We woke Sunday up to a completely different world. The fog and the steam from all the geysers and hot springs seemed to melt together into one big cloud, leaving us with an ominously magical morning in Yellowstone. With hardly any people out so early, we quickly made it to our first site around the Upper Loop, Nymph Lake. The air was chilly and refreshing, and made a perfect setting for the view.
After several photos at Nymph Lake, we started to make our way to the next two stops: Roaring Mountain and Sheepeater Cliff. All of a sudden I hear a collective “buffalo!” and look to see a massive adult right in front of our car. I was thrilled (and safe in our rental car) and managed to take a really great picture of him from my window. This species of buffalo can get up to 6 feet in height, weigh over 2,000 pounds, and run at speeds up to 40 mph. He was literally as big as our SUV. And, as quickly as he appeared, he vanished into the trees when a large truck drove up behind us. Soon after, we arrived at Roaring Mountain, a structure made out of volcanic rhyolite rock. Apparently, it sits on a spot where magma flows closer to the surface of the earth than usual, creating steam vents all over the face of the mountain. Our next stop was at Sheepeater Cliff, an interesting, columnar rock structure formed from cooling basalt lava. It was named after a group of Shoshone Native Americans or the “Sheepeaters” for their use of bighorn sheep.
After our first few stops, we were ready to find Mammoth Hot Springs, a spot one of my uncles highly recommended. We pulled over briefly to see Golden Gate Canyon on our way, and even saw another lone bison shortly after. When we got to Mammoth Hot Springs site, there were elk everywhere. This was our first time seeing a male elk, and we even got to watch and hear him bugle. We explored the Lower Terrace Area of Mammoth Hot Springs, and were particularly amazed at the Palette Spring Terraces. The limestone rock in the terraces gets dissolved deep in the earth and then deposited on the surface again, forming stair-like structures.
We then went on to look at a few more sites, ending up at the Lower and Upper Falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We decided to take the hike down several switchbacks to an overlook that brings you to a platform right at the top of the Lower Falls. The Yellowstone River plummets down 308 feet at this point, with a force between 5,000 and 63,500 gallons per second. This makes the Lower Falls the tallest waterfall in the park! As you can see from the photo below, it was seriously impressive. This was my favorite walk of the day, and maybe the whole trip. I have never been so close to falls that powerful before, and really enjoyed the view of the canyon from the platform.
We had just one more stop on our Yellowstone list at this point in the trip, before we had to head back to Lander. We wanted to stop at the Mud Volcano springs and fumaroles site. Most of the hot springs here were pools of bubbling mud, and the fumaroles released an awful smelling mixture of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide gases. But, this place was so cool. One hot spring in particular, called Dragon’s Mouth, literally sounded like it was roaring at you.
With that, our Yellowstone adventure came to an end. We headed back down South through the Grand Tetons, and then out its East entrance towards Lander. While we did a whole lot of exploring, there were still so many sites and hikes left in the park that we couldn’t fit into our schedule. I think anyone could spend weeks out there and never run out of things to do. This weekend was one of my favorite weekends yet in Wyoming, and I can’t wait to go back to the parks in October. Until next time. 🙂
My first-ever adventure to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park last weekend was soooo fun. My parents came out all the way from Virginia to visit, and we had the best time exploring new territory, crossing things off our bucket lists left and right. We were able to spend all of Thursday showing them around Lander, but once Friday came, we were ready to get on the road. En route to the East entrance of Grand Teton National Park, we drove through a small town called Dubois about an hour and fifteen minutes into the drive. It was my first time seeing it, and it had some awesome features in it like an antler arch, and huge teepees. It didn’t take us much time to get through town, so we started the next leg of our journey shortly after taking a few photos.
Once we got to the Tetons, traffic moved a lot slower. Even with it being off season, there were still a lot of other tourists that were wandering around the park. Our first stop was at Jenny Lake, and thankfully, we made it there just in time between two rain showers. We didn’t think a hike was going to work out because of the weather, so we spent a couple of hours walking around the lake and enjoying the views instead. When we noticed the drizzle starting up again, we found our way back to the car. We then went to Jackson Lake Lodge, and enjoyed drinks and some food at their restaurant called Blue Heron Lodge. Plus, we had an incredible view of the Tetons at our table. After a while, the rain subsided again and we left to go find dinner and our cabin for the night. We stayed in a cute little two-bedroom cabin in Colter Bay Village, and were even able to take a walk around the Colter Bay and Jackson Lake before it got dark.
