Fall Flames

I had an unexpected end to my season in the Lincoln National Forest. The looming government shutdown had me holding my breath, wondering how I would spend my last month. On top of that, Evie had been called for jury duty and was planning on leaving early. In a turn of events, both were avoided. We finished this month strong with seed collecting and grazing allotment vegetation surveys. During our “off” days, we helped Range with allotment surveys. We followed the “Common Non-Forested Vegetation Sampling Protocol” (CNVSP), which collects data on vegetation composition, species richness/abundance, ground cover conditions, and dry-weight composition. I’m glad we were able to help out with these surveys, as they flexed our growing botanist muscles. Every plant in the survey needs to be keyed out, meaning no plant gets left behind. It’s tough keying plants because of how dry everything is. Not many species have fruits or foliage left (if they had any to begin with).

Quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) along the Sunspot Highway

The forest has been ablaze this month (in color, not flames). The aspens, insects, and sun have taken the edge off the evening chill with their fiery displays. I’m used to fall in Ohio, where you’d be lucky to have a single day without a cloud in the sky. Here in New Mexico, that’s a common occurrence. The annular eclipse, however, was not. On the morning of Saturday, October 14th, the moon waltzed in front of the sun. I met up with Evie and Spencer (a Natural Resources technician with the Forest Service) at Bitter Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of Roswell. The path of totality fell directly on Bitter Lakes, meaning we could see the infamous “ring of fire.”

We patiently waited for the first sliver of celestial shadow to appear in the upper right corner of the sun. An astronomy hobbyist graciously let us borrow his hydrogen telescope for a better look. Not only could we see the moon’s outline, but also sunspots and solar prominences. As the eclipse progressed towards totality, the Refuge started to hum with excitement from fellow eclipse watchers. Yet, the air had its warmth steadily drained as the solar energy was blocked by the moon. It was the same temperature–if not cooler–as when we had arrived at 8 a.m. Time sped up and slowed down. Shadows behaved strangely, masquerading as miniature displays of the eclipse overhead. Because it was an annular eclipse, the sun was never entirely blocked by the moon. Plenty of light made its way around the moon’s edges, making it unsafe to look at without eye protection. Totality lasted 4 minutes but felt much shorter. The eclipse wasn’t inherently spectacular to a layperson, but the shared experience of such a unique moment made it memorable.

This season was filled with other memorable moments, from seeing my first Mexican spotted owl or looking for Sacramento Mountain salamanders to nearly getting hypothermia while participating in a Hawkwatch survey (everyone underestimated how cold it would be). I’m grateful for the wonderful memories, lessons learned, and friends I’ve made along the way.

I may be leaving Lincoln National Forest and Ruidoso, but my time in New Mexico is not done! I will be working in Carlsbad, NM, as a Botany Support Specialist (through Conservation Corps New Mexico) with the Bureau of Land Management immediately following this position. There, I hope to use what I learned about seed collecting and the flora of New Mexico to assist other Seeds of Success (SOS), Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring (AIM), and Special Status Plant Species (SSPS) crews with their work.

The Nonsoon and Nightlife

Peanut butter toads

Wonder why the monsoons lag

They dream of rainfall

I thought I would start this month’s blog with a poem about the seasons. For my haiku, I channeled the perspective of a spadefoot toad–Spea multiplicata. It might not seem that they have any thoughts behind those eyes! I tried to imagine a lot goes on behind their blank stare, particularly weather patterns. S. multiplicata is a nocturnal and opportunistic species that spends most of its time in underground burrows dug using their namesake spades. The life history of the toads is closely tied to the monsoons. Monsoon rains rapidly fill up pools in low-lying depressions, which can dry up just as fast. As a result, the average breeding period is only ~1.6 days, and the eggs hatch within 42-48 hours. The tadpoles must complete metamorphosis in as little as three weeks! While there has been enough rain to fill some of the spadefoot’s breeding pools, it’s been inconsistent and patchy.

A haiku seemed fitting for a poem, where I could reflect on the monsoons or lack thereof. In my first blog, I alluded to the monsoons that would “soon arrive”. It appears they never did. As a result, the plant abundance and diversity have been subpar this season, making seed collection a challenge. Only a handful of our target species occur in populations large enough to collect from. Of the populations that are borderline in size, grazing from elk, cattle, or feral horses has reduced them to a size below our collecting threshold. However, what we do collect is important for conservation as the populations that are able to reproduce represent local genetics that are resilient when drought-stressed!

