Nursery Trip and a Day of Plant Keying

This month was pretty typical – with a lot of time spent on many new collections and updating our data to make sure everything was in order as our collection season begins to slow down. At the beginning of the month, we were lucky enough to be able to make a trip to Coeur d’alene to hand deliver some of our more perishable fleshy fruits. These included collections of Actaea rubra (baneberry), Prunus virginiana (chokecherry), Rubus parviflorus (thimbleberry), Rubus idaeus (raspberry), Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (kinnikinnick), Berberis repens (creeping oregon-grape), and Symphoricarpos albus (common snowberry). Since all of these species are at least semi-fleshy fruits and needed to be refrigerated, we decided to drive them to the nursery rather than sending them through the mail with the less perishable collections.

Picture depicts Symphoricarpos albus growing in the Big Belts on 09/13.

On September 7th, we packed these collections into a bear proof cooler with ice and started our long drive towards Coeur d’alene. The trip took us over 12 hours of total driving time, but, luckily, we were able to break up the trip and stay a night in Missoula, MT with Selah – a fellow CBG intern working at the Lolo NF. We were so thankful to Selah for letting us stay with her and enjoyed catching up and talking about how all of our summers were going. The next morning, we left for the nursery. 

At the nursery, we were able to take a tour around the facilities. Many of the seed cleaning tools we saw were similar to the ones at the Lucky Peak Nursery I visited during the CBG training in May, but it was still cool to see them again. It was also awesome to see all of the seedlings that were being grown in the greenhouses – especially the area filled with Whitebark Pine saplings. I was happy to see so much effort being done to help out the Whitebark Pine that are currently endangered due to blister rust. While we were there, we also saw the nursery workers collecting seed from some of the bulk seed plots using seed vacuums – which was very neat. There was also a very cute cat that we got to say hi to who was living at the nursery. After the tour, we gave them our collections of fruits, as well as some that Selah gave us to deliver from the Lolo NF. Finally, we picked up 9 large bags of seed that our supervisor ordered to be used at a superfund site and started the long journey back to Neihart, MT.

Picture depicts Rubus parviflorus growing in the Big Belts on 08/21.

Another fun day was in the second half of the month – spending an entire day keying out plants with two of the Helena botany techs. We had joined them on some rare plant surveys before and always came to them with any questions – so they decided to visit our station to help us on some difficult species. To prepare for their visit, we collected some samples from a mining site and a burn area that we were considering collecting seed from. These samples were mostly all asters of some kind – some Solidago (goldenrod) and some purple asters. They also helped us make a final decision about the geum that was growing outside of the station (which I wrote about in my blog post last month). 

Picture depicts the burn area with which some of the samples came from. 09/19

We used many different resources to accurately key out the samples. We had both the Montana Vascular Plant key as well as the Pacific Northwest key, the live samples, some pressed samples of geum and their seeds, and another key that was brought by the botany techs. We also referenced samples saved in an online herbarium. 

After a long day, we decided our collected samples were Eurybia merita, Solidago missouriensis, Solidago multiradiata, Solidago nemoralis, Symphyotrichum ciliolatum, and Geum aleppicum. Even then, many of these were a ‘best fit’ situation where they did not fully seem to fit in one species description – one would just match up better than the other possibilities. Plants can be tricky, so it was nice to have other people to discuss these samples with and multiple sources that we could use and compare to each other. 

Picture depicts a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake that we drove by in the Little Belts on 09/12.

Saving the Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot Butterfly

In the past four months of living in New Mexico, I came to realize how rich in biodiversity the state is. This is partly a result of the different life zones found here, which include desert shrublands, grasslands, woodlands, coniferous forests, subalpine, and alpine. Therefore, I get to explore the different life zones and their flora and fauna in my free time and at work. Since I have been here, I had the opportunity to survey an array of sensitive, endemic, and rare plants and animals, including Goodding’s onion (Allium gooddingii), Sacramento Mountain salamander (Aneides hardii), Sacramento prickly poppy (Argemone pinnatisecta), New Mexico meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius luteus), and the Sacramento Mountain checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas anicia cloudcrofti).

Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot Butterfly

This year, most of the plant species in our seed collection target list are nectar plants. The reason for this is that the seeds we have collected on LNF will be aiding the habitat restoration of the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly. This beautiful butterfly can only be found in the high-elevation subalpine meadows of the Sacramento Mountains in the Lincoln National Forest. Like other butterflies, the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butter is reliant on a larval host plant, the New Mexico Penstemon (Penstemon neomexicanus).

However, the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly has been experiencing a serious population decline in the recent years due to habitat degradation caused by grazing, invasive and non-native plants, climate change, and altered wildfire regimes. As of this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the butterfly as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

Habitat Restoration

Unfortunately, not a single checkerspot butterfly was found during the surveys this year. Nonetheless, protecting and restoring their habitat is still a critical process to ensure their chances of survival. For the past couple of years, the Southwest Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) has led the effort in restoring the butterfly habitat in the forest. This year, the Forest Service, Albuquerque BioPark, and volunteers helped IAE plant more nectar plants in a meadow that had a low-density of nectar plants.

