Klamath Change

Been quite the busy first few months in the Klamath Basin. Since I was going to the Pacific Northwest I made the smart choice of getting a functional Subaru Outback to fit in. In 8 days I made the 2000+ mile journey across the continental US from North Carolina to Klamath Falls, Oregon. With a cat I might add. I stopped by some national treasures on the way such as the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Joshua Creek, and Yosemite. After over a week of camping and driving I was glad to make it to my apartment and get settled in.

Our first week working with the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office was initially going to be uniquely uneventful, with the finishing of paperwork, safety protocols and government clearance stuff and we would move on to getting in the field the following week. However, Climate change is really rocking the Klamath Basin and we’re experiencing one of the worst widespread droughts on record. 2020 was a difficult water year, and low snowmelt and unusually high temperatures in 2021 has led the Upper Klamath Lake to have record low intakes. This has led the lake to not meet the minimum requirements for endangered fish and resulted in no additional water being delivered downstream to farmers for irrigation. Anticipating some unrest from farmers we were advised to stay away from the office, since it was located only a few 100 yards from the A-Canal (which directs water for irrigation downstream). This led to some pushing back of our schedule and a few other inconveniences. 

Now our first two weeks were anticipated to be desk work and some scientific paper and recovery plan research. But, in an enjoyable turn of events we were offered a tour of our rearing facility for endangered Klamath suckers. Sampling efforts have shown that there has been no substantial recruitment of endangered adult short nose (Chasmistes brevirostris) and lost river (Deltistes luxatus) suckers in the Klamath River basin for the past two decades. So we were eager to learn about and explore the hatchery. Our tour eventually became a full week of work. Once there we toured the entire facility, seeing the indoor larval tanks where several thousand sucker larvae harvested from spawning areas were being raised. We then visited the outdoor ponds where larvae were moved to once they reached the appropriate size. We happened to be there on a big larva delivery day and then spent the rest of the day individually counting thousands of ~10 mm transparent larvae into tanks (strangely therapeutic). We would occasionally come back to the hatchery and work on larvae husbandry and maintenance of the fishery.

We were also just in time to watch and participate in a gamete collection of suckers that reached a large enough size to be treated to produce gametes. The entire process was quite fascinating. Only one female successfully produced eggs. We were given the honorable opportunity to fertilize said eggs with the milt collected from two other males. Once fertilized the eggs became exceptionally sticky and would need to be constantly stirred with a soft feather while a fine particulate was added to coat them for transport into the incubator.

The following week we finally made it to the field to electrofish for bull trout and other salmonids in Long Creek, located in the Basin’s Sycan core area for bull trout recovery. At Long Creek we electrofished stretches of stream between beaver dams. This is a project we assist the USGS with and our task there was to count all the beaver dams between the antenna arrays while PIT tagging all salmonids we capture to assess how able they are to traverse these barriers. We hoped to capture and tag as many bull trout as we could there since they are our focal species. During our first few weeks of electrofishing it was quite cold (and even snowed on us a few times). Once I completed the right-of-passage and fell into 6℃ water. We continued electrofishing in Long Creek and counting dams right on till the seasons fully changed and I enjoyed watching the fauna and flora emerge. Being an avid herper I was ecstatic to catch my first west coast herp species, the Valley Garter snake.

Some days we’d get completely skunked and some days we’d tag many fish.  At the time we were sampling Long Creek there wasn’t much fish activity. We were able to tag around 100+ fish, but we were unable to find a single bull trout (the closest being a hybrid between Bull and Brook trout). While at Long Creek one of the first fires of the season burned right through the road leading to our field site. It was quite the scene as I have never seen the smoldering remnants of anything other than a prescribed burn. After several weeks of diagnosing equipment malfunctions and battling leaky waders and the elements we were happy for a change in scenery.

Aftermath of the first Sycan Marsh wildfire

We then moved on to help with a short habitat survey for the Modoc sucker. We walked along a known inhabited creek to survey and locate pools where we could later monitor modoc suckers for population estimates. We measured the length, depth, and width of these pools and gave them a waypoint on the GPS. Some of the creek ran through cow pastures, we’d have to keep a close eye on the bulls who occasionally bellowed at us and once began to approach us till we scurried out of sight. While there I also found some of the first west coast amphibians in the field. We would come back later to do an overnight survey during a new moon. Modoc suckers tend to come out of hiding and rest at the bottom of these pools on dark nights, hence the need to stay survey overnight. During the night survey I stumbled upon some very large and handsome Bufo.

