Having a Bovine Time

Lately in New Mexico we’ve been seeing all the storms but missing out on all the rain. Having cloud cover is always sweet relief and somewhat rare for us, but the storms are so scattered over the desert. It always seems to be raining far off and never in town.

Previous Seeds of Success crews in this field office documented a lot of various grass populations, so our crew was really excited initially. As the season has progressed we’ve realized that whether the grass has grown since last season is completely dependent on where the rains happen to land each year. Most “lush” grass sites look more like this–full of a previous year’s growth with no green to show currently. We also have a disappointing recurring experience–many times we find an amazing patch of green grass with multiple species growing, all ready for collection, but when we look down at the map it’s all in state or private land and inaccessible to us! Of course it hasn’t been all bad. We’ve gotten lucky with a few outstanding sites with so many different wildflowers all the in the same spot.

We recently shipped one of our largest collections–Verbecina encelioides. We found this amazing draw that was covered in the colonizing flower. We estimate that we collected over 1 million seeds!

Verbecina enceliodes seeds

Our Seeds of Success work is wrapping up and we have delved almost completely into doing range trend studies. The goal of this study is to compare how vegetation has fared after herbicide application for shrubs. It can be difficult to navigate to the sites and find the markers, but we are already about half way through. We also have to deal with cows a lot more now. We have learned the hard way that staying in the truck and honking the horn to get rid of them actually has the opposite effect! After talking to some people in the range department, we learned that this is how ranchers get the cattle to follow the truck. To successfully steer the cows away from our work sites I have waving branches or flags and yelling at the cows to get them away from us, or away from the gates we have to drive through without letting cows into the wrong pens and pastures!

I haven’t figured out how to upload a video yet, but here are some of our field friends. We did manage to drive through this paddock without letting any residents into an area where they shouldn’t be. Shortly after we ran into the rancher and thankfully didn’t have to deliver any bad news to him!

I don’t usually fear the cows, but I also haven’t had any frightening encounters with them. In a previous post I wrote about Aly’s dangerous cow encounter, so it’s understandable that she’s not the one walking towards them if we can help it.

I spoke with the rancher of these cows briefly about how beautiful and rare his cows were. Considering my transect was going directly towards them one day, I was thankful that they were well behaved and not too noisy.

This Thursday we got to help with a rare plant survey in which we planned to walk eight miles and ended up walking closer to eleven miles. I spotted three gypsum milkvetch and in total we found four Scheer’s cacti.

A rather sad looking Scheer’s cactus, but an important find nonetheless

To do the rare plant surveys we walk in lines 10 meters apart in sections of habitat deemed suitable for the species.

Since our SOS crew has three people, having us help with the rare plant survey really shortened the work for the only rare plant intern. Here’s us getting ready to do our very last line at the end of a very long day.

As usual, the plants we aren’t specifically looking for are popping! (Popping in color, blooms, and out at you. It seems nearly everything here is armed.)

Closeup of a Ziziphus flower. Instead of having normal leaves this plant decided to have modified leaves in the form of spines. There is no soft side to this plant. The flowers smelled so good, attracting me and hundreds of tiny bees.
Christmas cholla, aptly named for its bright red fruits!

As a plant person, I can’t help but post a few more photos of some of my favorite flowers that we’ve discovered. Coincidentally, none of my favorites have ever caused me pain 😉

Eriogonum annuum in all its sweet glory
Ipomopsis longiflora
Potentially the biggest Ephedra I’ve ever seen
A little fella still waiting to be keyed out and identified

As we come closer to the close of our internship, our crew talks more and more about how we’ll miss the skies and clouds that New Mexico offers up every once in a while.

I love when we get to see a dark sky pop against orange and red sands.

