A Ridgecrest Arrival

My first couple weeks in Ridgecrest, California have been a whirlwind of activities and new experiences. I had never spent much time in a desert ecosystem and thus had stereotypical expectations of cacti and very few other plants. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Already, I have encountered more species of vibrant wildflowers and pale green shrubs than I can count. When my fellow intern and I first arrived in the area, we were curious about the identity of the little green shrub that seemed to be everywhere. Little did we know there are actually at least twenty species of little green shrubs!

A view of Ridgecrest, CA from the nearby Rademacher Hills

A view of Ridgecrest, CA from the nearby Rademacher Hills

A few of the "little green shrubs" found in the northern Mojave Desert

A few of the “little green shrubs” found in the northern Mojave Desert

I kicked off the week with orientation and training in the office. The BLM office is filled with specialists in a host of areas including wildlife biology, archeology, wilderness, recreation, geology, botany, grazing, reality, and many others. On my second day, I had the chance to attend a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) meeting. These meetings create a space for the experts to come together and analyze how a new project will affect the land from each of these perspectives. The meeting was a great way to meet everyone in the office and learn about how they apply their unique knowledge to manage land.

My first day in the field, I shadowed an archeologist surveying potential restoration sites for artifacts. It turns out anything (especially “trash!”) is considered archeological evidence if it is over fifty years old. The day also provided an opportunity to learn the in’s and out’s of GPS operation.

I spent another day in the field helping with small mammal monitoring, specifically the threatened Mojave ground squirrel. We began the morning bright and early by opening and baiting the 225 traps set-up in a 15×15 grid formation. At mid-day we walked the transects and checked the traps for animals. Despite warnings not to get our hopes up, I was disappointed to find every trap empty.  We repeated the procedure at the end of the day and this time we were rewarded with an antelope ground squirrel! Although not our target species, it was still exciting to meet the furry creature and see the documentation process before letting it scurry off into the desert.

The captured antelope ground squirrel just before its return to freedom

The captured antelope ground squirrel just before its return to freedom

Even my off time has been bursting with new experiences. On my first free day, we headed out to Death Valley. There, I was quite surprised to find water! In fact, we took a short hike to Darwin Falls where there were suddenly trees, cattails, and generally an expected lushness. I found I recognized several relatives of familiar Midwestern plant species that I would never have expected to find in the desert. The valley itself even boasted a few trickles of water beneath salts flats. At first glance the salt appeared to be snow, but the 96 degree weather quickly contradicted that observation.

Salt coated plants on the floor of Death Valley

Water and salt coated plants on the floor of Death Valley

I also had the chance to help out with a Student Conservation Association (SCA) crew performing desert restoration. I have some background in ecological restoration in Midwestern wetland and oak-savannah ecosystems and I found it fascinating to learn about restoration in a desert ecosystem. For example, while woodland restoration often focuses on invasive species removal to allow the growth and return of native species, desert restoration concentrates on erosion control and re-establishment in areas damaged by off-highway vehicles. Additionally, since the desert is so much drier, restoration requires even more patience for rejuvenation.

Overall, my time thus far has been one enormous learning curve, from basic office procedures to local geography to plant identification (and botany and more plant identification). My field notes are quickly evolving from “little yellow flower with fuzzy stem” to “Amsinckia tessellata “fiddleneck,” boraginaceae family, pubescent,” as I become familiar with the local flora and hone my botany vocabulary. I look forward to learning more and exploring the diverse environment around Ridgecrest in the coming months!

Eschscholzia californica, California poppy and other species

Eschscholzia californica, California poppy and other species

E. O’Connell

Ridgecrest BLM Office

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