In the Archives

Settling down to more office days here at the Uncompahgre Field Office. Been working on an exciting project with the Gunnison Sage Grouse, (GSG) Habitat Assessment Framework (HAF) data from 2004-present. Things are finally coming to a head with all this work; it’s a great time to be here and watch the numbers unfold.

Recent weeks, (minus the workshop in Chicago) have been spent in GSG breeding grounds on the north rim of the black canyon, where all the vegetation data has been collected since ’04. My partner and I spent 3 days driving around, scouting out transects, throwing down lines. We decided to camp a night to save time, we slept right next to the transect we’d do in the morning. We’d first run a line-point intercept for 100 points on a 50 meter transect, then a forb belt, and finally a line intercept to determine shrub cover. We did 15 of these at around an hour each.  Most transects were miles apart by driving and/or by foot.

The pain in the neck from data entry is compensated for by the work that comes after: comparing the data to last years, last decades, and comparing one to the other.  I wasn’t aware while in the field that we were specifically located in randomly selected plots within a polygon of high-use for GSG.  High-use areas were determined by a group of USGS scientists that tagged 12 grouse and tracked their location from 2010-2015.

My mentor had an abundance of data from 2004-06 (collected by his predecessor), and his personal work from 2013-present.  Now we had large enough sample size within these high-use areas to make statistically significant comparisons to high and low use areas in terms of, (most importantly) sage cover.  My job was to mine the habitat inventory data from 2004-2006 in Microsoft Access so that we could begin comparing the data sets.  We soon realized that there was no category for sage cover in this old data, (which is weird because it’s the most important thing).  We found ourselves in a bind that has turned into a sort of scientific historical detective story.

The only way to determine sage cover from 2004-2006 was to find the hard copies and hope for the best.  The archives at the BLM are full of research, books, manuals, newspaper clippings, unfinished projects and very significant work over the last 50 years or so.  Among these, for example were stacks of peregrine falcon research; information on habitat, monitoring, and de-listing.  It was daunting to believe we would find the hard copies, but we did.  I was a kid in a candy store.  I even found a flora by Arthur Holmgren from 1948 of the Northern Wasatch, my home.

The data sheets were complex and used a sampling method unfamiliar to both my mentor and I.  The method to determine cover was called the Bitterlich method, which uses laws of proportionality as a shortcut to extrapolate cover, (often used for tree cover).  After researching this method, I realized that it was unlikely that these researchers actually used this method for sage cover, because they reported a range of values, (1-5%; 6-25%, etc.) whereas Bitterlich yields a specific percentage.  I was stumped.

Curiosity, however got the best of me.  I found the midpoints of each range for sage cover and compared the means with those of the 2012-2015 HAF transects within 75 meters of each other in ArcMap.  There was a trend of decreasing sage cover from then to now.  At this point we had to know if we could compare the two data sets in any way.

I ran across a name in the data sheets that looked familiar.  We could find this woman and ask her exactly how they determined those ranges for sage cover.  I went down a rabbit hole…

And this is where I stopped writing this blog, months ago.  Now it is my last day as a CLM intern as I read this reflectively.  It is so important to write this stuff down!  There are many details I had forgotten about this project.  This is how it ended:

Missy R., (the familiar lady on the data sheets) talked to me for nearly 30 minutes about her work all those years ago.  She confirmed that there was nothing resembling the tools used for Bitterlich in their monitoring.  Rather, cover was determined by a sort of rough visual estimation.  She recommended I have coffee with the retired BLM biologist, Jim Fergusson.  I was ready and willing to do that but at this point we had more important things to do.  If I come back in the spring hopefully I’ll have another shot at this.

I absolutely love this aspect of the work I’m doing.  It’s so rewarding to see how all the components of these multi-faceted projects come together: the characters involved, the old data sheets, outdated techniques, archives, etc.

The end…?

Misty Sanone

Uncompahgre Field Office

Montrose, CO



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