Get in We’re Going to The Great Basin!

I cannot believe it is already my last week of this internship. Pack up and come along for the ride through all the Great Basin explorations of our summer!

The rest of the season can be broken up into 3 main stages:

Scouting for Sphaeralcea (Globemallow)

Collecting Globemallow seeds

Scouting for Eriogonum umbellatum (ERUM). 

Scouting for Globemallow 

Unlike LODI earlier this season, when scouting for globemallow we aren’t looking for just one species but rather any in the genus. This has made it interesting to see all the different species of globemallow. Trips to find this plant lead us much farther into the Great Basin and into very different habitats than LODI. We found that Globemallow liked to grow in quite disturbed places, often along roadsides or in old roadbeds. It also seemed to do better in the very hot, dry, and low elevation areas of the Great Basin with sandier soils. When on hills we noticed a pattern of Globemallow only growing in a narrow mid elevation band around the hillsides. In addition to the usual scouting process I outlined in my previous blog about LODI, for Globemallow, we have begun taking an herbarium specimen from each population. This means we dig up a plant or a few plants, while keeping most roots intact and attached and press it to be used for records and identification later. The goal is to have a pressed plant that takes up about two thirds of the page and is a clean presentation of the plant. To make a good herbarium we sometimes need to pluck off leaves and flowers to make it appear less cluttered. In order for the plant to press well we may also need to shave down the root so it can lay flat. In addition to the physical plant we add information about the habitat, soil type, surrounding species and exact coordinates from where the plant was taken. 

Collecting Seed

By early July some Globemallow populations were ready to collect. July become the month of the mad dash to get as much seed as possible before it all dispersed. 

When collecting, the goal is to get at least 2000 seeds from each population. This is why it is so important to find at least 200 plants when scouting a population. 2000 seed usually means collecting at least 400 seed heads depending on how much seed they each hold. Globemallow seeds are arranged in round seed heads that look like little “cheese wheels” when they begin to open, holding seeds in different slices. It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t want to deplete the population of all its seed. For this reason we only collect 25% of seeds in a population for that season. When estimating this 25% we include already dispersed seed heads or immature seed heads in the total count of seed for that season.

Mature seed heads( cheese wheels) ready to collect.

ERUM Scouting

By August most of the Globemallow seed has been dispersed and the plants are drying up. For the last few weeks of our internship we shifted to scouting for Eriogonum umbellatum (ERUM). the research station is in the early phases of incorporating ERUM. For this reason scouting looked a little different than LODI and Globemallow. For ERUm we did not need to find 200 plants. The minimum was just 10 plants in order to get all the leaf tissue needed. The goal for ERUM was also to get a larger amount of potential population locations to work with. Instead of getting just a few populations across a large region we wanted to scout regions much more thoroughly and get samples from the highest and lowest elevations in those areas. This type of scouting brought Sahalie and I a lot of fun variation in our last few weeks. Unlike working with globemallow in low disturbed places along roadsides, the ERUM populations we needed were often at high elevations. This meant that we sometimes got to have an epic hike up 10,000 ft mountains to get our samples.

My Great Basin bedroom

Since the start of the scouting season in April, Sahalie and I have camped 2-3 nights nearly every week for the past 4 months. Our “office” truly looks different everyday. We have traveled to Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Sometimes we even hit 3 different states in just one trip! This has led us to some incredible adventures in the most remote corners of the desert and on top of mountain meadows all over of The Great Basin. Here are just a few of my favorite views and campsites. 

Overlooking our campsite in the Thomas Mountain range in Utah
Wild horses in Nevada

What I’ve Learned

Throughout this season I learned many botany and field skills that I am excited to apply in my future career. Some of the most valuable skills and experiences being: 

  • Aerial imagery interpretation
  • How to navigate remote rough roads in 4×4 USFS trucks
  • Great basin Plant ID
  • Native seed collection
  • Herbarium specimen collection
  • Leaf Tissue collection
  • Botanical Keys
  • Population mapping
  • Habitat scouting for of our focal species and how climate, aspect, slope, surrounding species and soil type influence where the plant will occur
  • Seed collection cleaning
  • Dynamic decision making in the field
  • Independent field work and trip planning
  • Plant phenology surveys

What’s Next?

