Every journey begins with a single step, but ends with one too

Over the months the seeds we have been collecting have changed. Earlier my mind was so focused on sedges and where they were in our prairie’s. But I haven’t thought about sedges in a long time. Instead my harvesting mind has switched to silphiums. Silphiums are one of the characteristic features of Midewin, and we have a lot of them as you can see from this picture. This time of year is really the time when seeding has been put into high gear, as now we have help from experienced volunteers, many of the other technicians, and even the mighty acorns, an army of 12 year old schoolchildren that help collect seed from easy to access areas like seed beds. Also what has changed is our attitude towards collecting seed. Earlier we tried to find more unique and rare species that were hidden in the tall grasses. Now we are trying to get more bulk collections of our main workhorse plants such as rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). In the past this plant was a thorn in my side, almost literally as it would often snag painfully against my leg, now I get to exact my revenge.

Silphium laciniatum

Besides seed collecting, which has occupied a bulk of our time, we also did some more plant monitoring in a more unique way. This method, instead of getting a quadrat out, was more free form and has the title of “Fall Meandering”. For an hour we walked around various areas of our prairie’s and identified any of the plants we saw and jotted it down. It was a nice leisurely stroll through the vegetation. In this exercise, even more than the previous plant monitoring, I really think I learned a lot more of the plants that existed around me. One such plant was Solidago altissima (insert picture) which I had thought was just the invasive Canada goldenrod. But they are slightly different in the inflorescence as the length of those small little petals differentiates them. 

Solidago altissima

As the final leg of this journey comes up on us and we can see the finish line we have to keep remembering to stay the course and keep taking the necessary steps.

He is Trampling Out the Vintage Where the Dogwood Seeds are Stored

The high desert sun over the Payette has receded into misty mornings and many a rainy day, and the larches and aspens are turning to spires of gold among the evergreens. The past month has been a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure story; the credits have begun to roll for the main storyline of seed collecting, so we’ve had some time to work with a handful of other crews on a smattering of side quests.
We started off the month with a collection of red-osier dogwood seeds (Cornus sericea) that we suggested as a good way to learn to collect not only tree seeds but also fleshy fruit. The question of the hour then became: how do we get these out of the little white berries they grow inside? The answer, it turns out, was to dump them into a 5-gallon bucket and stomp them like wine grapes. They feel so, so weird between your toes – would not recommend! But after laying them in the sun for a few days to dry, we ended up with a rather bulky bag of about 40,000 seeds. Not too bad for two hours’ worth of collecting.

Why did we think this was a good idea…?

After this rather bizarre episode, we tagged along with a wildlife biologist to retrieve game cameras on the farthest-flung reaches of the forest out by Hells Canyon. We returned with a camera roll full of elk, fishers, and bears, an incredible panoramic view of America’s deepest river gorge, and a new population of a rare bitterroot flower. We spent the next week or two wrapping up collections of roses, alders and daisies before Dan took a week to visit Great Basin. I stayed behind to finish some office work and map streams in a timber sale with our hydrology crew, and then it was my turn to take a week off and drive through the gorgeous Idaho panhandle.
I spent most of my week’s vacation touring Coeur d’Alene, a quaint little lakeside city where the rain and coffee abound this time of year – and, it turns out, some large furry beasts. On the far shore of Coeur d’Alene lake, a campground is tucked away in the pines, accessible only by kayaking across the water. I paddled an evening’s worth of gear across, set up a tent, and was about to make supper and go to bed when I heard the sounds of heavy animal breaths just into the woods. Shining my flashlight in their direction revealed – two large glowing eyes staring back at me, about three feet off the ground. It may be worth mentioning at this point that Coeur d’Alene is on the edge of grizzly country. I packed my tent back into my kayak and muscled the boat back across the lake with a furious intensity that would make any Viking captain proud.

After this rather startling misadventure, I spent the rest of the week exploring the town, fly-fishing, hiking to waterfalls in the Selkirk Mountains, and generally having the best time of the summer. Not to mention all the other off-the-cuff day trips we’ve taken: I finally caught my first trout of the season in the beautiful Clearwater River and went sandboarding (!) at Bruneau Dunes State Park. It seems unbelievable that the end of our time in Idaho will be here in only two more weeks, but I’ve experienced and learned so much in the past few months. I’ll be glad to be home soon, but saying adieu to the Rocky Mountains is going to be a bittersweet farewell.

