A Land of Extremes Indeed

Well. This week, my first, went about as well as I had hoped it would. Despite the majority of the week being set in necessary trainings, I had a wonderful time getting to know my fellow co-workers. One thing I really enjoy about field work is its attraction of transient folks coming from all different kinds of places. Through the lens and experiences of others, I feel like I am traveling from each story I hear. Towards the end of the week, I was able to find time between all the trainings for a field day with my co-intern here in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests. She has been here for approximately a month longer than I, which means she is an excellent guide and resource to me as I get started here. I am incredibly grateful for this fact and for her patience with me and my various questions. I am curious about the plants (of course!), the landscape, office ins-and-outs, potential populations to collect from, her personal experience so far, habitat typing and how it relates to seeds, and many more questions surely to come.

As we make our way from the bunkhouse towards Monarch, MT and down and around various Forest Service roads, we get to know each other through light conversation. We make our way through Douglas Fir forests, Lodgepole pine forests, before the forests open up to a beautiful and lush meadow. Here, we note Geranium viscossissimum, or Sticky geranium, which is fully in flower. It has a beautiful pink-magenta colored flowers, and because it is a perennial species, it seems to stick out just slightly above its surrounding counterparts. It’s a wonderful addition to the landscape and I am happy to be on the lookout for it.

Suddenly my co-intern is stopping and safely pulling to the side of the road. She’s spotted a rocky outcrop that could house another one of our target species: Phacelia hastata. She hops out, dutifully dons her Forest Service issued radio and bear spray before making her way to the outcrop, a procedure with which I will have to quickly become acquainted. “It’s here!,” she shouts to me as a scramble up the slight rocky slope to join her. The silverleaf scorpion weed. What a beauty. It’s low-growing and on an otherwise mostly barren hillside aside from some distant roses. It’s hard to believe that this rocky, seemingly nutrient-deficient place is where anything would choose to grow. Then again, I guess a seed doesn’t have too much choice in where it is grown.

We make our way through this long meadow and again through some forested areas. The habitat seems to change every few miles as we ascend and descend, loop around and back down, etc. Suddenly, we are bumbling up and along a narrow, steep and rocky road that made me forget to look around completely! As the road widens and flattens out, I am drawn again to my surroundings and find the trees up here on the hilltop are much smaller and more sparse…Ponderosa pines. Wildflowers here are abundant and my co-intern again is very helpful in pointing out new ground-dwelling friends, along with some features of each that set them apart from look-alikes. We are on the hunt for a specific set of 40 or so wildflower friends from whom we will hopefully be able to harvest their babies in the coming months… Kind of weird when you put in that way.

We continue down down down, then up and up and up until we come to a the top of a peak. Something pink flashes from the corner of my eye and triggers a memory of Pedicularis, commonly known as lousewort or Elephant’s head because of the shape of it’s flowers. It’s a gorgeous and striking little plant and I seemed to remember, from the brief look I’d had at our list, that there was one on it. I ask to stop, and we both get out to take a look. The guide to Montana vascular plants comes out. Not our guy; however, with the sun shining up above, the gorgeous view in all directions, and it being just after noon, it was a perfect time to stop for lunch. Another perk of the job.

After lunch we switched drivers and made our way around a large loop of mostly Forest Service land to continue scouting populations. As we made our way, one common theme repeated throughout the journey from peaks to rivers to meadows to dense forest: this area, the Little Belt Mountains, a small section of the Rockies, is as Victor, our mentor here at the Forest Service, put it, “a land of extremes.” It is evident from the drastic and sudden changes in vegetation, from the blown out tops of thick-trunked trees, the varying waterlines in creek and from the way seeds are willing to germinate in even the most destitute of places. Not only this, but if the weather I’ve experienced here in the Little Belts thus far in this the least extreme part of summer, is any indication of what might be imminent in the more harsh parts of summer and winter, I would say the plant life here must be prepared for all varieties of weather, and for changes at the drop of a hat. This is all a convoluted way of saying this is a land of extremes, indeed, and my interest is thoroughly peaked.

More next month!

First Month in Council, Idaho

Young rattlesnake narrowly avoided while searching for needle-grass
Camas meadow in the West mountains near Council, Idaho
Castilleja in a recently burned area around Warm Lake, Idaho

The famous rapper(?) Supa Hot Fire once remarked “I ain’t a rapper, so quit rapping at me!” This line, now cemented in contemporary lore, previously described my feelings towards botany. If I had a dollar for each time I heard “I’m a little rusty but” or “could you say it in Latin please” I would need to find a hedge fund manager. Miraculously, this past month of work has seemingly thawed my cold indifference towards jargon and along the way, helped me learn more about plant identification than throughout my whole college career. After a successful beginning of the season we now stand ready to start our first collection with only a blogpost to hold us back. Successful identification of 17 different target species including fleabanes, lupines, cinquefoils, and buckwheats have taken long hours with floras in hand. I am looking forward to the transition from scouting to collecting as the season progresses, and having a visual representation of the fruits of our labor.

Check for that tomentose abaxial foliage or something like that,


My intro to the DRyiNG project

It has been a little over a month now since starting my work on the DRyiNG (Drought RecoverY In Northern Grasslands) project out here in South Dakota and I have already learned a ton about the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem of Buffalo Gap. I’m currently able to confidently identify over a dozen species found in the prairie, many of which are grasses that look nearly identical to each other.