While this is a goodbye to my CLM internship it is not my goodbye to Boise! Getting so lucky with a great crew and group of friends in the city, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave yet. Sahalie and I have moved out of the trailer and into a house in town with another one of our coworkers. I’m so excited for this new chapter in Boise where I can settle in and spend some time outside of my tent and the forest service truck for now. I’m planning on spending this fall gaining some farm experience on local farms around Boise. This farm experience combined with my CLM experience will give me valuable skills to apply towards my next step in my career. I plan on moving into soil health research and conservation planning within food production systems.

I am so grateful for this incredible summer with all the places I’ve seen, people I’ve met, and new skills I have learned!

A photo of Anna (our new roommate), Sahalie and I from our backpacking trip in the Sawtooths this summer.

Endless Adventures working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Klamath Falls, Oregon

The Conservation and Land Management internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to offer great field experience gathering skills and abilities essential in working in the wildlife ecology and management field. As the fire season starts to kick off here in the basin, the field projects are somewhat dwindling, although the department has not completely moved to a full-time office work schedule quite yet. On the days that smoke decides to roll into the basin and influences the air quality, I have become much more appreciative of the days that we get to spend out in the field, as the number of field days currently seems to be numbered with response to the incoming fire season. This past month or so, the projects we have gotten the chance to do include electrofishing in Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus) critical habitat, Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) surveys/banding, Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps) surveys, the attempt to track hatchery tagged fish in Upper Klamath Lake through radio and acoustic telemetry methods via boat, and volunteering to help clean up parts of the Williamson River.

Klamath Falls, Oregon
Sawmill Hiking Trail

The task of electrofishing in Bull Trout critical habitat is essential to determine the abundance of Bull Trout in the area. Bull Trout are currently listed as a threatened species, meaning the population of the species is dwindling, resulting in the species having a high possibility of becoming endangered in the future throughout all or in a considerable portion of its home range. At the first site that we had electro-fished, along Dixon Creek, no Bull Trout were caught, although 20 Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) were recorded.

Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)

The second site that was electro-fished farther upstream along Dixon Creek consisted of removing any Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) from the creek. Over the course of two days of electro-fishing at the second site, numerous Brown Trout of various sizes were removed from the creek, in addition to one small Bull Trout being caught, which was released immediately back into the creek.

Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus)
Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)

The purpose of removing Brown Trout that inhabit Bull Trout critical habitat is due to Brown Trout being an invasive species. The term “invasive species” refers to a species that is not native to the area it inhabits. The threats of invasive species include competing with native species for resources such as food, water, and habitat, preying on native species, and carrying diseases and parasites that have the chance to spread to native species populations. These threats reduce biodiversity within an ecosystem, ultimately threatening native species populations, making it critical to remove any Brown Trout in areas that are considered Bull Trout critical habitat.   

A project we participated in working alongside the Sucker Science Coordinator within the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office involved doing mussel surveys within sections of the Sprague River.

Sprague River

The western ridged mussel (Gonidea angulata) is a type of freshwater mussel that has seen the range of its distribution decrease, although the species is known to still inhabit California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and British Colombia.

Western Ridged Mussel (Gonidea angulata)

In 2020, the species had been petitioned to be listed as an endangered species. The purpose of the survey was to look for western ridged mussels within sections of the Sprague River using a magnifying glass-like tool that allowed us to see the riverbed while looking from the surface of the water. The areas that were surveyed were once known as sites that contained western ridged mussels years prior. Individuals walked upstream and downstream from a site location to try and locate western ridged mussels in the area using the magnifying glass-like tool surveying different areas of the riverbed.

Magnifying glass-like Tool

If western ridged mussels were found, the GPS coordinates of the site where a mussel was found were recorded. Additionally, the number of western ridged mussels found per site was recorded as well. Other species of mussels that were found within areas surveyed included Floaters (Genus Anodonta or Sinanodonta) and Western Pearlshell (Margaritifera falcata).

With it being my first experience doing mussel surveys, it definitely took a little bit of practice learning how to differentiate the mussels from one another while using the mussel identification field guide that was provided. It also helped that the Sucker Science Coordinator had us do a practice run of trying to identify mussels at a site prior to doing the surveys and data collection.

One of the projects the other intern and I got to assist with alongside a graduate student and refuge staff at the Klamath Marsh/Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge consisted of doing Yellow Rail surveys, in which the surveys took place at night when the birds were active.

Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis)

The process consisted of going out in the marsh and playing an acoustic call of a Yellow Rail via a JBL speaker in different areas throughout the marsh to try and get a response from Yellow Rails within proximity of the acoustic call. Receiving a response from Yellow Rails in the area allowed us to pinpoint the general location of the rails. The response call of the rails was a distinctive song, in which the sound was like what tapping two stones together would sound like (i.e., “tick-tick, tick-tick-tick”), in which most of the time, they alternate between sets of two and three notes. If we received a response from a rail nearby, we pinpointed the general direction of the rail call and walked towards the sound of the call until we had estimated that the bird was a couple meters away. Once we got as close to the bird as possible without being right next to it, we stopped and downed some of the dense grass around us to try and call in the bird to capture it with a net. The purpose of getting as close as possible to the bird and then trying to call it in is due to them being an extremely secretive, tiny, chickenlike marsh bird, which poses a risk of them being easily stepped on or walked over unknowingly.

Yellow Rail Nest

If the bird feels pressured, there is also a potential of flushing the bird and it flying away before getting the chance to net it. We had a few close encounters with some rails, they seemed very close to where we were set up, although we couldn’t call any into our setup to get the chance of netting them. If we had been lucky enough to call in some birds and capture them with a net, some measurements that would’ve been gathered while using a dial caliper include measuring the tarsus length, beak length, wing length from carpal joint to wingtip, and secondary length from carpal joint to the tip of the outermost secondary feather. Overall, I appreciated the opportunity that the refuge staff provided the other intern and I to help out with the rail surveys, it was exciting getting to hear quite a few rails calling throughout the marsh while the surveys were being conducted.

The project that was the most enjoyable that we had the chance to do this past month involved conducting Modoc sucker surveys in Lakeview, Oregon.

Modoc Sucker (Catostomus microps)

It was a 2-week project that consisted of finding pools to survey and recording UTM coordinates for each site during the first week and then camping the following week in order to conduct night surveys looking for Modoc suckers at each site of interest. Modoc suckers were listed as an endangered species in 1985 and were recently removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2016 due to populations recovering with the help of the protection provided by the Endangered Species Act while the species was listed as endangered. The surveys we conducted were critical in monitoring the status of the species to ensure the population is staying relatively stable. Roughly 40+ pools were surveyed in wilderness streams, in which flashlights and laser pointers were used to locate the suckers and to try and count the ones found to record into our datasheet.

One of the pools surveyed for Modoc Suckers

For each sucker that was found, the size of each was estimated (in mm) and recorded into the corresponding size/age group. With Speckled Dace (Rhinichthys osculus) inhabiting the same pools surveyed as the Modoc suckers and looking somewhat similar to Modoc suckers as well, a distinctive characteristic that helped differentiate the Modoc suckers from Speckled Dace was the presence of dark bands on the backside of the suckers. The bands on the larger suckers were much more distinct, making it easier to I.D. the larger suckers.

Visible bands present on Modoc Sucker

Other organisms that were seen during the surveys consisted of Speckled Dace, tree frogs, Redband Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdneri), garter snakes, Water Scorpions (Nepidae), and a couple dragonflies emerging from their nymph stage.

A pool of Speckled Dace (Rhinichthys osculus)
Tree Frog
Water Scorpion (Nepidae)
Dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage
Dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage

Overall, although some nights were very tiring due to the surveys being conducted from 7 pm – 3 am, being able to camp for a couple days and look for fish at night while stars filled the sky was very enjoyable. It was also very exciting getting the chance to see many different organisms that inhabit the same aquatic ecosystem as the suckers as well.

The other intern and I alongside the Fisheries Biologist

The last two projects the other intern and I have gotten the chance to participate in involved attempting to track tagged fish in Upper Klamath Lake through radio and acoustic telemetry methods via boat and volunteering to help with the Williamson River cleanup. The project on Upper Klamath Lake did not go as planned, as the telemetry equipment/PIT tag equipment malfunctioned in which we did not get the chance to track tagged fish. But the day was not wasted as we got to go around the lake a bit on the boat while seeing tons of suckers swimming in groups near the boat.

Upper Klamath Lake

With regards to the Williamson River cleanup, it is a volunteer event that occurs once a year and involves picking up trash, mostly along the banks of the river, via boat. While there was minimal trash to be picked up, it was great in helping ensure that there will be fewer hazards in the water that fish may encounter that could potentially cause them harm.

Williamson River

Over the past two and a half months working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the various projects have kept the job interesting. Every day is another adventure gaining new skills and getting the chance to see different parts of southern Oregon. I am excited to see what the next couple of months have in store for us interns before our term ends, and I can’t wait to get back out into the field to conduct more field research.