Curbing A Sense of Burnout

At this point in the season, there is much to be done and so much to stay caught up on. Our main task here at the Belt Creek Ranger Station has been our seed collection efforts. I feel so very lucky to be able to focus wholly on these efforts as it makes me feel that much more productive at the end of a day. Carrying home many a bag filled with seed and high hopes. It seems that some other teams/individuals have been balancing a wide range of tasks throughout their time this internship. This, of course, provides its own perks as there are endless opportunities to learn within the various agencies. Whether it’s rare plant surveys, vegetation monitoring, planting for restoration, or even attending training, there are so many opportunities and things to learn!
While acknowledging this fact, I have also been incredibly content with the way things have gone at this position as far as the focus on the seed collection. I enjoy being able to focus whole-heartedly on the collection process. Having the freedom to collect any day of our work week is also incredible because it has allowed us to do our best to time collections well and I’d say we’ve been fairly successful as far as timing goes this season!
We’ve also been able to get into a bit of a groove with our collection process so we know who does what and when and how the whole process comes together to achieve the end goal. My co-seed collector and I have also been good about sharing tasks between each other, that way we are both accustomed to the entire seed collection process front to back. This is incredibly valuable for us because when it comes to future job opportunities, we will be able to confidently say to a future employer “Yes, I know how to ethically carry out the entire seed collection process, and yes, I can do so in a timely manner.”
While acknowledging the value in this, I have to admit that this part month, I hit a bit of a wall near the middle of the month. I’m not sure I can exactly pinpoint the reason, but I think it had something to do with the potential government shutdown, combined with the downturn in moods of those around me due to this potential, as well as the shift in weather with the changing seasons and the slowdown in seed collection changing our day-to-day activities.
Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors, but I think what weighed on me most heavily was the moods of those around me. I could tell that the federal seasonal employees were quite distressed at the unknown outcome of their positions into the future and seeing this in them was enough to sadden me. Not only this, but because I felt rather secure in my job as a contracted worker, I felt it would be insensitive to be my normal chirper self. I could feel in myself a lack of energy that was impacting my job performance and my confidence in my ability to do my job whole-heartedly.
In order to combat this, I tried to find a balance between positivity and checking in with my co-workers when I had the time and energy to do so. I also tried my best to focus on the aspects of my job that I really enjoy. The things I would miss if we shut down. I began to find that there are many things about this position that bring me joy!
1). Being at the mercy of the elements-sometimes treacherous but mostly exhilarating.
2). Getting to be outside most of the day and being able to use a government rig that can take you (almost) anywhere- Allows for some of the best views in the state!
3). Doing something that will have an impact for years/generations to come-having a defined purpose
4). Getting to spend time and become acquainted with plants all day!
5). The fascination of seeing new seeds-they are all so different.
6). The fact that I am physical for my job-so many people do not have this luxury and I do not want to take it for granted.
7). Working alongside passionate people!
8). Getting to watch the change in vegetation as the seasons shift.
9). ….

There are still more things I enjoy about this job, but I’m sure you get the point. Focusing on these aspects of the job instead of the potential for impending dooooom was an incredibly helpful strategy for curbing burnout during a tough time. It really helped me to frame my mind to focus on the things that make me happy. It sounds so simple, yet it can be so powerful to change your mind. So for anyone out there who was feeling a sense of dread these last few weeks, please know you were not alone! Hoping you were also able to find a strategy that worked for you to get out of any funk y’all may have been experiencing, and that you’re able to finish up your season on a good note. Looking forward to reading all about your last few weeks on the job.

In the Swing of September!

As summer comes to a close in Western Montana, I turn my attention back to the beginning of the season. I have been dusting off my rare plant survey skills to help out with some Whitebark Pine surveying and Howell’s gumweed monitoring/seed collection. Howell’s gumweed has quickly become one of my favorite flowering plants. Not only is it cute, but it is fun to collect and smells amazing!! Like many other gumweed species, it grows mostly along disturbed areas like roadsides and decommissioned roads. This makes for a great restoration species, but also makes it subject to roadside spraying. We revisited a historically prominent and very large population that had been mistakenly sprayed with herbicide last year. Unfortunately, much of the population had been decimated by the spraying. This species tends to dwell with the most noxious of weeds, so this makes that it would unknowingly get caught in the crossfire between an herbicide handgun sprayer and oxeye daisy.

The population had once been counted at around 9,000 individual plants, the number had been knocked down by about 60%. We estimated only about 3,000 plants remained. We were able to make a collection of seed that will be used for genetic testing and future grow outs.

This season I was able to experience collaborative efforts from many different organizations. The most special partnership so far has been with a former CLM Intern, Jen McNew, who was an intern in the San Juan Islands in 2014. Jen now works for the BLM Missoula Field Office, and was kind enough to take the Lolo Botany Crew to a BLM Grindelia howellii population. Grindelia was collected and memories were made.

