See you later South Dakota

It’s the end of August and the grasslands have faded into a flat brown. The graph of the soil moisture probe trends definitively downward towards dryness. The cows have always been present out here, but I think I’ve been noticing them and the bison more. At our site by the Badlands there’s finally cows grazing the pasture and more than once the herd has curiously surrounded the exclosure I’m working in. I saw several RVs parked on Buffalo Gap National Grassland, surrounded by cows and I wonder about the campers’ reactions as they woke up to the sounds of cows all around them.

The past three weeks have included some relatively backbreaking work: clipping and sorting. Some of the grasses are sorted out by species, but most are put into the broader categories of their functional groups, warm season versus cool season.The last batch of plots we’ve been clipping are 20 cm x 1 m and were mowed in July. Some of the grasses have grown back but many are just short, brown stalks. Without ligules and mostly without hairs, these stems are identified by vibes more than anything else. It’s been difficult to trust my intuition.

Clipping and sorting the grass.

The nice thing about the clipping is that it is a job that cannot be rushed. Quick work is shoddy work, and shoddy work is simply not worth doing. The first week or two of clipping was relaxing because I could catch up on podcasts and just take my time snipping away at grass, enjoying the dull roar of grasshoppers and meadowlarks. By the third week, I was exhausted. My neck and legs hurt from sitting in the grass for 30 hours a week and the insects left my ears ringing. 

My internship is wrapping up next week and I’m sad to leave. The team I’ve worked with has been up to four people but mostly just Myesa and me. Working with a small crew is nice when you all get along and I’ve definitely made some lasting relationships here.

I’ve been super busy this whole summer: my weekends have never been so full. Yet, I know I still haven’t done all of the things Rapid City has to offer and I’m finding myself wishing I’d had done more, wishing that I did go to the Sturgis rally because hey, why not? I’ve been able to do so much: I’ve spent endless hours climbing around Rushmore; I’ve backpacked in Badlands National Park; I climbed a 13,000-foot peak in the Bighorns. I was half-expecting I’d have a lonely summer, living all alone in the four-bedroom Forest Service housing in Hill City but I’ve been able to have a very full experience. 

My friend Victoria at the top of Cloud Peak in Bighorn National Forest.
Our campsite where we slept under the stars in Badlands National Park.

I heard on the radio that the price of beef has gone down. Cows are getting slaughtered due to ranchers not being able to water them adequately in the drought; beef prices will go up in following years due to ranchers having smaller herds. Jackie likes to have her science directly benefit the shareholders: the local ranchers. I spent my summer looking at the cows’ food and how drought will impact the grasslands and while I may have been merely cutting grass by hand, it is nice to know that the project I broke my back stooping over is researching the effects of climate change. 

I’ve learned a lot about grasses and grasslands and cattle and rocks this summer, but I feel like the most affirming lesson I received is that people are so willing to be of help. I’ve made a lot of great friends and have had a lot of excellent teachers, from Jackie being the most understanding and kind boss I could ask for to learning and nerding out about flowers with Myesa to my climbing friends, who have been sources of unwavering encouragement. After this summer, I’m heading back to Washington state, where I will likely continue to feel lost in life. However, it’s encouraging to know that no matter where I end up, I’ll have somebody, somewhere, on my side.

Me and a bison.

The End of a Season in Boise

After over five months, my internship with the Forest Service in Boise, Idaho has come to an end. It has been a very busy and productive season. I am looking forward to having some time to rest and recharge this fall while working in Boise as an environmental educator before starting a new fieldwork job in the spring.

My co-intern Alaina and I did so much interesting work this season. We began by doing plant surveys in the common gardens and cleaning seed from last year. Next, we planned seed scouting trips and learned to use imagery and online herbarium records to choose scouting sites. We began scouting for Lomatium dissectum in May and got a lot of practice searching for plants and mapping plant populations. By June our focus shifted to Globe Mallow. We spent May and June scouting for Globe Mallow and July and part of August in a rush to collect as much seed as we could. By mid-August, Globe Mallow seed was mostly dispersed, and the plants were drying up. After Globe Mallow collection was done, we spent some more days at the common gardens tackling some big weeding projects to prepare for fall planting.

In late August, we also spent a lot of time collecting Eriogonum umbellatum leaf samples and herbarium specimens. RMRS Boise is doing research on this species and needs tissue samples for genetic analysis. For this work, we went out in the field and traveled to sites where herbarium records indicate that plants are likely present. Once we found Eriogonum umbellatum, we collected an herbarium specimen and ten leaves from the plant population.

Eriogonum umbellatum herbarium specimen

We collected Eriogonum umbelletum from many different sites, but my favorite was near the top of McAfee Peak in Nevada. To reach this site we drove up a very steep and rocky road. It was the worst road we drove all season, and it was nice to see how much our two-track driving skills have improved. After inching our way part of the way up the mountain, we parked the truck. We then hiked cross-country through beautiful meadows of flowers and up rocky slopes to a ridge at 10,000 feet. It was quite a fun adventure to hike to the ridge and to strategize the best way to reach this high elevation site.

The view from our collection site on top of McAfee Peak

I learned a lot in this internship. Alaina and I really got to take ownership of our seed collection work and we gained expertise in the tasks we did all summer. I learned a lot about how field biology jobs work and what it is like to work for the Forest Service. I gained a lot of experience planning fieldwork and using herbarium records and satellite imagery to find plants. Also, working independently in the field let me practice work-related decision making and problem-solving. Most importantly, this job has helped me define my interests and career goals. I really enjoyed working with plants in this position and I am confident that I want to continue to do more botany work in the future.

One of the best parts of this season was getting the chance to travel to all kinds of field sites across the Great Basin. I loved getting familiar with the region and seeing so many remote and interesting sites. Here a few pictures of my favorite places I visited.

The John Day River near a Globe Mallow collection site
Bear Lake in Utah
A Globe Mallow scouting site with many flowers growing in the rocks
A creek at our field site in Hell’s Canyon
Near our campsite at City of Rocks
A scouting site in the Owyhee Front in Idaho
A walking trail near our campsite in SE Idaho

 I also saw so many awesome plants over the months of this internship. Here are a few of my favorites.