Measuring one of the last pools of the day

For the next 4 weeks we conducted mussel surveys in several rivers within the Klamath Basin. Around the beginning of these surveys the Bootlick fire ignited. Recently the Western Ridged Mussel was petitioned for listing so we set out to look for mussel beds. This has been some of my favorite experiences working with the KFFWO. To sample for beds we did floatation surveys from kayaks. Each person involved in the survey would use an aquascope to view the bottom of the river bed to count mussels, both dead and alive, in their section of river (usually left bank, left middle, center, right middle, right bank. Varied depending on # of observers).  During these surveys we would float down beautiful waterways with an amazing crew of people to work with and count/id mussels as we observed the world beneath the ripples. It wasn’t always a fantastic dream though. Occasionally we’d encounter areas too shallow to effectively float down or get stuck on a random submerged rock and fight your way to freedom. The Bootlick fire grew exponentially, reaching over 400,000 acres this month. Keeping count of the hundreds of live/dead mussels in your head could get mentally tasking and sitting in the Oregon sun for up to six hours can get fairly exhausting and the air quality from the wildfires could get pretty low. But honestly I cannot complain. Besides many mussels we would also come up on young otters, mink, bald eagles, few suckers, beautiful crawdads, and even a couple western pond turtles.

Smoke rising from the Bootlick fire

In my free time I like to go out and find west coast amphibians and reptiles. I am very passionate about amphibians, especially salamanders.  I’ve found a handful of awesome lads when exploring the area which has so many amazing sites to see and wildlife. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with biologists at KFFWO and cooperating with other organizations and contractors to help the wildlife we all love.

Native American Perspectives on Public Lands and Stewardship

In recent years, I’ve noticed some governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations push to increase racial and ethnic diversity in their staff along with shifting their perspective on land stewardship. But what about representation of Native Americans in the conservation field, especially given their participation in ongoing ancestral stewardship practices?

Where I am from — which is Tongva or Kizh land later incorporated by colonizers as Los Angeles, California — it is not very common to see many people of color, much less Native Americans, in the conservation field. My pathway into the environmental field has been a long and challenging one. As a woman of color, it has taken a lot of trial and error to find or make entry points. It’s been hard to figure out the pathways in, to find mentors, and to many a time be the only person of color in the room.

However, that hasn’t been my experience during my internship this summer in the Lincoln National Forest which is the traditional land of the Apache people.

Mescalero Apache Village in the late 1800s in what is now the Lincoln National Forest.

In recent conversations with four Native American staff, they shared with me what it’s like to work in this field — in some cases on their ancestral homelands — and how Native Americans are shifting the field’s perspective on stewardship.

Aurora Roemmich, my direct supervisor here in Alamogordo, New Mexico, is the Botanist for the entire Lincoln National Forest. She is Lakota and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. She built a career for herself working many years as a seasonal employee with the Rocky Mountain Research Station in the Black Hills of South Dakota before becoming a permanent employee with the Forest Service.

“As far as the Southwest goes, it has been one of the most diverse areas in the U.S. Forest Service, even just the mix in leadership positions has been a lot more diverse than what I’ve seen elsewhere,” Roemmich said in a conversation with me.

The presence of Native American communities is quite visible here in the Southwest as opposed to other parts of the county where the U.S. government forced Native Americans to relocate far away from their ancestral homelands, sometimes to very small reservations. In California —which has some of the most coveted coastal land in the nation — many Native American communities do not have large reservations or tribal status. However, here in the Southwest, many tribes live in large reservation systems that are on parts of their ancestral homelands.

Another manager who I work with is Jennifer Hickman, the Soil Scientist for the Lincoln National Forest. She is Navajo and Mississippi Choctaw. A tribal member of Navajo Nation, Hickman grew up in Crownpoint on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.

Jennifer Hickman (left) working with a Native American student on soil burn severity at the Discovery Natural Resources camp on Mescalero Apache land.

“Maybe [we] are seeing more representation in the Forest Service here in the Southwest because of the exposure that the Southwest brings. In New Mexico and Arizona, we have our reservation lands,” Hickman said. “A land base helps provide that exposure. A lot of tribes in other states may not have a very large land-based reservation.”

I feel it’s important to acknowledge that all public lands have rich, long histories that predate European settlement. It’s also important to acknowledge that many Native tribes may have lived on what we now call public lands right up until the point that the lands were designated as National Forests, a National Park or another type of public land.

Erica Enjady (pictured left), a member of the Mescalero Apache tribe, is on temporary assignment as the Natural Resources Staff Officer and has worked with the Forest Service since 2016. The land that the Lincoln National Forest manages are the ancestral homelands of the Mescalero Apache.

“It’s a really great opportunity to be home and having to oversee the natural resources of my tribe’s traditional homelands,” Enjady said. “It is important to have that Native American voice in the agency.”

There are culturally significant places across that country that are now located on Forest Service land, that are now managed by the National Park Service, or on Bureau of Land Management land. Enjady explained that there are sacred places, former ceremonial grounds, or even current ceremonial places on public lands.

“It’s important for employees and the general public to understand that connection so that we are able to protect that and manage the landscape responsibly,” Enjady said.

