The Prairie is Full of Grass: Poaceae is Difficult Sometimes.

June began with a package from my mom containing my forgotten raingear, which I needed for a few chilly, wet days. A bit of drizzle isn’t anything new to me, but the storms sure are. Two times now I’ve gotten caught in a car while a storm above drops hail the size of grapes, which pounds so loudly on the metal roof that you have to shout to be heard. Once the hail subsides, one can be sure to find dimples on the car body and the offending hunks of hail slowly melting in the ditch, inert.

Our site by Badlands National Park. To the right of the truck is the cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides) that is the singular source of shade at this site.

While the storms aren’t going to go away, the rain is no longer cold and it’s quite hot now. A few weeks ago it reached 102 degrees. We lunched under the shade of a singular, shrimpy cottonwood tree and the breeze still felt like it was gusting from an oven.

A week of June was also spent in Bill, Wyoming. Bill is an unincorporated township of about 10 people. Myesa and I were there helping the seasonal crew with a sagebrush fire study on Thunder Basin National Grassland, where we helped record aerial cover and stem counts. The craziest weather experienced there was just the wind: on Tuesday, everybody toppled over at least once. My knees hurt from bracing myself against the wind all day.

My time in Wyoming got me thinking about how much of ecological science is carried on the backs of young people. Sure, there are all the scientists and professors who publish the papers and design the experiments, but behind nearly each research project is a crew of several seasonals blundering through tall grass while trying to preserve the structural integrity of the data sheets and not-quite-rugged-enough plant field guide. The crew I worked with in Wyoming consisted of undergrads and recent college graduates, most of whom seemed to fall into the job because of a general interest in ecology and a stronger interest in employment, but not necessarily plants.

One of the plots on Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming. This grassland has much more sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) than Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota.

It seems like an almost obvious labor solution to hire only young people: our bodies aren’t broken yet and we don’t always know that it is wrong to cut your 30-minute lunch in half in order to get the job done, while earning $15/hour. It’s a shame that most scientific projects don’t receive the funding to thoroughly train seasonal workers who will have moved on by fall. I wonder about the robustness of some studies where plant identification is important. I have a couple years of experience with staring closely at plants and identifying them but if somebody has never really noted and wondered about the differences between, say, a maple leaf and an oak leaf… how many mistakes could they make, out here on the prairie, trying to determine the differences between these very similar grasses?

Don’t get me wrong, I love plants and I am thoroughly enjoying my internship but if I had to describe my ideal summer gig, I wouldn’t exactly be waxing poetic about the joys of straining my eyes and lower back to peer at grass ligules, determining if the plant at hand is Bouteloua dactyloides or Bouteloua gracilis and then counting each individual stem of grass. I can’t imagine doing this job without having a semblance of passion for the plants. Plant identification mistakes are too easy to make and can have a huge impact on the data.

There is a grass out here called Pascopyrum smithii, which is easily identified by its clasping purple auricles, strong venation, and sandpapery texture. However, there have been several instances while counting stems where I identify a grass and its auricles as P. smithii only to glance at the inflorescence and realize that I’m wrong, it’s Bouteloua curtipendula. 

But of course, even if you have years of experience there are times where it is not enough. There are an infinite amount of perspectives that one can know plants from: from ornamental varieties to houseplants to vegetable gardens to native plants from one specific ecoregion, from agriculture to ethnobotany to taxonomy to functional traits to forest management to herbicide application.

A few summers ago I worked a plant survey job throughout Washington and Oregon when my partner and I came across a wondrously tall plant in town with large purple inflorescences.

“What could this beauty be?” we exclaimed in awe. “It’s so mighty and large! It looks sort of like a lilac, but it’s not the right time of year for lilacs to be blooming.”

We left the behemoth behind, un-keyed because it was not at a target site. Two years later, as I found myself cutting down and digging out and injecting poisons into invasive plants, I learned about Buddleja davidii. It’s also called butterfly bush, and it’s a beautiful ornamental plant from Asia, a plant people put in their gardens because it’s pretty and “feeds butterflies”. A plant that can produce up to 40,000 seeds per inflorescence and is very capable of pushing native plants out of their habitat.

The more I learn and do, the more I find myself feeling as if there is too much to know. The plant world is overwhelming and never ending, and perhaps no amount of training can ensure 100% accuracy, but at least I can rest assured that I will never cease to have the opportunity to learn more. At least Poaceae is less intimidating of a family than it was two months ago.