Whitebark pine surveying also made up a larger part of this month. On a trail monitoring project we found upwards of 20 Whitebark pine, including 2 individuals that could be potential plus pines. I had not seen so many Whitebark pines in a stand like this, so it was really cool to be present for this find on our forest. The trail we were monitoring led up to a historical lookout, so we were rewarded with a cool view!

Skookum Butte Lookout
Bighorn Sheep Herd

After numerous bear sightings this season, I finally got to see some different wildlife on the forest. I recently spotted my first Pika while monitoring some collection sites. The elusive creature slipped away into the rocks before I could grab a picture, but I did get some cool pictures of a large Bighorn Sheep herd that was blocking my path on the same road. I expected to see these sheep also on rocky hillsides as well, but it seems they like to come down to the valleys right where I need to be driving through.

There is something strange about this snowshoe hare…

Another animal that I found somewhere unexpected: a domesticated rabbit is occupying a picnic area in the southern part of the forest. If you happen to be eating your lunch at Fort Fizzle on the Lolo, keep your eyes out for this little guy! You never know what you’ll see in the field.

Cleaning after Collecting

Restoring tall grass prairies demands a substantial amount of seed, approximately 20 pounds per acre. Midewin maintains three seed production areas on their property, and these seed beds produce the majority of the seed used to restore the prairie’s at Midewin. The reality is that there simply aren’t enough remnant prairies to collect from, and the scale of collection needed would have a detrimental impact on plant and animal populations. While we continue to collect from wild populations, our efforts are supplemented by gathering seeds from the seed beds and purchasing seeds from local wholesalers.

As we collect and collect, the bags start piling up in the horticulture building. The sheer volume of seed makes it impossible to rely solely on hand-cleaning. While hand-cleaning can suffice for certain sedges early in the season, when the bulk collections start rolling in, it’s time to put the seed cleaning machines to work! These machines clean seed much more efficiently, completing a task that would otherwise take a full 8 hours of manual labor in under 20 minutes. The result is thoroughly cleaned seed, free of dust, stems, and leaves, ready to be sown this winter.

The Whitebark Chronicles

For the duration of September, along with seed collection, the Tonasket botany team has been working on whitebark pine surveys. Whitebark pine, or Pinus albaulis, is considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, but the Colville National Forest is fortunate enough to house multiple populations of this high-elevation tree. Whitebark is perhaps best known for its symbiotic relationship with Clark’s Nutcracker, the bird that cracks open their cones and bury pockets of seed around the mother tree for later consumption. Whitebark cones don’t open on their own, so they rely on the jays to forget where they’ve cached seeds in order for new whitebark to sprout and grow.

So far, we’ve headed to three different mountains to assess the health and distribution of the Colville’s whitebark. Because they specifically like high-elevation, rocky peaks, just getting to the survey site can sometimes be a full day’s work.

The first mountain we surveyed is Molybdenite, a 6,790-foot peak in the northeastern corner of Washington state. Because this mountain is a 3.5 hour drive from Tonasket, we headed out for a week, staying at a nearby Forest Service bunkhouse that was surprisingly comfortable and well-maintained (besides a little bit of a mouse problem). That week, we summited Molybdenite twice to map whitebark spread across the peak and surrounding area. We were warned that three grizzlies call the mountain home, but our biggest problem did not end up being bears, but holding onto our cell phones, and not getting lost. Two surprisingly challenging tasks when bushwhacking through a forest you’ve never been in before.

A beautiful view from the peak of Molybdenite

The next peak we set out to survey was Mt. Leona, a 6,440-foot peak an hour and a half east of Tonasket. Luckily, there was a road that allowed us to drive almost to the summit. Unluckily, that road was a treacherous mess of rock and loose gravel that made for a white-knuckled ride. By the time we reached the top of the mountain, we were so thoroughly engulfed in a cloud that it was a challenge to ID trees more than 15 feet in front of us. As you can imagine, this made scouting for whitebark a bit more challenging. The howling wind and partially burned forest contributed to an eerie vibe befitting of the first official week of fall. It should also be noted that the temperature at the top of Leona was 45F before the wind chill, an incredibly stark difference from the balmy mid-70s of the week prior. I was very glad to have purchased a new down jacket the day before.

Our most recent whitebark-related adventure occurred on a mountain our team is intimately familiar with, sitting within the project area we’ve been working on all summer, Mt. Bonaparte. This 7,260-foot peak was the highest we’d been to, and one of the longer hikes from our parking area. It was really amazing to get to the top of a mountain that I’d seen countless times from the road and heard about on the radio, but I didn’t necessarily get to see those roads from the other POV, because yet again we were deeply enmeshed in a cloud. I thought I was cold on Leona until I got to Bonaparte. Despite the chill and misery of the peak, there were many whitebark pine trees to be found, and we had a large crew amassed to figure out how far they spread down the unburned half of the mountain, so we persisted, slowly warming up as we descended from the sky.