LaTasha Wauneka-Anderson is the Assistant Recreation Staff Officer and has worked on the Lincoln National Forest for five years. She is Diné from Window Rock, Arizona. She shared that given the history of U.S. policies with Native Americans, she felt conflicted and was not sure if she wanted to work for the U.S. Forest Service. This country’s history with Native Americans is filled with war, genocide, forced relocation, the establishment of a reservation system and the forced removal of children from their families to live in boarding schools.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work with the agency given that history, but the more I worked within the agency, the more I felt like that was kind of my tool, my way of taking back the space for Natives,” Wauneka-Anderson said. “We have that space to make our voice heard, to bring awareness to native issues, to bring awareness to the history of the federal government and native communities and that of land management from a tribal perspective, especially the traditional ecological knowledge aspect of it all.”

LaTasha Wauneka-Anderson cleaning up and bucking down trees from a developed recreation site.

Western trained practitioners and academics are starting to acknowledge the importance of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). According to one definition by the National Park Service, TEK is the “on-going accumulation of knowledge, practice and belief about relationships between living beings in a specific ecosystem that is acquired by indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment, handed down through generations, and used for life-sustaining ways.”

Prescribed fire or a controlled burn is an example of land management that emerged from TEK. As large-scale fires ravage the West and become a major contributor to carbon emissions, land managers are now beginning to explore and implement prescribed fire as a solution. Enjady explained that there is a long history of fire suppression in land management that has often resulted in unhealthy forest conditions like being overly dense and having a higher risk for wildfire and insect and disease outbreaks.

A fresh fire scar from the Three Rivers Fire in June 2021. The cause of fire is unknown.


“For the past 20 years or so the [Mescalero Apache Nation] has really been working on trying to correct that and restore the health and conditions of the forest,” said Enjady.

Before joining the Forest Service, Enjady worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a forest manager and oversaw forest management on the Mescalero Apache Reservation which borders the Lincoln National Forest.

In this age of mass extinction, the list of rare, threatened and endangered plants continues to grow, and rare plant conservation is on the rise. Hickman suggested that key ceremonial species should also be considered when developing conservation plans.

“With all the climate change, with all the decline of wetlands, we are also seeing a decline in some key ceremonial species that have been used for generations and generations,” said Hickman.

“For me plants are a big part of my cultural background,” Roemmich said. “There are a lot of plants that we use for medicinal purposes and our oral tradition is rich with legends featuring different aspects of the natural world, including plants, wildlife and the night sky. The ethnobotanical use of plants really drove me to become a Botanist and seek a career with the Forest Service.”

The U.S. Forest Service has supported the development of employee resource groups for employees of diverse backgrounds. Here in the Southwest, Native American employees have led the way in creating an employee resource group for Native American and Alaskan Natives across the agency.

The resource group aims to provide mentoring opportunities, support, recruitment, and retention of Native American employees in the agency. Enjady, Hickman and others across the Southwest have encouraged the development of this group. “We recognize that oftentimes, people of color, not just Native Americans may find themselves the only person of color working in their district or unit,” Enjady said. “And so we hope to provide that support system and we hope to grow to be a voice for the agency, and a voice to the agency as a collective group.”

It was a privilege to interview these professionals, as much as it is to be here working in the Southwest. Here are some takeaways I got from my conversations with these women: No matter what field we work in, and especially in the areas of environmental conservation and land management, we should educate ourselves about what ancestral homelands we are living and working on. Land acknowledgements are also important but shouldn’t solely be symbolic, one-time acts untethered from real connections with tribes. We should learn the history of Native peoples, their tribes, and tribal affiliations. When reading up on the history of Native Americans, it’s recommended to read work from Native Americans authors.

To learn more about the ancestral lands that you are living on, visit this website: https://native-land.ca/ .

Native Land website with interactive map that displays traditional territories of indigenous nations. This map is not intended for academic or legal purposes.

Quick Pit Stop at Dolly Sods

One of the neatest parts of being here in the Monongahela National Forest is that for the first time in my life, I’m only a few hours away from my grandparents (as opposed to almost 20 hours when I’m at home). After not seeing them for over two years because of a tight school schedule and then pandemic restrictions, I finally got to go and visit them and my aunts, uncles, and cousins in the area. I had the joy of looking at old pictures of my cute mom when she was around my age, I ate more sugar than I have probably all year, and returned to West Virginia with homemade applesauce and a freshly waxed car because my Grandpa was so excited about a ceramic car wax he had found.

To top the weekend off, Dolly Sods was immediately on my way back to the Ranger Station, so I impulsively turned my freshly waxed car to drive the five-mile gravel road up the mountain. I had heard it mentioned a few times by fellow coworkers but really knew nothing about it. It turns out, Dolly Sods is the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River and is one of the most unique ecosystems within the Monongahela Forest. While the views from the plateau were breathtaking, I was most excited about the plants I found (because I’m a nerd).

Looking out towards Seneca Rocks from Dolly Sods

I didn’t realize that blueberries and huckleberries grow wild across the plateau. I had never seen blueberries just growing out in the wild, so it was a really pleasant and yummy surprise! What was even cooler is that not a day later, Megan and I came across a patch of wild blueberries while monitoring fire restoration plots. I probably would not have been able to identify the plants without fruit had I not just seen them on Dolly Sods.