Over the course of two days, we planted roughly 2,000 nectar plant plugs that included their host plant (New Mexico penstemon), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), spike verbena (Verbena macdougalii), and cut-leaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata). Some plugs were planted inside enclosures that have been built while others were planted outside across the meadow with seedling protections tubes placed on them.

Although it was repetitive work, it was incredible to see the number of people working towards the recovery of the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly. Moreover, it was incredible to see how our seed collection efforts this year will be implemented in future habitat restoration. I am very grateful to be part of this journey.

— Evie #Savethebutterflies

And just like that, September is gone…

We were off to a ~great~ start this month when we had a blowout driving down a mountain road! My fellow MCC intern and I found ourselves in a bit of a sticky situation when we were driving down a long Forest Service road and caught a flat tire. We luckily had one bar of service to look up how to get the tire off the back, but once we did, we were golden. It was definitely nerve racking doing this all on a hill, but the road continued at this incline for miles, so it was not feasible to keep driving to a flat location – less we want to damage the car. Either way, we fixed it and successfully changed our first tire! Peep the photo below – our Ram named “Gloria” – she has gotten us THROUGH IT this summer. Long Live Gloria!

A wild Aislinn in her natural habitat – taking on the challenge of changing a tire on an incline…

Other than the tire debacle, this month has been quite calm. Mostly seed collection – with might I say some of the best views of the valley thus far. It’s kind of amazing to think about how much of the bitterroot I’ve explored given that I’ve only been here for 4 months. I’ve surveyed miles and miles of land, driven extensively throughout the mountains, and seen acres and acres of forest. I feel very connected to the land after working on it so intensely. I don’t know where I’ll end up next, but I doubt I’ll have lunch views quite like I do now. (Sometimes I’ll just stop for a minute to admire the landscape, please don’t fire me…)

They call it Big Sky country for a reason!

It’s also been an amazing thing to see all of the wildlife. From Elk to Big Horn Sheep, we have seen so many amazing animals that we definitely don’t have back east. I have certainly become more observant when driving and hiking, and have found so many cool things in the forest. I think at first I was just so focused on the surveying because I wasn’t used to it. I had to sit and figure out so many plants because I wasn’t too sure what I was looking at yet. Now that I am pretty confident in my plant skills, I can be more observant to my surroundings. It’s a bit sad that just as I am more confident in my skills, the season is coming to an end. I of course still have a month here, but it’s sad to see my fellow seasonals leaving, the colors changing, and leaves falling. I will say I miss Northeastern fall (there is nothing quite like the Adirondacks changing colors in peak season), but the golden hues are ~almost~ as homey. I’m a bit nervous for the snow to begin in the valley, although it already has in the higher altitudes, but I am so excited to see how pretty it looks here with a fresh blanket of snow.

A young Big Horn Sheep watching us from the hill

Goodbye Alaska!

My final month in the Tongass went by as quickly as the previous three. It was a summer full of adventures, seed collecting, hiking, camping, swimming, and wildlife viewing. The Tongass is truly a magical place. The coastal temperate rainforest is such a unique ecosystem. It is so productive and filled with megafauna and old-growth stands, that make you feel like you were transported into Jurassic Park. Ketchikan seems to always be entrapped by thick clouds and a mist that makes the mountain’s features more mysterious. However, despite its reputation as one of the rainiest US towns, we had a beautiful summer filled with many consecutive sunny days. I began to long for the clouds and rain as plants and creeks started to dry up. After a few weeks in August, Ketchikan returned to its normal cloud coverage that I’ve grown to love.

We finished the season with collections from 20 different species. Aquilegia formosa (wild columbine), Aruncus dioicus (goatsbeard), Carex aquatilis (water sedge), Carex echinata (star sedge), Coptis aspleniifolia (fern-leaf goldthread), Chamerion angustifolium (fireweed), Gualtheria shallon (salal), Heracleum maximum (cow parsnip), Oplopanax horridus (devil’s club), Ribes bracteosum (stink currant), Rubus spectabilis (salmonberry), Sanguisorba officinalis (great burnet), Scirpus microcarpus (panicled bulrush), Spiraea splendens (rose meadowsweet), Tiarella trifoliata (three-leaf foamflower), Vaccinium ovalifolium (blueberry), and Vaccinium parviflorum (red huckleberry). In total we collected 1,577,772 seeds, weighing 17 lbs.

It was a very diverse group of species, that all have high value for restoration projects. For example, Cow Parsnip & Fireweed provide food and shelter to animals and pollinators. Plus, they are great for roadside disturbed areas and shade out the biggest nuisance in the Tongass: reed canary grass. We collected lots of fruit bearing shrubs that are great for wildlife and help stabilize the soil. The rest of the species were collected to help revive the stream banks after stream restorations.

Apart from all the seed collecting, we collaborated with other resource specialists on timber, watershed restoration, archeology, and recreation projects. I got to dip my toe into the other disciplines and expand my general knowledge. This experience I had out here was everything I wanted and more. I learned a ton about botany, coastal rainforests, restoration, and working for a government agency. This internship is definitely going to be instrumental in continuing a career stewarding our natural world.

I leave Alaska with a bittersweet kind of feeling. I am very grateful for this opportunity and so glad I accepted the offer to come almost 3,500+ miles from home to an area that I had no prior experience with. The Tongass National Forest holds a special place in my heart, and I look forward to making my way back here one of these days.