A Desert Full of Life

Some people may think of Wyoming as just wide open land. A vast swath of desert with not much to see. Some might even think it’s boring. But, once you work out there you know that there is plenty to see and learn about. A variety of flora, fauna and a range of features that create different biomes. The evolution of my perspective from learning more and more about the natural world is amazing to me. Before I did any field work with plants, they just didn’t appeal to me much. I was one of the people that would look out onto the open plains of Wyoming and think that there were some shrubs, and along with the blue skies it was kind of nice to look at. A desolate, homogeneous landscape that stretched on forever. Chances are that I would take a quick glance and keep on moving. Now I realize that those shrubs stretching to the horizon are sagebrush, and a few other things, but mostly sagebrush. Just learning that single genus began to pull me in a little. I wanted to learn more. I was told that there were several species of sagebrush, and several subspecies. Some species prefer certain soil conditions and other abiotic factors. The charismatic genus Castilleja, or Indian paintbrush, is a root parasite that steals resources from sagebrush (from other plants too, but in dry areas sagebrush is a common host). Becoming aware of different species and how they are interconnected in complex ecological webs has opened my eyes. Now instead of seeing an expansive monoculture, I look closely at individual plants. Seed heads, leaves, and other morphological factors that set them apart. It’s like I’m seeing a whole new world.

Castilleja sp.

Animals on the other hand, have always captured my attention. In addition to the variety of plants in Wyoming, there are some pretty charismatic animals. I’ve seen pronghorn and wild horses every day in the field. Some raptors, the occasional elk, prairie dog, or sage grouse…and one rattlesnake.

Prairie Dog
Calves are curious and kind of slow to move out of the way

Raising Livestock on Public Land

Last time I checked in I hadn’t really started my routine duties, but I am now monitoring range land full time. I am learning a lot and enjoying the experience. The general area that I am responsible for, commonly referred to as Green Mountain Allotment, is over half a million acres. To cover this vast area, I spend a significant amount of time driving. Driving for hours everyday might seem dull, but I love it. Whether it’s trudging along rocky two-track roads, trying to avoid getting stuck in mud, or gliding down the highway, it’s never boring. The landscape and wildlife within are a constant source of entertainment, no radio necessary. Pronghorn antelope seem to be everywhere. Often dashing across the open land, seemingly running from nothing. They’re very elegant, captivating animals. And as North America’s fastest land animal, they can supposedly reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get any decent photos of pronghorn yet. They’re kind of skittish. On the other hand, cows aren’t really afraid of our trucks. So…here are some cows!

I wouldn’t call cows majestic, but they are kind of charming in their own way. The ungainly way that they amble about, and stare at you endlessly is pretty amusing. And, cows are the focal point of all the work that I’m doing this season. Cows can cause the degradation of the land in several ways, especially in riparian areas. For this reason, the primary objective of my work is to make sure that there aren’t too many cows in one area for too long.

The land that I work on is public land, and ranchers are issued grazing allotments. That means that ranchers are issued permits to graze their cattle in pastures owned by the federal government. But cattle are only allowed in certain pastures for certain parts of the year. Rotating cattle prevents areas from being overused and over-grazed. One of my primary duties is to ensure the proper placement of cows. I need to be aware of which allotment I’m in, and whether cattle should be there at a given time. If I find cows in a place that they shouldn’t be, I need to count them (a rough estimate if there are a lot), and try to find brands on the cows. Each rancher has there own brand, so if I can see a brand, I should know who’s cattle are out of place. Then, either I, or my supervisor will contact the rancher and ask them to move their cattle. There is more to my job than counting cows, but I can expand more on that next time.

It seems like there are endless wild places to explore around Lander. I recently hiked Johnny Behind the Rocks, a short local trail system. Here are a few photos:

The wildflower is one of twenty some species in the genus Castilleja, with the Wind River Mountains in the background.
Northern Sagebrush Lizard
Prairie Rattlesnake along with an infamous, invasive plant commonly known as cheatgrass. Don’t worry, I zoomed in to get this.

Grazing and Wyoming

When I left Cleveland, I did not know what to expect. The only certainty was that I was about to drive over 1500 miles west to work as a range land monitoring intern at The Bureau of Land Management in Lander, Wyoming. Two weeks in, I can say that I still have a lot to learn but I am excited about the road ahead.

After five days of driving, and doing some exploring on the way, I reached my destination. Despite the weather, (it snowed most of my first week in town) this small mountain town in central Wyoming was very welcoming. The people are very friendly, the landscape is awe-inspiring, and there always seems to be this aura of tranquility all around.

Although I was not able to get out into the field much my first week, the wintry weather allowed me to settle in at the office. I became acquainted with many affable coworkers, and began to gain appreciation for the wide variety of intriguing work done in the BLM office. Wild land firefighting, work with wild horses, archaeology. It was eye-opening to see how all these different facets of conservation converge.

Most importantly, the scope of my range monitoring duties began to come into focus.  After two weeks on the job I still feel like I’m just getting my feet wet, but I have a firm grasp on what my duties will be as I ease into independence in the field. If I had to sum up my responsibilities in one word I guess it would be…cows? Counting the numbers of cows in a grazing allotment, looking at brands on cattle to derive their ownership, and making sure cows aren’t in areas they shouldn’t be. There’s also a fair amount of botany and other skills involved, but even then, these skills are used to monitor the grazing habits of cattle.

From a recent tour of the field, you can see the Sweetwater rocks off in the distance beneath the vast blue sky

The Lander field office is responsible for more land than I imagined. I, together with another intern, will be largely responsible for monitoring a sizable chunk of that. It’s intimidating, but after a couple tours of the vast countryside, I think I’m beginning to get a grip on how to navigate it. Other than off-road driving skills, and a few short lessons in monitoring techniques and plant ID, I have a lot to learn. I’m eager to progress and I look forward to reporting back when I’m fully immersed in my work!

I rode along to a meeting with a rancher to view the progress of a prescribed burn site and met the rancher’s 4 dogs