Many people working for the Forest Service have noted the abnormal monsoon season this year. Some weather forecasters have even called it a “nonsoon”. Angie Munoz, a wildlife biologist from the Sacramento District, grew up in the Tularosa Basin. Being a local, she grew up accustomed to the typical monsoon patterns, even though they can be unpredictable. Recently, she took us around D2 to help us identify quality scouting localities. She was taken aback at the absence of wildflowers in places where they’d been abundant in the past. Larry and Taylor, our mentors, also took notice. They joined us in scouting Benado Gap to look for some lower-elevation grasses and wildflowers. Below are photos from this year and two years ago in 2021.

Rocky Mountain Zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora) and Blue gramma (Bouteloua gracilis) abound in 2021

While other crews may be at peak collecting, we’re just getting started! Many species are behind in flowering or fruiting because of the delayed rain, but others are doing their thing and making seeds. Some species we’ve seen set seed include Mertensia franciscana, Monarda fistulosa, Allium geyeri, Allium cernuum, Asclepias asperula, and Pedicularis procera.

Evie and I were able to make our first collection this month–for A. cernuum! We quickly realized what impact differing maturation rates of seeds on the same plant had on planning seed collection. The A. cernuum collection is incomplete, but we hope to revisit the population in a week or so to check on seed maturation progress. Once the fruits mature, the seed capsules quickly dehisce, giving us a narrow window of time to collect. Hopefully, we catch the next wave of mature seeds. Other populations have given us trouble, too. We were going to do a small collection of M. franciscana, but the seeds had dropped before we had a chance to collect them. We also had a couple populations of M. fistulosa we were planning to collect from, but a combination of rain, grazing, and small population size prevented that from happening. After doing seed calculations, one of our larger P. procera populations seemed ideal to collect–we estimated being able to collect 8,000 seeds! Despite having good seed fill, nearly all the seeds were shriveled and soft. Additionally, their insides were a strange black color. We collectively decided not to collect. Collecting is more of an art than a science!

Ironically, we got some decent rain last week! Evie and I tried to sneak in a visit to the nodding onion population last week. Not enough seeds had matured since our first visit. Even if they were ready to collect, the plants were too wet. It almost felt as if we were in the Pacific Northwest, with how foggy and rainy it was! We probably got a month’s worth of rain in 8 hours.

The view overlooking our nodding onion (A. cernuum) population

I went herping the night after the rains to see what creatures they unearthed. Since going on my first “road cruise” for herps in early August, I was hooked after seeing a Chihuhuan or Western “hooknose” snake. These nocturnal and diminutive snakes typically max out at 11″, are non-venomous, and prey on spiders, centipedes, and scorpions. Their upturned, hooked nose helps with burrowing in search of prey.

The Western hooknose snake (Gyalopion canum)

The following pictures include those prey species! When it comes to creepy crawlies (or cutie patooties to invertebrate nerds), nighttime is a great time to see these chitin-clad critters.

A “Jerusalem cricket” (which is neither from Jerusalem nor a true cricket)–a wild-looking
Orthopteran in the Stenopelmatidae family.
A scorpion I spotted using a black/UV light while hiking at White Sands National Park.

Life’s a Hoot in Ruidoso, New Mexico

The fascinating thing about moving to a new place is the people you get to meet. Sometimes you never know what type of connections you will develop, the stories you will hear, the advice you will receive, and the memories you will make. More importantly, the opportunities the future will hold because “It’s all about connections” as stated by Kathryn, the FS Southwestern Regional Botanist, over lunch in Santa Fe.

Taylor, one of my CLM mentors at the Smokey Bear District, pointing to the different mountains surrounding Lincoln County to Peter, CLM co-intern, at Windy Point Vista Point of Interest.

My CLM mentor, Larry, is all too familiar with this concept. On more than one occasion he mentioned one of the factors that led him to become the Wildlife Biologist at Smoker Bear District for the Lincoln National Forest was because the HR person was someone that knew him from a previous job in Oregon. Of course, the HR individual put in a good word for him. Nearing end of the story, Larry mentions he genuinely loves his job because for the past 35 years he worked closely with Mexican spotted owl across the Lincoln NF. This raptor species was another reason why Larry took the job here as he previously worked with the Northern spotted owls on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie NF.

