The Midwest is *not* flat and boring

I was born and raised, went to university, and now work in the Midwest. Yet, this job was like learning an entirely new landscape through remnant habitats. Before this job, I thought of the Midwest as the land of corn and not much else. Now, to be fair, much of the Midwest is covered in corn. In Illinois, almost 30% of the land is covered by corn crops. In Iowa, it is up to almost 35%. The cover of prairie habitats is much diminished. Even in the acclaimed “prairie state” of Illinois, less than 0.01% of the prairie remains intact. My closest interaction with the prairie before this job was the hill outside of my high school in Kansas City, Missouri. It was never mentioned to me until a picture of the swim coach smiling next to the burning field in front of my high school went viral. Thus, the strong connection between the prairie and fire was forged in my brain.

Fields of Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis)

As part of the Seeds of Success protocol, our crew was only allowed to collect on remnant lands. While this stipulation made it challenging to find this surviving habitat, it was an absolute privilege to visit these sites. Many hours were spent imagining what the Midwest had looked like before the widespread settlement of the United States. I think life in the Midwest is a prime example of how disconnected the general public has become with their land. Honestly, how could they be connected when the land has been converted into suburbia and crop land as far as the eye can see?

Headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca, Minnesota

As a result of seeking out these remnant habitats and spending hours getting up close and personal with seeds, I have never felt more connected to the land that I’ve lived on for my entire life. When I look into a bed of native plants, I can recognize them and call them by name. I recently went back home (Kansas City, Missouri) for a weekend and even in that short time, started to recognize the local plant community more than ever.

The rolling hills of the Midwest and its famous freshwater

I am here to advocate that the Midwest has gotten a bad reputation from the destruction of its habitat. There is the common belief that the Midwest is flat and boring and if you want to see real nature, you have to go out west or to the Appalachians. Sure, maybe Kansas is literally flatter than a pancake, but elevation is not everything. The prairie habitats of the Midwest make it truly special. A rich, full prairie is teeming with life. The plants overlap to what seems like an excessive degree. The underground system of roots is even more unexpected with many prairie plants having more biomass below ground than above it!

I look back on these five months with pride in my work and gratefulness for the opportunity to meet the land.

Castilleja Dreamin

20 Ounce Cheeseburgers,

Locals at the bar,

Fields of Castilleja,

In the old tire tracks of a car.

Seasons change, the Sun disappears.

Autumn is now upon us and in creep the pecuniary fears.

I never imagined that I would enjoy Fargo as much as I do

There’s plenty of large remnants up there, just waiting for me and you.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever make it back to Nelson Prairie

Although the Mahnomen landscape is burned into my mind.

Just getting there, driving over countless ponds, gives you such a rush.

Visions of Showy Ladies Slippers hiding beneath the brush.

But up there, as in many places across the nation, they are in a bind.

So much land, so few people, such little time – its oddly airy.

“We have no funding for permanent staff” the land managers all say,

“Those in Washington are always getting in our way!”

Grandstanding, Misallocating Money, and Freezing Up in real time,

It truly does make one wonder, is this coincidence or design?

But the remnants do not care, and without fire, pruning and love – they will degrade

Alas, it does not matter, as the politicians will still be paid.

Winter is quickly approaching, and it is that special time of year,

Where we send out never ending job applications,

Too many to count,

As we hold our breath in fear.

When will I work next, who will I work for, will I have to travel far?

In these moments, I’ll venture back to Nelson Prairie, mentally,

Then stop for a 20 Ounce Cheeseburger at Mainline Bar.

This poem goes out to all of the Seasonal and Temporary Biological Science Technicians based throughout the country, trying to afford living without healthcare, benefits or any long term guarantees.

4 Months of Seeds of Success in the Midwest

Early in June, we were lucky enough to be led to a wonderful population of Blanketflower in Minnesota. By our third visit in August, the seed was ripe and ready to collect! I’m a big fan of this species for many reasons. Its deep red disk flowers and multicolored ray sepals are guaranteed to stun, and I find its latin name, Gaillardia aristata, easy to remember. To me, aristata looks like “artist” which I find easily associates with the colorfully painted inflorescence.

Bracts are my new identification besties, at least when it comes to identifying thistles and Liatris spp. Bracts are reduced leaves, or leaflike structures at the base of an inflorescence. Bracts can look so many different ways, even within a genus.