Despite what felt like a near miss with hypothermia, it was really cool to see a threatened species thriving within the forest we’ve been working in and getting to know all season. In a weird way, there’s a sort of ownership and pride, even though I’ll probably never be back in Tonasket after this season ends. I hope that Colville National Forest’s whitebark outlives me by far, keeping with it a memory that at one point in time, I was here to see it.

A September to Remember

We kicked off the beginning of this month with a visit to the Botanic Garden to see their array of native and ornamental plants alike. There, we got to speak with their land managers, researchers, and horticulturists; as well as touring their greenhouse facilities, bonsai displays, and laboratory spaces. 

One of the most memorable moments was an opportunity to view the plant with one of the largest flowers in the world — the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum). A single leaf from this species is the size of a small tree, and it’s inflorescence smells of rotting flesh to attract fly & beetle pollinators. 

Some of the greenhouse spaces seen during our tour at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  

At home, Courtney and I have been busy raising pollinators of our own for the past month. Hatching from an egg the size of a pinhead, Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars quickly grow to impressive sizes. 

And after seeming to eat Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) leaves just as fast as you’re feeding them, they finally form their chrysalises before hatching as butterflies. These Monarchs will soon fly southbound to Mexico to roost in Oyamel Fir (Abies religiosa) trees during the winter. 

Courtney and I releasing the last of our Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus). 

The month hasn’t been all play and no work, however. Seed collection is in full-swing back at Midewin, as indicated by strange calluses I’ve found on my fingers from hand-pulling and cleaning seed. We’ve also learned how to operate the mechanical seed cleaning equipment to process seed in bulk. 

Many of our afternoons have been filled with the satisfying pulls of Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) or pops from Prairie Coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata). Seed collection is also a great time to explore some of your favorite places on the prairie: be it the view from the top of Sand Ridge, Lobelia Meadows and the blooms of its namesake, or the scattered rock pools at Exxon. 

Collecting Blazing Stars (Liatris spp.) at Goose Lake Prairie. 

Whether passing bunker-fields from the old Joliet Arsenal or overgrown hedgerows of Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) from abandoned homesteads, we are constantly reminded that the prairie is a landscape shaped by human interference. Not only in its destruction by the plow, but also its early maintenance through fires set by local Native American people.

Illinois’ long history of land-use offers a unique perspective on ecological stewardship. Very little remnant prairie still exists in the state today, and with little-to-no native seed bank remaining, most restorations must start from complete scratch. But with the seed we’ve collected throughout the summer, we’re proud to be doing our part in returning native habitat to Midewin. 

American Burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis), a state-listed endangered species in Illinois. 

Dade Bradley

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

To the monarchs, with love <3

This month, I wanted to make a quick post to honor monarch butterflies! While conversations about monarch butterflies have been relevant for years now and I’ve always admired their beauty, it wasn’t until working more closely with them that I started noticing them all around me. At the San Bernardino National forest, we work on several projects to help conserve and preserve the monarchs. We’ve participated in monarch surveys, milkweed mapping, milkweed seed collection, and cultivating and outplanting our various native milkweeds to restoration sites.

These are projects we’ve worked on sporadically throughout the last few months, but this month all of these projects have been much more closely intertwined! That’s because recently, many of our milkweed plants (a monarch caterpillar’s only food source) have set seed. This has led us to spend several days in the field, immersed in prime monarch habitat, to fill bags of milkweed seeds.

On our forest, we work with 3 species of milkweed. Like in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, they’re each particular about the conditions they like. One species is adapted to a climate that is moist and shady, Asclepias fascicularis, one is adapted to dry soils and full sun, Asclepias californica, and the one pictured above, Asclepias eriocarpa, is adapted to a habitat closer to the middle. While many of our milkweed populations are easily accessible and visible from the road, others require a bit more of a trek to find. We’ve been lucky to have access to a milkweed map on our forest that displays all of the milkweed populations mapped by the botanists that have come before us. This has made it easier for us to route to various populations ripe for collection.

All of this to say that these hours spent around monarch caterpillar food have blessed us with many surprise monarch caterpillar encounters!

These sightings are then photographed and recorded on Survey123 to keep track of the monarch population making use of the milkweed plants in our forest. And the seeds we collect go on to be used to cultivate milkweed plants to outplant in our various restoration projects. That means more food for monarch caterpillars!

With our changing climate and recent decrease to milkweed plant populations (and hence a decreased monarch butterfly population), it’s great to be a part of conserving and restoring monarch butterfly habitat!