combination of science and feeling like a kid again. Gently reaching in and grasping the little migrant in the proper way and sliding them out of the net is a surprise in and of itself because suddenly the vibrant colors of their wings and sharp white polka dots on their black body are no longer muted by the mesh of the net or the haze in the air. And my goodness are they are exquisite. Some of them are more tattered and torn around the edges letting you know they have come to the Curlew to mate and continue the migration through their offspring while others are almost fluorescent in color and itching to travel.

The bright, untattered wings of this monarch suggest that this is a young and ready to fly to California!

The butterfly patiently grasps your fingers as you attach a small tag to the proper area of its wing (so that its flying ability isn’t hindered) and reluctantly allows you to open up its wings (with which you get another pleasant shock of wonder as their deep orange wings, rimmed and webbed with velvet black, completely open in front of you) and look for the presence or lack of a small black dot on each wing. If the monarch has these dots it is a male (other butterfly species’ males emit pheromones from these dots of specialized scales, but the jury is still out on what monarch males use them for) and if not, it is a female. After checking that you have written down all the necessary data you slowly detach your fingertips from their wings. At this point, it is a 50/50 chance whether the monarch will leap back into the sky immediately or stay on your finger for a bit, gently flapping its wings and making up its mind (all to your complete delight). Experiencing monarch butterflies in such a hands-on manner was amazing-something I never thought I could have done!

Me releasing a monarch for the first time after learning how to properly tag it

But we don’t just pay attention to the adults; monarch surveys also include searching for instars on the milkweed plants and tiny monarch eggs. This means recognizing monarch instar leaf grazing and peering over and under the soft milkweed leaves in search for the happy culprit. When an instar is found you can tell what stage it is in by the presence or lack of stripes and antennae. Data is recorded and the instar grazes on; you can almost see it growing in front of your eyes as it chops away leaf after leaf! Monarch eggs are a bit harder because spots of dried milkweed latex on the leaf can fool you repeatedly. But when you finally find an egg, you realize that they have an incredible design: small and rounded at the bottom with a slight Hershey’s kiss top and vertical lines traveling up across its entire surface. Perfect looking and so small you must confirm it using a hand lens! We also care a lot about monarch habitat and need to document the characteristics of the areas they frequent in order to better understand how we can remediate the loss in their numbers. This means walking transects and using vegetation frames to collect data on the landscape that the monarchs love. The healthy mix of nectar plants, milkweed, and shade trees on the Curlew is what the monarchs really seem to key into in southeast Idaho!

Check out this fat and happy instar that we found! The bright stripes and antenna suggest that is is in its final stages before forming its chrysalis

Thanks to interagency collaboration and the help of citizen scientists the presence of a special section of western monarch’s migration highway at the Curlew was confirmed again this year with notably high monarch counts for the entire western half of the Unites States. I was so happy to be a part of it 😊

A monarch in all of its glory right after emerging from its chrysalis