Blueberries!

A similar thing happened with another plant I found. I am from Missouri originally, where gooseberries are as prevalent as wild blackberries and raspberries. When I was taking the Identification of Woody Plants in college, my professor had said, “Gooseberries are the one type of berries that can be found worldwide.” So, of course, the first plant I looked for when I got to West Virginia was gooseberry, and was surprised that no one I asked knew what I was talking about. I was beginning to doubt my professor until I came across the below plant while at Dolly Sods. It looked very similar to the Missouri Gooseberry plant, but not quite the same.

Skunk currant (Ribes glandulosum)

It turns out that gooseberries and currants are in the same family (Ribes) and the plant I found on Dolly Sods was a skunk currant. I lost my sense of smell back in February when I had the coronavirus, so I did not have the pleasure of smelling the fruit, but it apparently got the name because of its fruit’s pungent odor. Currants and gooseberries are differentiated by the thorns or spines on gooseberries and the lack thereof on currants. Ironically, I found Missouri gooseberry while doing a wetland survey not one week later! It was like finding a nice little piece of home, though they are definitely not wanted here because they act as an intermediate host for white pine blister rust.

I also found several American mountain ash trees, which American folklore claims to fend off witches and woe, and some common mountain laurel. All in all, it was a super fun place to stop by and I will be making a fully planned trip here before the end of the internship.

To the Botmobile!

The past few weeks here in the Lincoln National Forest have certainly flown by! Each week is a whirlwind of activity- we’ve been completing a good amount of surveying work, starting out with helping the Natural Resources crew with Mexican spotted owl and New Mexico meadow jumping mouse habitat monitoring. This process includes gathering data on the vegetative growth in protected plots, and has given me practice on identifying grass species in the field. In turn, they’ve been helping us botany folk with our rare plant species surveys! I was pretty excited to start those, since that indicated switching the majority of the time to being in the field.

Our survey days have been pretty adventurous so far! With the NR crew, we have about 5-7 people covering at least several miles of surveying and have been able to complete almost 7000 acres in just a few weeks! A large portion of that was pinyon-juniper habitat, and while we haven’t found any rare species in that particular area, it’s mostly previously unsurveyed ground so just gathering data there is helpful for future analysis and the South Sacramento Restoration Project in general. Our other major site was mixed conifer, which while botanically more interesting, still yielded no rare plants. But even negative data is still data!

A view on a rainy day over our pinyon-juniper site, a relief from the Alamogordo sun!
Out on one of our early survey days at around 9000ft elevation.

 A typical survey day consists of all of us hopping into our Ford Explorer (the Botmobile!) and driving up to a couple hours to our survey site- luckily, we’ve specially curated a playlist that includes plant-themed bops such as “Plantasia” by Mort Garson (1976), early 2000s hits by Fergie, Shakira, Rihanna, etc., and even the internet viral sensation “Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf”- an eclectic warm-up to our long days of hiking. Some of our sites have included some interesting 4WD challenges, but our Botmobile has consistently exceeded expectations and remains as reliable as ever. Upon arriving, we plan our routes using our GPS units and Avenza. I’ve already gotten much better at reading topographic maps, a skill that saves a ton of energy when you can predict how steep an elevation gain might be. Once we have our plan, we set off, hopefully scrambling over brush and fallen logs as successfully as we’re able and in whatever (safe) weather happens upon us. I’ve definitely taken my fair share of falls over a tree or on a muddy slope, but it certainly adds to the excitement of being out in the field! We typically each are able to bushwhack about 5 miles before we have to head back, and the entire time we’re keeping our eyes peeled for any rare species that may pop up. Hopefully by the end of the season we can claim to have found an unrecorded population!

The summer weather sometimes brings surprises- this one made us regret our lack of saws!
A typical look at our botanical survey obstacle course.

Our next few weeks we’re starting some Goodding’s Onion monitoring, as well as continuing the botanical surveys for this restoration project. I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time out in the field and exploring even more of New Mexico in our off time!

Sunrise views over the lower Rio Grande just outside of Las Cruces, NM.

Wildlife ecology and mining lands

Hi CLM blog!

The past few weeks have been plenty interesting and I’m excited to tell you about them! Last time I posted was after the Eriogonum Society conference, and since then, my main work highlight has been going on a mini bat blitz over in Elko. The bat blitz was a departure from plant work but in the interest of being a well-rounded ecologist it was a great thing to do (plus I just really love bats)! I went out in the Jarbidge-Ruby Mountain Ranger District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and in the Ruby Mountain RD near the Medicine Range for this trip, which was led by a team of BLM ecologists based in Elko. The team was interdisciplinary and interagency, which was awesome, and also included a biologist who specializes in abandoned mining land reclamation, a biologist from the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), and a biologist from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It was awesome to work with such a wide range of people from different agencies and backgrounds for the week––I learned a lot from them about bat monitoring but also about how their different organizations can work together. 