–Catherine, Carlsbad NM

Tying Up Loose Ends

Seed season is slowly coming to a close here in central Wyoming. It is amazing how different the landscape looks now than it did in the early summer months. Once green and vibrant, the wide open lands are now covered with dead, brown vegetation. One of the only plants down in the basin that has yet to go to fruit is the sagebrush, but the seeds will not be mature until after I have gone.

On the bright side, my partner and I have discovered a high elevation oasis – Green Mountain. Because parts of the mountain sit above 9000 feet, the plants here are behind the basin plants in their seasonal cycle. We managed to complete collections for 6 new species at this location and we still have our eyes on a few more.

Green Mountain has become my new favorite collection site due to the cooler temperatures, fantastic views, and the abundance of wildlife that we run into. A herd of wild horses frequents this area and we have been fortunate to run into its members more than once.  Although the presence of wild horses is a very controversial topic out here, I truly enjoy there presence and find it both exhilarating and comforting.

A wild horse grazing on top of Green Mountain.

Back in the office, we have been packaging up our seeds for shipment and putting the final touches on our data sheets.  The next item on our agenda is to begin mounting specimens for our local herbarium.

The seeds of Mimulus guttatus, a wetland plant that we collected from Green Mountain.

I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I only have 2 weeks left in Wyoming!  Hopefully I can have a few more amazing experiences before it’s time to go.

The bison herd of Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis, WY.

Hydrology: Again!

If you’ve been keeping up with the latest and greatest of the CLM blog, this post might sound familiar. That’s because my fellow intern, Sophie, is working on the same hydrology project, and you could say that we are both pretty pumped about it. So since this project is also taking up most of my time, I thought I’d give my take on the experience as well. If your interested in the details of the project, Sophie did a great job explaining them in her blog.

As someone who has done work in headwater streams before, I was excited to return to this kind of work in a larger river and on a greater scale. Waders were a fun addition to our typical work wear and trying them out was a little scary but a lot fun. Lets just say hiking through water on a hot day is much more enjoyable than hiking through open sagebrush. As Sophie mentioned, colder weather to come will make these thick neoprene waders more cozy than constricting and we have already been experiencing much cooler weather this week (we officially have snow covered peaks in the Bighorns!). But waders aren’t the only new gear we have been dawning throughout this project. Pile on a safety vest, Trimble, walking stick, transect tape, pins, and usually some heavy metal monument caps and you have the full ensemble (pictured below).

Bring on the science!

What I have enjoyed most about working on this project is the opportunity to learn new skills and perfect old ones. The hydrologist at the BFO that we have been working has been extremely open to questions and patient as we learn new methodologies that will be very valuable in the future. It is also great to hear about the context of this study and the way that the data we are collecting in these final months of our internship will be useful in years and decades to come as this river changes and hopefully improves. As someone who was already interested in stream ecology and hydrology, but was unsure if this was a direction I wanted to go, I can now whole-heatedly say that I could wade around in a stream for a while and be content.

Buffalo BLM Resources Intern

Whitebark pine and the Sawtooths

The Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho encapsulates some of the most rugged, unmarked, and stunning wild country in the entire state. Perfectly enough, it is called the “crown jewel”. Throughout my internship here, I have been told continually how dire it is for me to visit this place before my chapter here closes. It is because of the numerous high alpine lakes, 50+ peaks over 10,000 ft, and the multiple wilderness areas that surround the forest. There is an abundance of wildlife, mature tree stands, alpine wildflowers, and solitude. The peaks are jagged and profound. The water is crystal blue. The high valleys are dotted with subalpine meadows and wetlands. I promise you, it is as dreamy as it sounds. With our primary work being for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, we were floored when we were given the opportunity to head over to the Sawtooths to assist with whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) monitoring surveys. 

Looking directly into Strawberry Basin. To the right, notice the white mountain. One of many, these prominently white rocks compiled to form what we call, the White Clouds.