Escobaria vivipara

Aphyllon fasciculatum
(clustered broomrape) parasitizing the Artemisia frigida (fringed sagebrush) in the background
Lewisia redviva

One Month Down in the Klamath Basin

Almost a month has gone by since I drove north through California to my internship with the US Fish & Wildlife Service in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Klamath Falls is the largest city in the Upper Klamath Basin, an area inhabited by the Klamath tribes since time immemorial. Before coming I did some virtual exploring via satellite imagery, which showed Klamath Falls in a transition zone where the dark green of forested land turns into the beige of a drier, desert landscape. Not surprisingly, my Google Maps tour did not prepare me for the incredible beauty and diversity that actually exists in the Basin. The high desert environment, with its sagebrush, western juniper and ponderosa pine, meets with vibrant riparian and wetland vegetation in the Basin’s river systems and marshes. The Upper Klamath Basin comprises several other drainage basins, some of which feed into Upper Klamath Lake. This lake feeds into the Klamath River, which flows through Northern California and into the Pacific Ocean. To the south you can see majestic Mount Shasta rising through the clouds, west are vast wilderness areas in the Cascades and the pointed peak of Mount McLoughlin, north and east exist several river systems, the Klamath Marsh Wildlife Refuge, and Crater Lake, a landmark of volcanic activity in the region. Basically, a short drive in any direction from Klamath Falls is both unique and stunning.

A view of Klamath Falls with Mount Shasta in the distance.
Klamath Falls, with a view of the south end of Upper Klamath Lake.

My fellow intern, Antonio, and I are here to assist on various projects within the Klamath Falls FWS office. My first week we joined the Fish & Wildlife Partners Program, a department that works with non-federal landowners to restore the habitats on their land. We did some wetland surveying, transplanted wocus (a native water lily used by the Klamath tribes) into a restoration site, and shadowed on a landowner outreach excursion. 

Our second week was spent with a hatchery rearing the endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers: endemic sucker species that are not seeing new recruitment in their populations. We spent every morning in a boat, collecting thousands of sucker larvae on the edges of the Williamson River. The afternoons were spent at the hatchery counting the nearly translucent baby fish one by one. Overall we collected and counted over 10,000 larvae. These larvae hang out in large tubs and are fed artemia (miniscule brine shrimp) until they grow larger and can be transferred to in-ground ponds. 

Uprooted wocus on their way to being transplanted
in a restored wetland.
Sucker larvae swimming in the collection cooler.

The next two weeks consisted of bull trout recovery work with our supervisor, Zach. Many streams that were historically occupied by genetically unique bull trout are now devoid of them, so there is a large effort to re-populate some of these areas and remove invasive brook trout. We worked our way up Long Creek, a branching of the Sycan River area, which previous studies had claimed were still occupied by bull trout. To sample the fish we use backpack electrofishing. One person will don the electrofishing backpack, and two others wield the dip nets. The electrofisher delivers a current that elicits involuntary muscle movements in any fish caught in the electric field. The fish moves towards the anode and is briefly immobilized to make for easier capture. The first fish we sampled were all invasive brook trout. We took down measurements and put a PIT tag under the dorsal fin. I’m somewhat ashamed to say that this was my first time holding a fish that wasn’t frozen salmon from the grocery store. What’s more, I did not expect these trout to be some of the most beautiful organisms I’ve ever seen.

 The long awaited bull trout were finally caught after we moved upstream to a steeper, rockier section of the creek. To continue our sampling in deeper parts of the creek, we put on “dry” suits and snorkeled upstream. No bull trout were identified in our snorkel search, but we did spend a solid five minutes observing two lamprey building a nest (also called a “redd”) about a foot from our faces. We also discovered that staying completely dry in a dry suit is not a given. All things considered, it was an amazing experience.

Zach and Antonio weighing a brook trout.
Antonio and I snorkeling up Long Creek in search of bull trout.
A lamprey caught during a fish survey in the Klamath Marsh NWR.

This month has been truly eye-opening for me. Not only am I learning new skills and becoming acquainted with the unique wildlife of this incredible region, but I am being exposed to a whole new field of work. The passion that exudes from the FWS staff, their knowledge of the native species here and their insatiable desire to keep learning is so inspiring to me. I can’t wait to see what the season has in store for Antonio and I. 