We spent the first week going over the defining characteristics of plant families we frequently come across and collecting some samples to enhance our visualization of some common species. Some grasses are easy to identify as they have very unique characteristics when compared to their neighbors. Pascapyrum smythii for example, is the most common grass we come across and it is easily identified by the purple coloration on its collar. Others are much harder like the three Bouteloua species we often encounter: B. curtipendula, B. dactyloides, and B. gracilis. These took me a while to get the hang of as they are all fairly simillar and usually only distinguishable by the location and quantity of hairs on the culm and leaves when not flowering.

B. gracilis

So far, our daily tasks have consisted of collecting aerial cover and stem count data within quadrats. This involves first identifying every species in the quadrat, estimating the area covered by each species when seen from above, and then counting the number of stems per species in a smaller quadrat.

Practicing aerial cover estimation. The smaller quadrat represents 10% of the larger quadrat and the paper square is 1%.
When collecting data, boardwalks are used to prevent trampling in the plots.

So far, I have had a great time. Every day I learn new species and deepen my familiarity with those I already know well. I never imagined I would be able to go on a hike with my friends and not only annoy them by identifying all the cool flowers but all the grasses too! As the summer continues I am excited to continue my training as a grass wizard and learn more about other cool projects going on in the area.

Attempting to convince a friend that Devils Tower is actually a really big tree (He didn’t buy it)

Hail Is Real

We all knew it was coming, but we hoped we were wrong.

The field season started smoothly, and the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands of South Dakota welcomed me with open arms. After a week of training, we started field work, and I learned the basics of aerial cover and stem counting so that we could begin data collection. Some of the plots at each site are covered by rainout shelters which simulate drought for the grasses under the shelters. This will become relevant in a bit.

For those who haven’t had the honor and privilege of performing aerial cover and stem count surveys, I will explain. For an aerial cover survey, you place a 50×100 cm quadrat onto an area of grass and make note of every species of plant within the quadrat. Most of the plants are grasses and forbs, from everyone’s favorite, Bromus arvenis (field brome), to old reliable Pascopyrum smithii (western wheatgrass), to the sneaky Erysimum repandum (bushy wallflower).

Bromus arvensis, my beloved

Stem counting involves putting down a 20×25 cm quadrat and counting every stem coming out of the ground. This may sound like a dreary task, but it’s actually incredibly meditative and has become my favorite part of the field day. Love it or hate it, I can promise you will never look at a patch of Bouteloua gracilis the same after stem counting.

But I digress. The first few weeks were going smoothly. The weather was beautiful, the fields grassy, and, aside from the occasional cactus spine and mosquito bite, it was everything a technician could hope for in a field season. Then the rains came.

I suppose there had technically been rains the whole time. There were occasional thunderstorms, often accompanied by hail, but they didn’t tend to fall during fieldwork hours. But on the fateful evening of June 25th, our Cedar Pass field site got a hailstorm like no other. When we got to the site on Monday morning, we saw that many of the rainout shelters had become swiss cheese. Some of the shingles had fully broken. Out of 70+ shingles, only 29 were undamaged. The rest needed to be replaced. This was worrying because we were in crunch mode and were trying to finish aerial cover measurements on the plots as soon as possible while still producing quality data. But the broken shelters needed to be replaced.

Fortunately, an angel in the form of Jeff Synstad came to help us in our time of need. Having one extra person on the team to fix the shelters gave us the manpower we needed to get our work done for the day. I’m looking forward to another exciting day tomorrow.

Until next month. Here’s a picture of a sunflower to tide you over:

As an East Coaster in the west for the first time, I have to say I’m blown away!

The first week was all about getting started. I learned so many plants, my brain was fried by the end. We had an introduction to the Forest Service, an introduction to the botany team and job, and training on how to use government vehicles. The people here have been absolutely amazing, and although I don’t have another CBG intern, the rest of the team is outstanding.

Me standing on a stump, holding my lil tablet,
with the Bitterroot mountains in the background!

Getting used to the Bitterroots has been so easy – I mean how could you NOT like it here?? The scenery is stunning, the job is great, and the plants are even better! There is nothing more satisfying to me than to be able to walk along a trail and be able to identify 75% of what I see, and after a month here, I am fairly certain I could do more than that. Not only is this my first time in Montana, but its my first time doing field work! I’ve always worked in greenhouses or gardens, so this change has been quite refreshing. I feel like I am contributing to the greater good with this work. I’ve been trying to pick my favorite part about this internship so far, but I honestly can’t choose. Whether it’s being able to just touch and identify plants all day, being able to pick my head up and see the mountains, or simply being outside, there is so much to love about it here.

It’s also really generous that the Forest Service team here wants me to try a little bit of everything. It really feels like their priority is teaching rather than just assigning jobs for them to get done. This season we plan to join the wildlife team for bird banding, the fish team for electroshocking, the heritage, silviculture, and hydrology teams for TBD. The whole Botany crew got First Aid and CPR certified last Thursday, and we may even head out to get chainsaw certified! I can’t wait to see what’s in store for these next few months.

My coworker and I found this on the side of a trail. The Bitterroot! The namesake of the Bitterroot valley.