Snipping Stems and Staring at Buds

This last month has been a month of office work, a month of underground buds, and a month of buds (friends).

We’ve mowed the prairie once again. We mow several of the plots at our sites to simulate cows’ grazing, but in order to know how much biomass has been removed from the plots we go in with scissors and manually cut the plants and sort by functional group. The plants are then dried and weighed. Mowing and snipping the grasslands is maybe the most ridiculous thing I’ve done. We’re going to go back in a few weeks to re-trim the grass, to see how much it has grown in the time after the mowing. Science is pretty silly sometimes.

The Rocky Mountain Research Station in Rapid City, South Dakota is kept at a chill temperature that nobody seems to have control over. This means that even when it’s 95 degrees out, I still have to bring a sweater to work when I’m in the office. I’ve been doing a lot of sorting and weighing of plants, plus mind-numbing data entry.

The process of weighing the dried plants involves shaking everything out of its paper bag onto a sheet of repurposed herbarium paper, placing the bag on the scale and zeroing it, finagling everything off of the herbarium paper back into the paper bag, then weighing and recording the mass. We’re about halfway through the job: there’s two sites, each which had about 50 plots clipped, and each plot has up to eight paper bags. These eight bags are categorized by their contents: annual forb, perennial forb, warm-season grass, cool-season grass, annual grass, standing dead, Bouteloua gracilis/Bouteloua dactyloides, and Pascopyrum smithii.

Jackie lighting the fire tables.

Besides snipping and weighing grass, my supervisor, Jackie, also does research involving underground buds, typically grass buds. She studies the bud bank and how plants regenerate from belowground buds throughout their life histories but also after events like fires. Some of this research is done out of Colorado State University, and in the middle of the team’s fire treatment a burn ban was put into effect in Fort Collins. They drove 6 hours to Rapid City to burn the samples and I got to be involved with the use of fire tables!

Fire is super interesting to me. Experiencing the near-annual smoke season in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve heard about how the bigger, hotter fires of today are the result of forest mismanagement and practicing fire suppression. It feels weird to be preached at by Smokey Bear that only I can prevent forest fires when fires have been present in forests since time immemorial. I’ve also known that prairies also rely on fires to “refresh” the vegetation but I’ve never considered how it all works. It makes sense: perhaps fireweed responds to fire so well because its rhizomes are just deep enough to not crisp up in a fire and the burning of neighboring plants opens up aboveground space for its buds to shoot up and bloom.

A bud of Bouteloua gracilis. The feathery, white structure is the prophyll. Underneath the prophyll is the bud.

Jackie took Myesa and me down to Colorado State University in Fort Collins to teach us how to dissect and count the underground buds of some of the native prairie plants. It was a lot of tearing grass apart under a microscope, trying to determine if the bud was, in fact, a bud or if it has become a juvenile tiller. As far as I understand, the distinction is that a bud is completely underneath the prophyll (a sort of casing that protects it) whereas tillers extend past the prophyll. Even after spending a whole afternoon peering through the microscope, I still struggle when distinguishing the roots from the buds. 

Outside of work, I’ve done lots of playing. There’s some pretty good hikes here, and a few weekends ago I got up at 3 am to get a sunrise hike in, despite a thunderstorm that lit up the lawn outside as I sipped my coffee. The weather cleared up just in time for my friends and I to hike up Little Devil’s Tower to see the sun come up over Rapid City. I’ve also had two buddies visit me: my partner, Bryce, from Tacoma and my best bud, Joe, from Chicago.

The Black Hills have been an excellent place for me to get into outdoor rock climbing and it was exciting to share that experience with some visitors. The Black Hills granite will tear your fingers apart and rip your skin open without you noticing, but it is also super grippy and relatively easy to climb. The local climbing community is pretty small and tight, and there’s a huge amount of climbing which attracts people from all over to climb in the Hills.

When Joe visited, we toured one of the numerous caves out here. We went to Jewel Cave, which is named for the calcite dogtooth spar found within. Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave in the world, which is pretty neat. Southeast of Jewel Cave is Wind Cave National Park, and while I haven’t been inside Wind Cave itself, I have gone through the park several times to see the bison and prairie dogs.