Identifying thistles can be hard. People say the leaves of many natives have fairly white leaf undersides. After I check the leaves, I check the bracts to help lead me to species ID. For example, if the bulbous scaly part beneath the florets (in this case I think you can call that an involucre), is wooly, it may be Cirsium muticum!

Blazing stars (Liatris spp.), of which there are quite a few native species in the Midwest, were relatively easy to key out once I learned to observe them for their inflorescence silhouettes and bract characters rather than their florets or leaves.

Early in the growing season, aka during the cool season, I found it difficult to identify big bluestem. All the grasses looked basically the same to me, short…and grassy… Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is a native warm season grass that doesn’t flower until July. It’s spikes are often compared to the foot of a turkey- so people sometimes call it turkeyfoot. By July, I was starting to get familiar, and by August I was surrounded by turkeyfeet sometimes up to 7 ft tall. The specimen pictured below had a nice green silly-looking conehead insect on it.

Final Month of CLM Internship

Another great month done, and sadly, the end of this amazing internship. I started the month sampling Five Mile Creek. This creek is in a burnt area that has a plain stream with little habitat. We electrofished this creek to see the abundance of fish and the species. We caught a large Redband trout that was the largest I’ve ever got while electrofishing. We also got lots of sculpins, which are really cool-looking fish that look like small lincod. The following week, we helped the aquatics crew at Crater Lake National Park. We went to this beautiful meadow with lots of wildflowers. We set up block nets and ran multiple passes to remove fish from this stream that historically had no fish. We did more electrofishing the following week at Crater Lake and Demming Creek.

For the next two weeks, we helped the Partners Biologist from the office, which was one area of the office I wanted to learn more about. The Partners biologists meet with local landowners to create and fund projects on their land to improve fish and wildlife habitat. We watched the ground be moved to make two small wetlands and layed pipe in-between to move the water. At the other project, we did stream restoration on Five Mile. First, we moved a large tree into the stream using a grip hoist, and then we built a bank buster by adding multiple logs to the creek at an angle that caused the stream to make a more prominent bend. We also created a rino jam and a beaver analog dam.

In August, I also helped the Tule Lake Refuge band ducks. This was the most fun thing I did all summer. At night, I kneeled in the front of an airboat while we floated around the marsh, shining a light on the ducks as we zipped by I reached out and caught ducks in my net and then placed them in a cage. After filling our five cages, we headed to the shore, where we placed the bands, on then headed back out for more duck. We finished up as the sun came up.

For the last two days of the internship, I went camping at Miller Lake. Each year, a group of biologists from multiple agencies gather to sample Miller Lake Lamprey, which was once considered extinct. Some biologists have been retired for several years, and others are still working and learning from the experiences of lamprey biologists who have been studying them for many years. Sitting around the campfire was like listening to a live version of a podcast on Lamprey.

Miller Lake Lamprey

August Highlights

Most of our months field activities have been eaten up by the air quality. The fires surrounding us and the variable wind patterns have made predicting good days to go out difficult. However, we did get to assist on brook trout removal at Crater Lake NP, work on a wetland restoration project, and spend a day out with a stream restoration crew. When the smoke wins, we have been working on office projects for a few different biologists and techs.

The Crater Lake project has been ongoing for three seasons now, meaning our brook trout removal was a slow go, but that is a good thing! Only seeing 1-2 fish a day meant the project was meeting its goals, even if it made the days long. We did however get to see some other fun critters and explore parts of the park we would otherwise not get to see.

Working on the wetlands restoration project with a partners biologist in the office was one of my favorite things so far this season. It is one of few projects that you get to see the results of quickly, which makes it a super hopeful process! The project not only expanded the wetland area on this property, but also worked to create better fish habitat to the river section flowing through it. The owner communicated that within a few weeks, he had been catching more native fish, so like I said, quick results!

The stream restoration crew we joined was working within the Bootleg Fire burn area on Five Mile Creek. Their project was also to create better fish habit, but from the trees remaining after the fire. This process was super informative in regards to what water can do when you change its flow pattern. We got to help move trees into the creek, build BDAs, and build other flow-changing structures. We had done inventory on this creek before this stream restoration project started, so seeing the changes made within that short period was amazing.

