Blissful Scouting and Wild Penstemon Chases

It has been one crazy month here in the Colorado State Office, since my first blog post. The rest of May was a blur of trips to the Western Slope, monitoring all sort of rare plants. We determined that our crew visited/worked in all the Colorado Counties bordering Utah in less than 30 days – quite a feat on our part! My crew took part in monitoring Oreocarya revealii in southwest Colorado, to searching for Penstemon grahamii and Penstemon scariosus var. albifluvis up in the Northwest corner of the state.

A rare and newly described species from southwest Colorado (Dolores and San Miguel counties), Oreocarya revealii. A Boranginaceae family member, this is more commonly known as Gypsum valley cat-eye, named for the bright yellow center of the flower. It is found with a wonderful association of a gray cryptobiotic lichen, one I wish I knew more of.  Photo: B. Palmer

This little plant is Penstemon grahamii, a Uinta/Piceance Basin-endemic plant limited living on calcareous shale of the Green River Formation, as you can see in the picture. This little plant has been involved in various lawsuits to get it listed as an endangered species. Photo: B. Palmer

The beautiful beardtongue known as Penstemon scariosus var. albifluvus. Along with P. grahamii, this one is also found around northwestern Colorado on rocky shale areas and steep slopes. This is a newly added species into the monitoring program in Colorado. Photo: B. Palmer

I realize that many CLM interns may understand the importance of monitoring, however, I know my blog reaches a broader audience of friends and family that may not understand why I care about rare plant monitoring. For those of you that don’t quite understand the mechanics of it all, I will attempt to sum it up for you in a concise matter…why should we care about that little Penstemon found only on the Uinta Basin? Or how about the tiny cactus endemic to only a small portion of Colorado and Utah? A long, winding story cut short, they are part of something bigger. Because these plants are rare, and found only in special conditions filling unique niches, by definition they are more susceptible to the changes humans have brought on since the 1500s. They (along with other common species) are influenced through habitat loss and degradation, over-exploited land resources, and even the introduction of invasive, highly competitive species. This may lead to the extinction of species. Of course, extinction may be a standard process that affects every living species on this planet. But when extinctions happen at the abnormally high rate it has, we risk losing what I hope we hold dear to our hearts – healthy land. So why care about plant conservation? These plants help make our world more diverse, and that biodiversity is an undermining key of all functioning ecosystems. If we lose biodiversity, we lose a healthy planet. We don’t only monitor plants for the sake of being loving plant nerds in the first place, but because we care about the future of our land.

Now stepping off my little soapbox, monitoring some of these rare plants can be hard work, and often enough, finding these populations is no easy feat…a “wild goose chase” if you will, or rather, more often it was a “wild penstemon chase.” As I may have mentioned in my previous post, we search for new populations to monitor through Element Occurrence Records (EOR’s), based on natural heritage surveys. Sometimes it took us on to steep mountainsides. On top of climbing up mountainsides in the dry heat, we must keep the integrity of our research pure, our confident intervals high, and follow protocols to the best of our abilities.

Here is CLM intern Taryn Contento, attempting to show off the steep landscape we trekked up near Rangely, Colorado, to look for an element occurrence record of Penstemon scariosus var. albifluvis. Although out of breath and fatigued (at least I was…), we managed to find a few plants up there. Photo: B. Palmer


Of course, we make time to have a little fun too outside of searching for plants. While in Southwestern Colorado between locations, we made a detour to check out some of the local scenes, and buy some fresh Anasazi beans.

We managed to detour to Mesa Verde National Park…how does one travel this far away from home and NOT see the park? This is known as “Spruce House,” named by the large pine tree on the left side of the picture….I’ll let you determine whether that is truly a Spruce or not, as it was heatedly discussed in our group… Photo: B. Palmer

After spending so much time on the Western Slope looking for rare plants in May, monitoring had come to a short stand still, and I had finally been able to go around Colorado in search of seeds to collect for Seeds of Success! Travelling around with the rare plants crew in May was slightly nerve-wrecking, as everywhere we went was incredibly dry, with very few plants flowering, not not many large SOS-sized populations about. I was nervous I wouldn’t find much to collect for SOS this year. However, with my first initial scouting trips, I was pleasantly surprised at the things I saw, and rewarded with spectacular views.

Dalea jamesii, James’ Prairie Clover, growing around a little cactus. The D. jamesii was a surprising and great find, and I hope can be part of an SOS collection! Photo: B. Palmer

Definitely no disappointment here, just another day at work…I caught a beautiful scene in Grand County, Colorado, painted in beautiful greens of the nearby forests, and a landscape speckled yellow with flowering Purshia tridentata and Eriogonum umbellatum. Photo: B. Palmer

Another pleasant scene from Grand County, Colorado. The yellow blanket of buckwheat flowers, Eriogonum umbellatum var. majus, will likely add to another SOS collection when it fruits. Photo: B. Palmer

Scouting is perhaps one of the more important steps in Seeds of Success. It is always about being in the right place, at the right time; one would have to find that area “chock-a-block” full of whatever species is desired. There is a lot of BLM surface land in Colorado (8.5 million acres), so it can be a lot of land to cover! Being at the State office, I have to plan for my trips possibly a little more carefully than being stationed at a field office. My shortest drive time to decent BLM land on average is two hours away drive time and often longer. Because I must account for time spent travelling, there is no time to get lost, and must stay focused while out in the field! This can be a daunting task, because once out in the field, it is easy to go astray and take time enjoying the scenery, keying things out, and pressing plants, and generally just enjoying the outdoors. But, no matter what I have been looking for or where I am going, being out in the field is almost always rewarding!

Although I only saw a few, they were too photogenic to pass up. You know you are in Colorado when Aquilegia coerulea greets you on a bright, sunny day! Photo: B. Palmer

What can I say – I enjoy being outdoors! The SOS season has started out slow and is still just getting started for me, but I can already tell it will be one rewarding summer, with many collections to come! I hope everyone else is enjoying their summers as well, with positive vibes coming your way, from Sunny Colorado. Until next time!

-Brooke Palmer, Colorado State Office

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