Three and a half months in and the focus of the internship has been shifting. In the past month it seems like all of the local flora has fruited, and we have been busily working as some of the most efficient seed dispersers possible, gathering as much as we can to be shipped to Bend and hopefully then on to similar habitats where it can flourish. As we worked through this month Jeffrey (my fellow intern) and I took on more and more responsibility, until seed collecting is now almost entirely our project. We choose where to go and when, and while our mentors will come along occasionally to help collect we seem to be in charge. This is refreshing, and helps me to feel like a more valuable member of the team, rather than merely an intern doing what I’m told.
While I’m enjoying collecting seed, it’s making me realize how varied and interesting the rare plant monitoring portion of this internship has been. Earlier this week we traveled to an oil shale cliff outside of West Rifle, CO for what will probably be our last monitoring trip. The scenery was beautiful, and after winding up a few switchbacks on the side of a mountain we decided that walking seemed like the better option to get up the final climb. The mountain was actively taking back the road, depositing large piles of loose shale where it wasn’t being held back by giant warped steel beams.
At the very top of this road we ran tapes to add another year’s worth of data to the books about Penstemon debilis, the Parachute Beardtongue, a small plant that only occurs on five oil shale slopes on the Roan Plateau of Colorado. The BLM has been monitoring this species since 2004, but the data has recently taken on new importance, as the species was just given “threatened” status last month. The oil and gas company that owns the land where 90% of the P. debilis populations occur has begun making a few proposals. While they are under no legal obligation to protect their populations (Penstemon is, after all, a plant, not some kind of cute fuzzy animal that would enjoy federal protection wherever it wandered), the company is still interested in maintaining viable populations of the Penstemon. So, their current plan is to collect seed from these plants, grow it in greenhouses, and then plop the baby plants back into the shale to create new populations. In this way they hope to create a greater number of healthy populations, potentially taking some of the pressure off of the species if they wish to develop land where it currently occurs in the future. While this may not be the ideal solution for environmentalists, this is one of the issues of conflicting interests that I find fascinating about this job. I love learning about the different opinions and facts that have to be juggled when making management decisions, and I really feel that I have a much better idea of what goes on behind the scenes related to our public lands today than when I started my internship in June.
Sama Winder, BLM CO State Office