When the smoke won, we got to work in the office on different projects for whoever needed our help. We got the opportunity to work with permits by organizing and filing important information from them, to work on data from the telemetry crew, and the time to work on professional development with different people in the office. Even though this internship was very field work based, I have also loved the office component of it. I am a big picture learning person, so seeing the reasons and the outcomes of the fieldwork we have participated in has been helpful for the knowledge base I was hoping to gain in this position.

Wildfire Season has Finally Arrived!

Since I have lived in the Midwest for my entire life up until now, I have never experienced a true wildfire season. I had heard of the catastrophic wildfires here in Oregon, and I was anxious for them to begin. Fortunately, wildfire season started later than usual due to an exceptionally wet spring. My overly-optimistic, oblivious mind believed that maybe I lucked out, maybe I would not have to endure a wildfire season at all! However, one August morning, I woke up to darkness at 6 AM, the AQI was well over 200, and my optimism was shattered.

Due to my moderate asthma, I have spent little time out in the field. However, I have been able to help with tasks around the office, which has been a learning experience in it of itself! Last week, I had the opportunity to help my supervisor organize current and expired permits that the Klamath Falls Fish & Wildlife office has issued. While this might sound boring to most, yet I found interest in this project as I got to read about the threatened & endangered species permitting process, which I knew little about prior to this task. I witnessed how these permits were communicated among stakeholders and our office, why one may want a permit, and why certain permit requests are denied, while others are approved. Even though office work may not be as enticing as field work, it is a crucial part of employees’ jobs here in Klamath Falls.

Smoky skies calls for amazing sunsets over Upper Klamath Lake!

I also was given the opportunity to help organize telemetry data, which was exciting for me because I have not yet worked with the telemetry team. Working with the data meant I had the chance to use R, which was intimidating because I know close to nothing about coding. R allowed the data to be sorted and compiled to indicate which telemetry sensors suckers have passed by, which was insightful to see that through an analytical lens! I believe that a good balance between office and field work can give me a well-rounded view of the work completed at KFFWO.

Outside of work, my outdoor adventures have also taken a brief hiatus, I have decided to pick up crocheting (and applying for full-time jobs) in the meantime. Although a break from field work is needed at times, I hope to see clear skies before my internship is up!

A deep dive into the bottle gentian

Before going on trips to collect seed, our team does research on every plant on our list so that we can understand what it looks like at every stage and be better prepared to identify it within the field. It usually takes quite a while to learn the key characteristics and the plants sometimes meld together in my mind. For some plants, they are so unique and unexpected that I am ecstatic to find them in the field. One such plant is the bottle gentian, Gentiana andrewsii. It has 5 fused petals, forming a tube that will never open. This closed tube resembles a closed bottle, thus the name.

the icon, the legend, Gentiana andrewsii

While in northern Minnesota, the team saw one in the parking lot of our site and nowhere else. It is such an interesting inflorescence because it never opens. I could not imagine how it could be pollinated. After some outside research into the scientific literature, I learned that only bumblebees are physically able to crawl inside the tube and rub pollen on their sternum in the process. Oddly enough, the corolla tube of Gentiana andrewsii is much longer than the tongue of the two studied bumblebees. This would make it very difficult for bumblebees to access the nectar at the bottom. Instead, most bees access the nectar through lateral lacerations. The bees studied were not known for being corolla perforating species and no other mechanisms for lacerations were provided. Even as they steal nectar from some inflorescences, it was only observed coupled with also entering the tube to retrieve pollen. My theory is that the stealing is not driving changes on either side because the bees get nectar and the plants still get their pollen spread.

Flowering Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Gentiana andrewsii is a dependable species for bumblebees because no other pollinators are in competition for the resources. I was bummed that we did not find a large population, but future collections of this plant would be great for native bee restoration efforts!

Check out this video on Facebook of a bee diving head first into the plant.

Working in the field is never a dull time with these views

Check out this amazing paper for more details!

Costelloe, B. H. (1988). Pollination ecology of Gentiana andrewsii. Ohio Journal of Science, 88(4), 132-138.

Showing off some mussels!

Throughout the past month, we have been given the opportunity to conduct mussel surveys along the Sprague River. During these presence/ absence surveys, we have been looking for three mussel species: the California floater, western ridged, and western pearl shell mussels. The surveys, which are completed either by kayaking or snorkeling, have given us great views of the river as well as an opportunity to explore other wildlife! Before these surveys, I was unaware of the abundance of life among the riverbed.