A crescent lake near Bear Creek Summit in the Jarbidge area.

I also learned more about the area’s ecology, and one thing in particular that was interesting was learning about the effects of wild horses on sagebrush scrub ecosystems in Nevada. The wild horses running around the landscape are not native (they were introduced by the Spanish colonizing the Americas), and although they look awesome running free they actually cause a lot of damage to the ecosystem. It turns out that when they dig in springs as they try to access more water, they end up drying up the springs instead, and they degrade native vegetation and habitats. Land management organizations have a difficult time managing them, however, because some groups’ love for the animals translates to strong resistance to management efforts (we’re talking death threats, even to a grad student doing their PhD on the impacts of wild horses). I knew nothing about this conflict and challenge in western land management, as someone from Minnesota, but thinking about how to effectively manage land when stakeholders have different levels of knowledge about it and relationships with it is relevant across settings and contexts. I appreciated adding a dimension to what I know about Great Basin ecology as well.

One of the acoustic bat detector deployments we did, just over the Idaho border!

Charismatic megafauna aside, the actual bat blitz was very cool! We set up acoustic monitors at several sites (basically microphones at the top of long poles) that would be left up for about a week to record bat calls that can later be analyzed in the lab using software designed to identify bat species by their distinct calls. This software can make tentative identifications but it’s up to the biologists to go through and make final ID decisions. It was awesome to learn that bat calls are a useful way to assess species richness in an area, and impressive to watch people who were familiar with identifying species by their calls that way. This year there was no bat netting to take physical data, due to concerns about possibly passing COVID-19 to bat populations in the state, but in other years netting is the best way to confidently identify species (although there are tradeoffs with time, resources, etc. that can make acoustic monitoring versus capture a better decision depending on the situation). 

We also did roost exit counts a few nights, where some team members used night vision goggles to watch a roost entrance and said “one in”, “one out”, etc. while other team members kept track of how many bats had entered and exited their roost with counters. This could give an idea of bat activity at specific roosts on a given night, and can be paired with acoustic data collected at the same location to identify the species active there (and potentially what species are roosting there!). The roosts in question on our trip were old mineshafts and tunnels. It was really interesting to see the abandoned mining lands and how the old mines here look and become part of the landscape compared. I was mentally comparing this type of former mining land with the way old iron mining landscapes in northern Minnesota where I’m from look––it’s a lot different, with MN Iron Range minelands now largely converted to minepits filled in with fresh water, steep hills of waste rock dotted with trees, and orangish dirt in some places. Here I’m still learning about it, but the marks of mining on the landscape are a lot different, with lots of small and intriguing but dangerous entrances to underground mines, and no doubt more that I hope I learn to recognize as the season goes on. 

It’s not safe but I can see why people like breaking into closed mine entrances

Milk Vetch and Management

We could hear the river before we could see it, a steady rush of water cascading in the distance. Then, in an instant, the forest opened into light as my co-intern Tessa and I found ourselves on the river bank. More accurately, we found ourselves above the river bank. A steep 10 foot drop separated us from the sprawling shore below. After a moment of contemplation, we slid down the slope, our backs covered in red earth. 

Once we were on the bank, it took only a few moments to find one of two plants we had come looking for. Spread across the shore was a milk vetch, native to the region and rare in Michigan. The milk vetch was in full flower, its long white blooms tinted with green at the base and purple at the tip. 

A moment later, we spotted the second plant we were searching for, an invasive sweet clover. Like the milk vetch it was in full bloom. The plant’s tall stems were sporting tiny white flowers, each with the potential to turn out seeds and create another generation to spread along the shore. I couldn’t help but admire the plant’s beauty as I pulled it. 

Milk vetch and sweet clover are distant cousins, both members of the legume family, but where invasive sweet clover thrives along Michigan’s roadsides and shores, native milk vetch is scarce. As we walked along this river, though, the opposite seemed to be true. The milk vetch flourished. Not taking over by any measure, but coexisting well with the other species and easy to spot all along the bank. The same wasn’t true for the sweet clover. We found only two stems. Perhaps the hard work of interns before us has payed off. The clover, which forms thick clusters along other shores, has had no success in crowding out the milk vetch. 

For almost two months now, I’ve been working on projects like this, helping manage invasive species in Ottawa National Forest.  Over the weeks, I’ve begun to fall into a routine. Tessa and I arrive at the office at dawn and meet with our mentor, Ian, to discuss the day’s plans. Then, we load up the truck and head out into the field, driving from site to site to monitor, map, and manage the Ottawa’s many invasive plants.  

Summer is in full swing in the forest. When I first arrived, the last trees were just beginning to leaf out and the honey suckle we treated had dense clusters of yellow, white, and pink flowers. Now, the very first trees are tinged with orange and honey suckle is easy to identify with round, red and orange berries that catch the sunlight. As summer advances, the raspberry bushes which once bore only thorns are heavy with berries, wild ramps flower, and hazelnut trees tempt squirrels with their ripening fruits. Waking up every morning, I see the orange sun hanging heavy over the hills. In a few weeks, it will still be dark when I leave for work. 