A short distance from the Teton’s North entrance, we made it into Yellowstone. Our first major stop was at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. A one-mile boardwalk trail lead us around several geysers, hot springs, and thermal pools and cones. Apparently, these features pour over 3,000 gallons of hot water into Yellowstone Lake every day. This was such a cool way to start our adventure — I had no idea the park had so many geysers. There are about 500 in Yellowstone, and over 10,000 other thermal features! We then made our way over to Old Faithful, likely the most famous geyser in the entire park. We were lucky and only had to wait about 40 minutes to watch it erupt; some people waited over an hour. Oof.
Our next stop was Biscuit Basin, another boardwalk loop full of geysers, hot springs, and thermal pools. At the top of the loop, we saw a sign for Mystic Falls Trail, and walked the 0.7 mile trek right to the bottom of the falls. This was definitely my favorite walk we took that day. The weather was perfect, the views were awesome, and everyone on the trail was so nice. After this refreshing stop and hike, we made our way up to Grand Prismatic, a huge rainbow-colored spring in Yellowstone’s Midway Geyser Basin. This was a dream come true to see. It was pretty steamy, because of the colder temperatures, but you could still see all of the color rings in the spring.
After our walk around the Midway Geyser Basin, we visited a couple of other pretty waterfalls like Firehole and Gibbon Falls, and stopped at another site called Beryl Spring on our way out of the park. The views were spectacular, whether you got out of the car at the park’s observation points, or were just driving to and from sites. I couldn’t believe we nearly covered the entire Lower Loop in one day, but we could definitely feel the fatigue setting in. We stayed the night in West Yellowstone, Montana, and had a great dinner at Bullwinkle’s Saloon & Eatery! We got to bed early that night since we were meeting for breakfast at 7AM the next morning… not a very fun thing for me to hear. 🙂
It was so hard for me to pick from the hundreds of photos I took last Friday and Saturday, but I did my best! The weekend could not have started off any better, and luckily it wasn’t over yet. The next day, Sunday, was our second day in Yellowstone, and will need another post for all of the pictures. All of these parks out here are truly ethereal, I am in heaven.
Lately in New Mexico we’ve been seeing all the storms but missing out on all the rain. Having cloud cover is always sweet relief and somewhat rare for us, but the storms are so scattered over the desert. It always seems to be raining far off and never in town.
Previous Seeds of Success crews in this field office documented a lot of various grass populations, so our crew was really excited initially. As the season has progressed we’ve realized that whether the grass has grown since last season is completely dependent on where the rains happen to land each year. Most “lush” grass sites look more like this–full of a previous year’s growth with no green to show currently. We also have a disappointing recurring experience–many times we find an amazing patch of green grass with multiple species growing, all ready for collection, but when we look down at the map it’s all in state or private land and inaccessible to us! Of course it hasn’t been all bad. We’ve gotten lucky with a few outstanding sites with so many different wildflowers all the in the same spot.
We recently shipped one of our largest collections–Verbecina encelioides. We found this amazing draw that was covered in the colonizing flower. We estimate that we collected over 1 million seeds!
Our Seeds of Success work is wrapping up and we have delved almost completely into doing range trend studies. The goal of this study is to compare how vegetation has fared after herbicide application for shrubs. It can be difficult to navigate to the sites and find the markers, but we are already about half way through. We also have to deal with cows a lot more now. We have learned the hard way that staying in the truck and honking the horn to get rid of them actually has the opposite effect! After talking to some people in the range department, we learned that this is how ranchers get the cattle to follow the truck. To successfully steer the cows away from our work sites I have waving branches or flags and yelling at the cows to get them away from us, or away from the gates we have to drive through without letting cows into the wrong pens and pastures!
I don’t usually fear the cows, but I also haven’t had any frightening encounters with them. In a previous post I wrote about Aly’s dangerous cow encounter, so it’s understandable that she’s not the one walking towards them if we can help it.
This Thursday we got to help with a rare plant survey in which we planned to walk eight miles and ended up walking closer to eleven miles. I spotted three gypsum milkvetch and in total we found four Scheer’s cacti.
