The beginning of my internship in Cedar City, UT with the BLM entailed monitoring greater sage-grouse habitat. These birds are not listed as endangered by the IUCN, but populations have declined due to loss of habitat.
OUR MISSION: Habitat Assessment … and saving the world
We took our truck (a very large, white, Silverado named “The Queen Mary” due to its boat like ride) into the field. The adventures began here. My fellow intern, Nelson, and I did not have much experience operating large trucks or 4WD prior to this summer, but we made it in and out of every situation relatively unscathed. We became accustom to 4WD and asking for someone to spot us as we traversed a dry wash or nine, some days. A wet meadow may have caused mud to be thrown onto the truck’s roof, sides and passengers (the windows were down) one time. In the end, Nelson and I have not damaged The Queen, and we have not been stuck -I intend to keep it that way too.
After we parked The Queen as close to the sage grouse site as possible (which varied from 50 feet to 2 miles up hill, both ways), we would equip ourselves with the necessary field gadgets and navigate to the site using our Trimble (named Hank, after Henry the Navigator). Upon arrival, we set up a vegetation transect. Constructing the transect consisted of hammering two pieces of rebar into the desert ground and stretching a measuring tape between the rebar posts. Sounds straight forward and painless, but I usually hit four to eight rocks before finding ground that would support the post. Stretching the tape measurer, piece of cake right? Now always, some sites were comprised of dense sagebrush, bitterbrush and our thorned Rosaceae friends. Pictures and a GPS point were taken at each site. Then we began to assess
the sage-grouse habitat using line-intercept and vegetation height, which measure important factors such as vegetation percent cover and percent composition. These monitoring techniques allowed us to determine if the site was suitable sage-grouse habitat and if not what was needed to improve its habitat quality. Sage-grouse need some cover in order to nest and avoid predators, but too much cover is not optimal. Also the type and abundance of forbs was taken into consideration when assessing a site because forbs attract insects, which sage-grouse feed on.
The next step in the assessment was a pellet count. A pellet count is a fancy term for counting poop. Yes, I said it-poop. We got paid to count poop or scat if you prefer. We scanned a 50 foot radius around the southern positioned rebar pole. As we scanned the circle, we yelled out the number of pellet piles we found while another person recorded it. This usually resulted in dialog such as “eight rabbit, five cow, one canine”. Occasionally, we were able to shout “two sage-grouse”! I never thought I would be so excited to find sage-grouse pellets. When I did make this remarkable discovery, I honestly felt like I had just come across a hidden treasure I had been searching weeks for. We even found over 40 pellet piles at one site, an obvious sign of sage-grouse presence. Finally, we packed up our belonging and data sheets, hiked back to the truck and moved to the next site. We visited 60 sites in the course of a month and half. These sites were chosen by our mentor and all were within 3 miles of a lek. I loved monitoring sage-grouse habitat and it is rewarding to know that the data we collect will aid in future land management decisions.
Overall, my experience in the west has been nothing short of absolutely amazing. I have learned more than I ever thought I would about wildlife surveys, western vegetation, government policy and the BLM’s mission, “multiple use”. Besides learning things that will definitely be applicable to my career, I have met some wonderful people here in Cedar City. Nelson and I have worked over 570 hours together this summer and during those hours he has shared an ample amount of information with me. He has educated me about topics such as bacteria growth, video games and now he has me seriously questioning time travel. I know the next month of my internship will fly by and I plan on enjoying every moment of it.
Michelle Downey, BLM, Cedar City, UT
P.S. Check out the Aspen Fall colors. Being from Connecticut and all I was worried I would miss leaves changing, but I feel content now.