Sunrise over the parking lot as I head to work

This week, we met with some of the forest’s Wildlife Technicians along with members of the Iron Baraga Conservation District for what Ian deemed “turtle day”. He explained to us that the Ottawa is one of the last strongholds of the endangered wood turtle. A herpetologist visited all of the Ottawa’s turtle nesting beaches and made recommendations for how we could make them better habitat for the turtles. It would be our job to turn those recommendations into reality. 

It turns out it’s hard to be a turtle. Busy roads, human poaching, and predators that eat their eggs are all major threats to the shy reptiles. To protect them from highways, conservationists erect knee-high turtle fences around the shore to keep them from wandering up to the roadside. To discourage poaching, the locations of the turtle beaches are shared only on a need-to-know basis. Slowing predation is difficult, but one thing that helps is making sure the sandy beaches where the turtles like to bury their eggs have the right amount of vegetation. Too much vegaition can serve as a physical barrier to the turtles and keep the eggs too shaded and cool, but too little vegetation means the turtles have nowhere to hide from predators. That’s where we came in. 

Working together we spent all day treating invasive species and cutting brush to expose new sandy areas where turtles can lay eggs next year. Hopefully, the new habitat will also give turtles alternatives to burying their eggs on roadsides where they’re vulnerable to ever-rushing traffic.  

As I drove home after a long day in the field, I began reflecting on our efforts. Even though we worked all day to create better habitat for turtles, we didn’t see a single one. For us, protecting turtles didn’t mean interacting with turtles, it meant managing the plants growing along the shore. For others, it could mean controlling predators that eat eggs, or working with people to educate them about avoiding turtle habitat and driving cautiously. Because species don’t exist in isolation, conservation efforts seldom focus on just the target species. To encourage the milk vetch, we pulled clover. To support the turtles, we cut brush and dug up tansy. Everything in the forest is in relationship.

Humans are a part of that, planting trees, building paths, harvesting timber. It’s easy to think of ourselves as separate, but working in the forest has shown me that’s not as true as I thought. 

As I engage with forest management in a hands-on way for the first time, I’ve begun thinking about questions many conservation-minded people before me have asked: What is the nature of the various relationships between humans and the environment? What should those relationships look like to create a healthy, sustainable world? What steps can we take to get there?

Ian lent me the book, Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. It explores different conservation frameworks from all over the world and investigates the dilemmas I see every day as as we prioritize projects in the forest. I’m only a few chapters in, and it’s already informing the way I think about the relationship between people and the environments we shape. For me, creative turtle conservation methods became an invitation to think about a whole lot more. 

Yesterday was full of glossy buckthorn. The towering bushes have shiny leaves that glint in the sunlight. We knew about a large infestation of the invasive species along the highway, stretching on both sides of the river. On a hunch, we continued walking past the known infestation. Every time we thought of turning back, we found another plant. Marking them as we went, the buckthorn seemed endless. Still, we treated the bushes and continued on diligently. Finally, as we made our way back to the truck, Ian stopped suddenly. There before us was a plant I now recognized. Brimming with white flowers was the rare milk vetch. 

This was a new milk vetch site, never before recorded in the state. Once we started looking we found several more clusters of milk vetch along the highway. We scrambled to document the population, taking pictures and recording the nearby species. The experience was what I imagine it would be like to go to Starbucks and see a celebrity ordering coffee.

Milk Vetch

Milk vetch can grow well along bright riversides, but we quickly realized the river was hundreds of feet away. Ian thought that perhaps, with workers cutting the tallest plants to maintain the right of way, the milk vetch was able to find a home in the sunlight of the roadside ditch. Looking at the flowers as cars rushed by, I couldn’t help thinking about how complicated conservation is. Humans have drastically shaped the roadside environment. This has given glossy buckthorn the opportunity to run wild. At the same time, milk vetch has been able to find one more foothold in Michigan. 

It seems most management decisions come with benefits and drawbacks alike. Thinking about it, I’m grateful for all the researchers who are working hard to help us understand the many rippling effects of our interactions with the environment and all of the people, beginning in Michigan with Indigenous communities, who have worked hard to manage the land responsibly. Conservation and management are complicated tasks, but they become a little easier, I think, when we recognize our role as one more species, living in relationship in an interdependent world.

First Month in the Mojave!