Lake of the Woods in the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

First Month Working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Klamath Falls, Oregon

The Conservation and Land Management internship has been beneficial in gaining experience working with various aspects of fisheries and wildlife conservation and management in conjunction with the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office. The opportunity to work alongside biologists and hatchery staff has led to gaining knowledge and experience working with species that are important to the local ecosystems in the area, whether it be Bull Trout, Brook Trout, Lost River sucker, shortnose sucker, and Canada Geese.

The first project consisted of using an electrofishing backpack to shock an area of Deming Creek Trail for Bull Trout. The purpose of electrofishing is to collect data regarding the abundance, species composition, health, and density of a fish population in any given area. The task involved using a backpacking unit in the stream to shock fish, catch the shocked fish in nets, and estimate the size lengths of each individual caught. With it being my first experience trying to net fish after they had been electroshocked by the backpack shocker, developing a quick reaction time to net the stunned fish was a must. As the day went on, we had better success rates in netting fish, which led to more accurate data for the study area.

Rosy Boa
Deming Creek

The second occasion of backpack electroshocking consisted of shocking wilderness streams for Brook Trout. With it being my first time getting to use an electrofishing backpack, it was definitely a learning experience. Looking for pools of calm water in the stream, whether it be along the banks of the stream or areas that are directly below large objects, such as boulders, were prime spots that typically held fish. Being able to recognize where the fish might be located helped the success rate of capture and, ultimately, data collection. The downside of using the electroshocking backpack for the first time was learning how to maneuver through a fast-flowing stream carrying the backpack while maintaining balance at the same time. When electrofishing, once shocked fish were caught, gaining experience using a PIT Tag reader, along with processing fish via PIT Tagging, weighing, and measuring the total length of each fish was beneficial for a future career in the fisheries field.

Brook Trout

A project that the intern program was able to assist in conjunction with Klamath Fish Hatchery consisted of working with the shortnose sucker and Lost River sucker. The task involved operating a skiff boat on the Williamson River and catching fish larvae with dip nets and storing them in coolers. Being out on the water, we were able to obtain experience driving the boat down the Williamson River, as well as loading the boat onto the trailer at the end of the day. Being able to obtain boating experience was awesome, as knowing how to operate and load a boat is highly sought after in the fisheries and wildlife field. Once returned to the hatchery with coolers filled with fish larvae, the larvae were individually counted and put into rearing tanks. Although counting each individual fish for a couple hours per day was draining, it was exciting knowing that our work is helping with the conservation of each species, as the two species of suckers are currently endangered.

Shortnose sucker and Lost River sucker larvae

One of the more adventurous projects consisted of going out snorkeling to look for Bull Trout. Coming from the desert in New Mexico where it is very dry, I have never gotten the chance to go snorkeling. Although the water was super cold and we didn’t catch a glimpse of any Bull Trout, being able to see schools of Speckled Dace in the water swimming around was awesome. The benefit of snorkeling was it helped sharpen our fish ID skills while we were identifying fish species in aquatic habitats.

One of the last projects we have completed recently involved banding geese in conjunction with a local wildlife refuge. Banding is a useful tool to gather data on breeding and wintering distribution, behavior, reproduction, survival, and migratory routes of migratory birds. The task involved using kayaks to direct flocks of geese that were on the water toward the shoreline where a fenced pen was set up. It took a lot of patience trying to keep the flock together as much as possible while also trying to push the flock towards the shore. Once the geese were on the shore and enclosed within the holding pen, it got hectic really quick. The process consisted of picking up each individual goose from the pen, determining the sex and age (i.e., hatch-year, mature), banding the goose, and returning it to the water. Over the last couple of days of geese banding, the process has gone a lot smoother as I have gotten more experience banding the birds.

Canada Geese

In conclusion, the conservation and land management internship has been really enjoyable, along with being beneficial in getting to experience helping with numerous fisheries and wildlife projects that the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office conducts on a daily basis. Although a job within the fisheries and wildlife field can be stressful at times, especially if one is moving from seasonal job to seasonal job with no luck on permanent employment, the projects that are conducted within a job can be very rewarding at times, in which I would recommend this type of fieldwork to any individual searching for a career path.