A pair Mexican spotted owl fledglings perched on a white fir branch in Lincoln FS.
A female Mexican spotted owl feeding a dead mice to one of her fledglings.

Unfortunately, the Mexican spotted owl is federally listed as a threatened
species under the Endangered Species Act. The decline of the species is due
to habitat loss and alteration caused by timber harvest and wildfires over the years.
Therefore, part of Larry’s job is to conduct owl surveys, which determine the
location and distribution of owl pairs and nest sites and determine if they are
successfully producing offspring.

Luckily, Larry took us with him on an owl survey on our third day on the job. As we drove into Lincoln NF, I didn’t know what to expect other than Larry was looking for the owls while we did some botanizing along the way. However, Larry explained the survey process starts by hiking into the forest with a known pair activity, in other words, where owls were known to nest. Often occurs in the Canadian life zone, which consists of mixed conifer forest that includes species such as white fir, Douglas fir, southwestern white pine, ponderosa pine, etc.

Mixed conifer forest found in Lincoln NF.

Once at the area, owl calls are played off a recording, or if you are like Larry, different
owl calls are imitated to entice the owl for a response. Usually, this part of
the survey process would happen in the night. If there was a response, they
would go back to the area the next morning and look at any owls or fledglings
on the surrounding trees. Once an owl is located and no fledglings are in sight,
they try to locate the nest by offering a live mouse to the male or female owl
hoping it will take it back to their offspring.

Unfortunately, there was no response in our first location. However, at our
second location, Larry was able to locate the fledglings after seeing the
shadow of an owl fly over him when he imitated different owl sounds. You can
hear his excitement as he called out to us to come over where he was.

As I approached where he was standing, I saw a bundle of football size white fuzz on a branch. It was my first time seeing a pair of fledgling and I didn’t expect how odd
looking they were going to be. Nonetheless, it was a sight to see. Larry then
located the female owl nearby, which was difficult to spot as it camouflaged
with the bark and branches of the trees. Larry then carefully removed a live
mouse from a container and placed it on a nearby branch. Watching, we saw the
owl position itself for flight and take the mice without making a sound. Eventually,
taking the mice to one of the fledglings.

As Larry shares information to the group about the species, a male Mexican spotted owl “successfully” takes the mice that was placed on a branch.

We continue marvel at the raptor species, but eventually, it was time to head back to the office.

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.

Vibing in the Southwest

After spending months living in quarantine in Los Angeles, California, I eagerly anticipated starting my internship with the Lincoln National Forest this summer in Alamogordo, New Mexico. As I made my drive out east from LA, I watched the landscape transition from dense urban development, to Saguaro cactus-filled Sonoran Desert, to the more desolate scrub of the Chihuahuan Desert. The Sacramento Mountains finally came into view; a joyous sight after hundreds of miles of desert scrub. I had finally arrived.

Natasha Khanna-Dang enjoying the desert.

Alamogordo is a medium-sized town bordering Texas and is about an hour and a half drive from the Mexican border. This region of the Southwest lies on the traditional and unceded territories of the Apache people. The Mescalero Apache Nation, who still live on a fraction of their ancestral lands, have their reservation on a large section of the Sacramento Mountain Range.

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

My fellow intern Ashlyn Lythgoe and I will be spending the summer conducting surveys in sections of the Lincoln National Forest that have never been surveyed for rare plants. The data we collect will provide baseline information for large scale restoration, forest thinning, and seed banking projects. The data will also be used by the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station for creating a habitat suitability model. One of the goals of the model will be to develop habitat suitability analysis for identifying exact habitats for endangered, threatened, and regionally sensitive rare plant species.

We are still in the initial stages of our surveys. Unlike other parts of the country, New Mexico, and sections of the Southwest experience summer monsoons. As a result, the flowering season here will start in July and goes on till the end of September. In the meantime, we have been brushing up on our botany skills and assisting the Natural Resources crew a riparian restoration project.

Building one rock dams in order t0 restore a riparian zone that was severely impacted by an unauthorized road and a forest fire. Left to Right: Joseph Ure, Ashlyn Lithgow, and Jennifer Hickman. Photo credit: Shelby Manford.

As a newbie to the Southwest, I was surprised to see the large range in ecotones which includes scrub in the desert floor, grasslands and meadows, ponderosa pine that transitions to mix coniferous forests at higher altitudes, and a bit of subalpine forest habitat.

A juvenile Northern Flicker eagerly waiting to be fed.