A few weeks ago I helped do some point intercept line transects at Wind Cave. Point intercept line transects involve placing a pole, the “plunker”, down along a transect tape at regular intervals and recording which species are touching the plunker and at what heights they are touching it. This was fun because point intercept involves less species analysis than taking aerial cover of 1 meter x 0.5 meter quadrats, which is what most of my summer’s prior data collection has been. Plus, most of the transects were through bare prairie dog towns so there wasn’t any data to record.

Soon enough, I’ll be back out on Buffalo Gap National Grassland, trimming the prairie by hand once again. 

The bison at Wind Cave National Park.

Scouting and Seed Collection!

Time is going by fast here in Boise! I feel so lucky to be working in this job learning new things every day, traveling around the Great Basin, and seeing cool plants.

In the last couple months, my co-intern Alaina and I have spent our time scouting for plant populations and collecting seed. We have mainly focused on Sphaeralcea (Globe Mallow) species, but we also spent some time scouting for Lomatium dissectum (LODI) early in the season. Scouting requires us to look closely at a landscape and pay attention to little details like aspect, changes in vegetation, and soil composition. For example, the first time we saw LODI, it was growing on steep rocky slopes next to the Deschutes River. We noticed that the plants were abundant on some slopes and absent on others. We drove along the river, recording when populations of LODI started and stopped. It became clear that the plants were showing a preference for west and north facing slopes. Just from observation, it is easy to see that vegetation patterns change from one side of a hill to another. Even though this pattern is present all throughout nature, I hadn’t really paid it a lot of attention it before this spring. In scouting, I started to see a whole new dimension to the landscapes around me.

Lomatium dissectum

Scouting trips required a lot of planning. Sometimes our mentor Jessica provided us points on a map to visit to look for plants and on other occasions Alaina and I spent hours in the office poring over google earth imagery to find likely habitat for our target species. For LODI, we looked for steep north and west facing slopes. For Globe Mallow we looked for sandy soils and disturbed areas. We also used herbarium specimen records to find places where plants were likely present. We then planned trips into the field to visit as many locations as possible.

Alaina and I learned a lot during our scouting trips. On our first trip scouting without our mentor Jessica, we chose to visit a creek in a steep walled canyon in the Owyhee Front. We mapped a possible route to the location on small dirt roads. However, we had no idea what these roads would look like once we arrived. After an hour and a half drive out from Boise, we turned onto a small two track road snaking away through the sage brush. We were feeling confident at first, but as we rattled our way down a long and very rough road, we started to wonder if we could make it all the way to the site. We remained hopeful and made slow but steady progress toward the canyon until we rounded a corner and came face to face with a rusty barbwire fence across the road and a private property sign. We turned around and made our way back to the main road, a bit discouraged. After consulting our map, we found another road leading to our field site and found our way there behind schedule.

Upon our arrival, we were delighted to find that what had looked on our map like a small canyon was in fact a spectacular and deep rocky canyon with spires and sheets of rock stacked like pancakes. We had to take a moment to sit and take in the view. Soon, we refocused on our scouting efforts. We searched the sides of the canyon for LODI, looking for its distinctive yellow umbel flowers and bright green hue. Unfortunately, there was none to be seen.

The canyon

At first glance, our first day scouting seems like a failure. We didn’t choose the best road, and we didn’t find any LODI at our scouting site. However, we quickly learned that these challenges are part of the process. After this trip we learned to more carefully plan our route when traveling on small two track roads. We also learned that scouting is unpredictable, and you need to be flexible with your plans. On many occasions a promising site ends up not having the plants you are looking for, but this is ok since every unsuccessful site helps you better understand where to look next.

Other scouting trips have taken us to Hell’s Canyon, Steens Mountain, western Wyoming, Jackpot Nevada, and beyond. We have mapped many populations of plants and collected lots of herbarium specimens. We have camped and hiked all over the Great Basin while looking for plants. We have grown very familiar with Globe Mallow and have found plants in all kinds of places, from disturbed sagebrush to a beautiful rocky hilltop to a hillside overlooking a bright blue lake.

A few sites where we mapped Globe Mallow populations

In the last month, Globe Mallow seeds have started to mature, and we have been returning to sites we scouted earlier in the season to collect seed. We collect 25% of the seed in a plant population at each site. It has been interesting to return to the sites we mapped and see the plants at a new stage. These seeds will be used in a new common garden for research that will support restoration of landscapes across the Great Basin.

Mature Globe Mallow seeds (picture credit Jessica Irwin)