Adult Joshua Tree in Red Rock Canyon

It’s been one month since I moved to Las Vegas to work with the US Geological Survey, and I’ve already seen and done so much! I have just about completed two rounds of field work. We travel across the Mojave every three weeks, visiting four “common gardens” in three states. The project I am mostly focused on is called the Joshua Tree Genome Project, and on these trips we inspect hundreds of Joshua Tree seedlings. These gardens vary in terms of climate and soil, but no matter what, it’s still very hot! I learned very quickly that working in extreme heat, even in the early morning, requires serious preparation and management. I wear long sleeves and a big sun hat, and hydrate very frequently. We also have to watch our salt intake to make sure we aren’t displacing electrolytes too quickly. That said, it is super cool to work in an environment so starkly different than my humid and forested home state of Virginia. One other aspect of field work that is a very new experience to me would have to be watering. We tow a giant water tank trailer to our gardens, and use an engine and fire hose to shower the seedlings with a lot of water. Its certainly a little more involved than using a garden hose, especially when the wind blows the water right back at you and soaks you completely! Next week I finish this round of fieldwork, which will entail sleeping overnight in the field, so that we can water and work in the cooler evening and morning.

Watering the seedlings

Outside of fieldwork, I have spent quite a lot of time with Joshua Tree seeds. This past month, I have counted thousands of seeds, both to give us an idea of our inventory, and to partition off seeds for future projects. Now that I have finished with the genome project seeds, I have been fiddling around with Python, both with the seed count data and the field data. My third realm of work would be greenhouse clean-up. Not necessarily as exciting as field work, but it is a nice break from data entry, and we get to repot Joshua Tree seedings, which is pretty cool! Overall, I’m glad I’ve been able to work a variety of duties, gaining experience in both office-work and field-work. Eventually, I will also be working in the lab, which I definitely look forward to.

Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) seeds being sorted

One last thing to mention is the nature around here in Nevada! Coming from Virginia, the only lizards I was accustomed to seeing were skinks, but out here, there is a myriad of cool reptiles! I’m also lucky enough to live near a wetland preserve, where I have seen a variety of new birds! As well, I have seen so many cool desert and mountain flora, including cacti and adult Joshua Trees! Recently, I have learned that there are several endemic species living in the Spring Mountains, just outside Vegas, including the very cute Palmer’s Chipmunks!

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

Moving forward, I am excited to continue with field work, begin lab work, and start to really analyze our data! Of course, I also look forward to exploring more of the Mojave and its amazing wildlife!

Palmer’s Chipmunk (Neotamias palmeri)

Wildlife on the Monongahela!

It has been only one month living in West Virginia and I can’t believe how much wildlife I have encountered. While working in the Monongahela National Forest, one thing that I have enjoyed the most has been the amount of diversity I have seen in the mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, and fungi. Growing up I have always been interested in all different types of wildlife, but being in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, the diversity is really different than in the Mon Forest. While being here, I have been very excited to “geek out” about all the wildlife that I have never seen before.

To start, some of the larger wildlife I have seen are bears and grouse. While helping with a highway trash pick-up day, Katie and I saw two black bears cross the road. Unfortunately, it was so fast that I was not able to take a picture of them, but it was still exciting to see my first wild bear. It is also cool to have seen the black bear in West Virginia because it is the West Virginia state animal. Another interesting animal I saw was a Ruffed Grouse, Bonasa umbellus. The grouse is interesting because it is in the same family as the chicken and even looks kind of like a small chicken at first glance.

The amphibians that have caught my attention are the salamanders and newts. I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to help with salamander surveys. This has allowed me to see a handful of different species that range in size and color. Some species include the Northern Dusky, Desmognathus fuscus; the Northern Slimy Salamander, Plethodon glutinosus; and the Northern Red Salamander, Pseudotriton ruber. I have seen the Eastern Newt, Notophthalmus viridescens, a couple of times. These little guys are cool because they spend the first three years of their lives as the red eft stage (pictured below) roaming around on land and then the rest of their lives in water for their adult stage with a completely different coloration of a green dorsal and yellow stomach. They are also the only species of newt that we have in the Monongahela!

Some more wildlife that is hard to miss are the bugs. While being in the field there have been many bugs that I have encountered. I have also helped an AmeriCorps member on one of her projects by doing a “bug blitz.” For the “bug blitz,” we spent a couple hours searching a plot of the forest and tried to catch as many bugs as we could find to later ID them. After doing this multiple times, we can gauge the different bug populations in parts of the forest. This was a lot of fun, and I was able to see so many different spiders, leafhoppers, beetles, and flies that I didn’t realize were so interesting till I was able to get a closer look.

To save the best for last, the group that has caught my attention the most has been the fungi! I always thought fungi were cool, but after coming to the Mon Forrest, the diversity of fungi has blown my mind. I have never seen so many different shapes, sizes, and colors of fungi before. Thanks to the help of an identification app called Seek, I have been able to learn many different names of the common fungi I encounter while out in the field. Some of the common ones I have found and been able to ID are pictured below. However, I am still learning and there are still so many more that have caught my attention, but I have not been able to identify yet, including the last picture of the bright red-orange mushroom.

Overall, I have had an incredibly fun time seeing so much wildlife. Every day I work in the field I am excited to find more new species to add to my running list of things I have never seen before. I am extremely thankful to be working in the Monongahela National Forest, and I can’t wait to see what other wildlife I will see in the upcoming months.