To do the rare plant surveys we walk in lines 10 meters apart in sections of habitat deemed suitable for the species.
As usual, the plants we aren’t specifically looking for are popping! (Popping in color, blooms, and out at you. It seems nearly everything here is armed.)
As a plant person, I can’t help but post a few more photos of some of my favorite flowers that we’ve discovered. Coincidentally, none of my favorites have ever caused me pain 😉
As we come closer to the close of our internship, our crew talks more and more about how we’ll miss the skies and clouds that New Mexico offers up every once in a while.
Seed season is slowly coming to a close here in central Wyoming. It is amazing how different the landscape looks now than it did in the early summer months. Once green and vibrant, the wide open lands are now covered with dead, brown vegetation. One of the only plants down in the basin that has yet to go to fruit is the sagebrush, but the seeds will not be mature until after I have gone.
On the bright side, my partner and I have discovered a high elevation oasis – Green Mountain. Because parts of the mountain sit above 9000 feet, the plants here are behind the basin plants in their seasonal cycle. We managed to complete collections for 6 new species at this location and we still have our eyes on a few more.
Green Mountain has become my new favorite collection site due to the cooler temperatures, fantastic views, and the abundance of wildlife that we run into. A herd of wild horses frequents this area and we have been fortunate to run into its members more than once. Although the presence of wild horses is a very controversial topic out here, I truly enjoy there presence and find it both exhilarating and comforting.
A wild horse grazing on top of Green Mountain.
Back in the office, we have been packaging up our seeds for shipment and putting the final touches on our data sheets. The next item on our agenda is to begin mounting specimens for our local herbarium.
The seeds of Mimulus guttatus, a wetland plant that we collected from Green Mountain.
I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I only have 2 weeks left in Wyoming! Hopefully I can have a few more amazing experiences before it’s time to go.
The bison herd of Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis, WY.
If you’ve been keeping up with the latest and greatest of the CLM blog, this post might sound familiar. That’s because my fellow intern, Sophie, is working on the same hydrology project, and you could say that we are both pretty pumped about it. So since this project is also taking up most of my time, I thought I’d give my take on the experience as well. If your interested in the details of the project, Sophie did a great job explaining them in her blog.
As someone who has done work in headwater streams before, I was excited to return to this kind of work in a larger river and on a greater scale. Waders were a fun addition to our typical work wear and trying them out was a little scary but a lot fun. Lets just say hiking through water on a hot day is much more enjoyable than hiking through open sagebrush. As Sophie mentioned, colder weather to come will make these thick neoprene waders more cozy than constricting and we have already been experiencing much cooler weather this week (we officially have snow covered peaks in the Bighorns!). But waders aren’t the only new gear we have been dawning throughout this project. Pile on a safety vest, Trimble, walking stick, transect tape, pins, and usually some heavy metal monument caps and you have the full ensemble (pictured below).
What I have enjoyed most about working on this project is the opportunity to learn new skills and perfect old ones. The hydrologist at the BFO that we have been working has been extremely open to questions and patient as we learn new methodologies that will be very valuable in the future. It is also great to hear about the context of this study and the way that the data we are collecting in these final months of our internship will be useful in years and decades to come as this river changes and hopefully improves. As someone who was already interested in stream ecology and hydrology, but was unsure if this was a direction I wanted to go, I can now whole-heatedly say that I could wade around in a stream for a while and be content.
The month of August was both productive and fascinating. While we were busy doing seed collections we had the opportunity for exploring the land and seeing some amazing sites, as well as collaboration.
We worked with our partners in the Rocky Mountain Research Institute (RMRI) conducting vegetation surveys in many of the Northern reaches of Nevada. With their help, we formulated and tested vegetation surveys that will be carried into the future to affect the management of both BLM and USFS properties
We had the opportunity to learn and exchange knowledge with our partners as well as enjoy working with people who share a similar passion. After our work with them was done we took the time to explore our own districts. There is always a lot of ground to cover in such a big state. We had much success, and have had the opportunity to meet fellow botanists and interns in the ‘wild’.