I took an invertebrate biology course during undergrad and we had a section dedicated to mussels. I surprised myself with the knowledge I retained during the course, as I remembered where the mussel’s “tooth” and “foot” were located, which are important indicators when determining a species. Below are some examples of western ridged mussels observed along the Sprague.

We also had the opportunity to visit the wildlife forensics lab located in Ashland. I was a bit weary at first as I tend to get squeamish around deceased organisms, yet I faced my fears and learned so much about wildlife trade and trafficking. Wildlife trafficking was always a blurry subject for me, as I never understood how people got caught and what is considered illegal and legal. I learned that many tourists when traveling abroad want to bring back souvenirs such as ivory or animal fur, however, the gifts they acquired may have been illegally sourced. The gifts are then collected and brought to the forensics lab to determine where they originated and what type of animal was used. This is why the role of wildlife inspectors is crucial within international travel, as many goods are sourced from endangered species. Below is a collection of trophy animals donated by a family who had legal permits to hunt on safari trips, it is baffling that these animals were all acquired legally!

It was also interesting to learn about various cultural cosmologies. To a worker in southeast Asia, they might want to impress their boss by purchasing a “valued” good such as a sculpture from an endangered animal, since that animal is endangered, it is considered “rare”, meaning goods created from it have more value. To me and most people from the western world, this way of thinking seems skewed, however, this is common in several cultures across the globe. Throughout the tour, I kept asking myself, “how can we respect other cultures and animals at the same time?” I left the tour with more questions than I came with, so I hope to come back to the lab someday!

Every week I obtain a great appreciation for the work completed at U.S. Fish & Wildlife and I am so excited to share what is next to come.

Another fun Month!!

Another month down and one more to go; it is a bit bittersweet as this internship has been so amazing. We started the month off by electrofishing on Leonard Creek to monitor what is in there after the fire that came thru the area 2 years ago.

Leonard creek

Then to finish the first week, we monitored Demming Creek again using block nets to section up part of the creek to capture all the fish in the stream and then measure each fish.

Washington’s Lilly next Deming Creek

For the next three days, we conducted mussel surveys. This fun activity involved floating down the Sprague River on kayas and looking at the bottom of the river with an aqua scope. We were looking for the western ridged mussel (Gonidia angulata), the western pearl shell mussel (Margaritifera falcata), and floaters (Anodonta oregonensis).

The view from the cones

On Thursday of that week, I got to go on the boat on Upper Klamath Lake with the telemetry crew. We relocated a station that day, taking it down, loading it in the boat then setting it up along the shore.

Trying to find a good spot for the station

The following week for the first two days, we were tasked with an interesting job of cutting 800 yards of netting into 100-yard pieces. The first three nets went quickly; then, we found the knot that was tricky to get past. We electrofished the rest of the week in Callahan Creek, removing invasive brook trout. For the last week, we surveyed for mussels on the Sprague River again. This month has been exciting, just like the first two months, and I am excited to see what we will do for my last month.

Fish & Wildlife July Highlights

Most of this month was spent doing mussel surveys, which is easily my favorite thing so far. The Klamath Basin is home to one of the healthiest Western Ridged Mussel populations, however this species is proposed for listing due to losing much of its range elsewhere. For these surveys, we floated the Sprague River in kayaks, watching the bottom for mussels. The intention was presence/absence reporting for data about the ranges they occupy. Nearly every section of the river we explored had healthy populations, which was an exciting find! Spending the day on the river, watching fish, and finding mussels is just about the best thing to get to say you do for work!

Mussel surveys on the Sprague River, featuring Maddie.

Another adventure we had the opportunity to take was to Ashland, OR, which is the home of the National FWS Forensics Lab. This lab investigates all international FWS crimes and holds an impressive collection of species samples used for identification in other cases. We toured the building learning about the different lab departments including morphology, genetics, chemistry, and more. We even got to participate in sample organization. The tour was an amazing experience, but bittersweet to say the least. While learning so much and seeing many species samples was a great opportunity, we also had to face the fact that many of those samples are obtained through illegal, unsustainable, and unethical trade practice.

The month was filled with more electrofishing as well! Brook trout removal is a never ending job, but one we have so much fun doing. Towards the end of the month, we also assisted in an inventory project on Five Mile Creek, recently recovering from the Bootleg Fire. This opportunity offered a different set of species to work with including redband trout, sculpin, lamprey, dace, and minnows.