Boise Summer

June has quickly passed and now it’s July in Boise! Last month consisted of lots of crispy flowers due to the heat wave. It seems that with average temperatures higher than last year, we were a little too late to collect seeds from the plants at lower elevation. Temperatures reached 106 in the middle of the day! Thankfully one week, we were sent out to the Lost River where it felt like we stepped back a few weeks in time due to the higher elevation and lower temperatures. The flowers at these sites were almost ready for collection! We got to camp in some cooler weather by a stream and even got to experience some rain, which is rare for us in Boise! After work shenanigans included jumping in the stream, bird watching, and telling our fortunes. 

Some people have a lot of questions about camping and what it’s like to eat out in the field on a weekly basis. For the most part you can keep your diet the same as at home. With a good camp stove and pan you can make just about anything! I’ve previously made salmon burgers, pad thai, and falafel among other meals. This month I’ve been counting macronutrients and getting culinarily creative. My favorite macro friendly meal is “jogurt”- jello pudding packets mixed with nonfat greek yogurt! It has 19 grams of protein, 5 grams of carbs, and 0 grams of fat! Dinner is usually a can of sustainably caught (pole and line) tuna mixed with either hummus or nonfat refried beans, microgreens and other vegetables on a tortilla or bread. This works out to about 40 grams of protein, 60 carbs, and 7 grams of fat.  It’s still possible to eat well without a full kitchen and limited refrigeration in the front country!

Doors to a New Way of Life

All too often, I see bright, passionate young people jumping into graduate programs right after their undergraduate degrees. This might be the best choice for some, maybe even a majority, but I’m sure many have also felt the pressure to go to graduate school because you know school is something you’ve been good at, it’s a sure plan, and it’ll buy more time for things to fall into place. I decided during my last year of college that “might as well” wasn’t a good enough reason to go to school for two to four or more years and decide on the niche I would study and fall into the rest of my life. Instead, I have been forging my own path to test out my interests and desires and see what sticks. My adventure started with a year living in Germany, becoming an ESL teacher, and then moving to Las Vegas to try out van life while working for Nevada Conservation Corps. While in Las Vegas, I learned so much about the people in conservation that make all of the concepts and theories that I’d learned in the classroom come to life and the diversity of jobs that it takes to make it happen. Originally from Ohio, I decided I wanted something a little closer to home this summer and fall, and I landed at Ottawa National Forest.

When I arrived, I was immediately charmed by the small town of Ironwood and awestruck by the towering pines. The John Muir quote “Between every two pine trees is a door leading to a new way of life,” came to mind, and it has stuck with me ever since as I stroll and tromp between pines to get to our work sites. I am on an invasive plant crew at Ottawa National Forest, and after a few weeks, I finally feel like I have settled in a bit. Like many other jobs where nature is the office space, our typical day is tricky to pin down. Some days are straightforward: show up to the office, get your maps, get to as many sites as possible and thoroughly look for and treat the invasive species there such as garlic mustard, honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, glossy buckthorn or goutweed. Other days leave me completely open-mouthed that this is my real life and I’m getting paid to do this: try on the wet suits and go snorkeling for Eurasian watermilfoil.  

My co-intern, Emily (left) and I (right) at Crooked Lake in Sylvania Wilderness Area before snorkeling for Eurasian watermilfoil

When starting a new job, I think it’s important to set goals, and what better place to write them down than a blog post for all to see and read. My biggest professional goal, which I have already made huge strides in, is becoming a better navigator. I tend to rely on my phone for GPS quite a bit when I’m driving in my personal vehicle, and I couldn’t tell you which way a road runs. However, invasive plant sites aren’t nicely saved into Google Maps, so we have to use our paper maps to navigate the dirt, sometimes overgrown Forest Service roads. At first, I was nervous about navigating, afraid to take us down a wrong road. I quickly learned two things– 1.) That it’s not the end of the world to make a wrong turn and 2.) How to make less wrong turns. I’m excited to see how my navigation skills will improve by the end of this internship!

Most of the other goals I have are personal and some of them not directly work-related. Here are a few: see a wild bear, catch a fish, see a rare plant, learn and be able to ID 20 new plants (this number will only increase, as I’m learning new plants every day in the dense and diverse forest), and form new friendships while I’m in Ironwood. In the coming months, there’s a lot I’m looking forward to, the change of season with the spectacular colors of the trees, the different invasive species projects, learning about the innerworkings of the forest service, and of course getting to know my co-intern, Emily, and supervisor, Ian, much better. Field work can be challenging, especially because nature doesn’t care if you’re already covered in mosquito bites and your socks are wet, but even through long, itchy, soggy days, Ian always has a smile on his face and arrives the next day chipper as ever, excited for work at 6 am. It’s an enthusiasm Emily and I have taken note of and hope to emulate even a fraction of. There’s still a lot of adjusting I have to do before I feel like the forest is a second home to me, but I’m finding doors to a new way of life every day.  Each one starts to feel a little more welcoming and familiar than the last.

Tessa Fenstermaker, Ottawa National Forest