Whitebark pine is a species of interest due to the impacts of native mountain pine beetle and white pine blister rust. Both continue to successfully reproduce across western forests and cause decline in whitebark pine. Additionally, whitebark pine is experiencing regeneration challenges as continued fire exclusion limits seedling establishment and allows succession to shade-tolerant species. This species thrives in subalpine environments and co-exists with other dominant conifers such as: douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), engelmann spruce (Picea englemannii), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). Not only do whitebark pines coexist with stunning conifers, they also have a close relationship with the Clark’s nutcracker. The nutcracker is an essential partner in the regeneration success of whitebark pine. These jay-sized, grey, black, and white birds favor using their broad beaks to remove seeds from pine cones and distribute them across the landscape. They will collect thousands of seeds and bury them in cache piles as far as 20 miles apart. This natural distribution of the seeds is hugely crucial to the species. If you are fascinated by these birds as much as I am, learn more from the Audobon at https://www.audubon.org/news/better-know-bird-clarks-nutcracker-and-its-obsessive-seed-hoarding.

Clark’s Nutcracker acquiring one of many seeds. Photo by Marshall Hedin.

The White Cloud Mountains continue to expand whitebark pine research. The monitoring surveys we completed were created to analyze how they regenerate post fire. In 2006, the Valley Road Fire burned nearly 40,000 acres in the White Cloud Mountain area. A substantial percentage of the fire occurred in prime whitebark pine habitat. The fire burned at low intensity and high intensity changing the entirety of the environment. Our survey focus was overall forest health and vegetation reestablishment. We visited over 20 plots in five different stands throughout the White Clouds, collecting data on a variety of components.

Some to note would be:

  • Tree status – dead, alive, or infected
  • What killed the tree 
  • Fire evidence
  • DBH and tree height
  • Number of overall conifer regeneration
  • Complete vegetation survey of each plot – forbs, graminoids, trees/shrubs
In the heart of one of our many plots. This is a mixture of subalpine fir and whitebark pine skeletons from a previous fire.

Each plot provided a different representation of how the forest can respond and how resilient it is to the impacts of wildfire. Here we were, thirteen years later, seeing thriving wildflower communities, tree regeneration, hearing the wolves cry, and elk bugle. Analyzing these snippets of the massive area we were in, provided us with a small window into just how adaptable forests are and how beneficial fire can be. It is important to note that we did find evidence of both mountain pine beetle kill and white pine blister rust, which was to be expected. Collecting this data will hopefully provide a continued baseline of what changes are occuring between each sampling year and will promote future management decisions. 

A moderately healthy whitebark pine stand. Photo by Olivia Turner.

Lastly, there is something oddly beautiful about being wrapped up inside of a 40,000 acre burn scar. You are completely exposed and can see each and every ridge around you. There is no hiding behind the skirt of subalpine fir or spying on a herd of elk (because they saw you miles and miles before you caught a glimpse of them). It is humbling. These four days flew by. We drove away with the understanding of how to properly conduct these surveys and have hopes to share the techniques with our forest, the Caribou-Targhee. 

Sunset over the Valley Road Fire burn scar.

Enjoy fall as it is fast approaching!

Claire Parsons

Caribou-Targhee National Forest, S.O.

Beyond SOS

The month of August was both productive and fascinating. While we were busy doing seed collections we had the opportunity for exploring the land and seeing some amazing sites, as well as collaboration.

We worked with our partners in the Rocky Mountain Research Institute (RMRI) conducting vegetation surveys in many of the Northern reaches of Nevada. With their help, we formulated and tested vegetation surveys that will be carried into the future to affect the management of both BLM and USFS properties

A land in Recovery. West of McDermit, NV_Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest
Lamoille Canyon Fire, Ruby Mountains_One Year Later

We had the opportunity to learn and exchange knowledge with our partners as well as enjoy working with people who share a similar passion. After our work with them was done we took the time to explore our own districts. There is always a lot of ground to cover in such a big state. We had much success, and have had the opportunity to meet fellow botanists and interns in the ‘wild’.