Hunting for Cactus

After a drizzly Saturday of cross-country skiing at Lake Tahoe, I was awakened by the sun pouring through the big windows next to my bed. It was almost 7 a.m., and I put on some hot water for tea. I checked my email on my phone, and was greeted by a late-night email from Dean, our mentor. He was going on a last-minute rare cactus survey, the results of which were due the next day – did any of us want to come along? He was leaving for the field in less than three hours.

One of my fellow interns and I went into high gear to prepare for the field. We scrounged together a little food, packed some clothes and gear, and bid goodbye to our other two housemates / interns who decided to stay home.

The drive to the field site took us through vast basins of sagebrush, sagebrush, and more sagebrush, dotted with occasional groups of grazing cattle or wild horses and rimmed by dramatic mountains. We spent the day searching for Grusonia pulchella (sagebrush cholla), a BLM sensitive species, near proposed mining sites. The first challenge was finding the sites, which were marked by a (sometimes fallen) wooden post that looked very similar to the multitude of other posts scattered throughout the area. We didn’t have GPS coordinates for the points, so we used a printed map with sometimes inaccurate points provided by the mining company. Getting to the points required driving on some semi-sketchy 4-wheel drive roads and subsequent rock scrambling, but we were rewarded by some amazing views.

We surveyed eight sites without finding any G. pulchella individuals, but we did find some other cactus species and were introduced to many new shrubs and forbs in the surprisingly diverse sagebrush community. We also found an historic sheep camp (evidenced by trampled soil and ubiquitous old sheep droppings), an old mining site complete with extremely rusty metal cans, and some Opuntia sp.(prickly pear cactus) individuals, all of which would be disturbed by mining activity.

Finally, on our last site of the day, we found the species we had been looking for! It was a tiny little cactus tucked in behind a small Artemisia arbuscula, and in the waning daylight we marked it with a GPS and flagging tape. I was struck by the fact that a mining company would be forced to change their plans because of the presence of this single rare plant – it really is awesome! Hooray for plant conservation!

We drove a short distance to a dry wash, set up our tents in the dark, and sat around my backpacking stove listening to the nighttime desert noises. Mostly, the noises consisted of crackling power lines and a mysterious high-pitched squeak/chirp/whine. I didn’t last long before crawling into my sleeping bag and falling asleep.

After a little more surveying and the drive back to the office the next morning, we spend the rest of the week doing trainings and attending a grass identification class at University of Nevada-Reno. We spent those two days of class with our eyes glued to the microscopes, picking apart tiny grass spikelets and sending glumes and lemmas flying across the table. Our eyes and bodies were tired after sitting still for hours on end, but now we are ready to identify any grass that comes our way – well, only if we are equipped with a microscope. After a long week, we were ready for another weekend of outdoor adventures before heading to Boise for a busy week of pest management class.

Britney, Carson City BLM

Snow and Plant Specimens in Carson City

This week my two fellow interns and I started our stint on the BLM Carson City botany team. As a California girl who has been chasing summer around the globe for the last 2 years, I was more than a little anxious about moving to 4800 feet in the middle of winter. Being surrounded by snowy mountains and bundling up for even a brief trip outside might seem normal to many, but for me it is new and exciting. I love the landscapes of the arid West in all seasons, and under snow they are even more magnificent.

Due to muddy road conditions, most of the field sites we’ll use this season are inaccessible, but we did get to take a short trip to a restoration site worked on by last year’s crew. We wandered around the site, reviewing familiar species and encountering new ones, while learning about the history of the site and BLM’s role in management. This project has the potential to be a model for restoration using only native species, something that can be controversial in agencies that represent the interests of multiple groups: recreational users, ranchers, conservationists, fire crews, and more. I’m already learning a lot about the opportunities and challenges presented by working for a federal agency, and the remarkably broad impact of these organizations.

Other than training and a few field trips, we spent some time working with herbarium specimens collected by previous interns. I’m not shy about admitting that I am a hardcore plant systematics nerd, so getting to key out plants and check out the huge collection in the UNR (University of Nevada-Reno) herbarium was like being a kid in a candy store. I also got to realize my childhood dreams of doing arts and crafts for a living, as we spent an afternoon mounting pressed plant specimens. There is nothing that compares to the aesthetic appeal of a perfectly mounted, beautiful plant specimen, wouldn’t you agree? I am really looking forward to keying out, pressing, and mounting our own specimens once we start collecting seeds in a few months.

If I get to identify plants and look at snow-covered mountains every day, I think I could get used to the cold…

Britney Zell, Carson City BLM