I am starting to get low on these Wyoming puns. Haha. I officially have less than three months left in Lander, and am already feeling the pressure to see everything left on my Wyoming bucket list… and it’s pretty long. But! A couple weekends ago, Johnny made it back to WY and we started to make a serious dent in it. I had never been East of the Casper/Natrona County International Airport so that weekend we explored smaller cities that were past Casper, like Glenrock and Douglas. We made our way through Glenrock pretty quickly, after we stopped at their Paleon Museum for a short while. About half way to Douglas, we drove South off the highway to see Ayres Natural Bridge in Converse County. I saw my first herd of buffalo ever on the way into the park! I’m not sure if they were wild or not, but they were magnificent. Even from the road, we could tell just how massive they were. Once we got to Ayres Natural Bridge State Park, we climbed a small trail up the side of the bridge and found a huge rock pillar at the top of it. The rest of the view up there was really nice too. 🙂 After admiring the natural limestone arch, we made our way to Douglas. At this point we were about 3 hours from Lander, so we didn’t spend too much time here. Once we had walked through a couple of museums, we started our drive back home, but stopped at one last destination back in Fremont County called Castle Gardens Petroglyph Site. I had heard of petroglyphs being in Thermopolis, but hadn’t had time to go find them whenever I’ve visited in the past. When I heard there were some closer to Lander, I was thrilled! The petroglyphs at this site are rock carvings made by Athabaskan Native Americans from some time between 1000 and 1250 AD. They carved images of animals, plants, medicine, and other important cultural symbols into several of the outcroppings of rock there.
The next afternoon, we decided to go back to one of our favorite spots to watch the sunset at The Bus again. This is one of the most popular mountain biking/hiking destinations in Lander, and is known for that old wrecked bus Johnny found in a ditch about a month ago.
The next day, we ventured back into Sinks Canyon State Park for the day. We started on the Popo Agie Nature Trail, and then after about a half mile, we veered right for the 1 mile North Slope Trail. This trail is only open once it is dry enough in the summer, and takes you from the Nature Trail, up a steep ascent up the canyon, and then back down. It passes right over the natural sinks that the Popo Agie River disappears into, and brings you right to The Rise trout pool. This was Johnny’s first time seeing The Rise, and we were lucky enough to see a muskrat feeding among the trout!
My next week was spent with Jon keeping up with our usual rangeland monitoring studies, as well as contacting one of our permittees about unknown cattle brands. This was one of the last weeks Jon and I spent together before he went out in the field with Grant, our newest Rangeland Specialist, to teach him about the huge allotments he would be in charge of. During this week, our whiteboard broke into shreds, as you can see in the photos below. I couldn’t stop laughing at ourselves and our supplies we were working with, but nevertheless, we got the job done as usual. When I contacted one of our permittees, I was communicating with a very nice rancher named Travis Clyde. We had been trying to decipher about five pages of cattle brands I had put together, for months, so we decided to try asking somebody who may know more about it than we did. There were at least two to three dozen brands we just did not have records of, so Travis definitely helped us in validating them.
The next weekend, we went to the town of Ten Sleep, which is about two and a half hours North/Northeast from Lander. There was a really fun volunteer opportunity I had heard about through the BLM for trail maintenance at Salt Lick Trail just outside of downtown Ten Sleep. We camped out Friday night nearby, then woke up early Saturday to help out. We spent the morning digging out steps and tossing loose rocks over cliffs, all to make the trail a bit more safe for visitors. Afterwards, a very nice couple that lived at the bottom of the trailhead invited us to their home and made all of us burgers and endless picnic food. Johnny and I headed back home a little while after lunch, and made a quick stop in Thermopolis so he could enjoy the free Bath House in town, and learn about the “World’s Largest Natural Mineral Hot Spring”.
The rest of that weekend was spent resting and taking a hike around Frye Lake, one of my favorite places to visit in Shoshone National Forest. I had never made a full loop around the lake so Johnny and I were excited to try it. We ended up walking about 2+ miles around it straight into the woods. Eventually, it started getting dark, so we decided to turn around, witnessing a pretty incredible sunset on our way back to my car.
The following week, Jon and I finished up our rangeland monitoring duties in our second allotment, Antelope Hills. We also got a chance to go out with several Rangeland Specialists from the Lander field office that week to learn the Utilization Training method for our allotments. Every year, around September when the pastures get emptied of cattle, the BLM goes back into them in order to record how much the grasses were actually grazed/utilized in each allotment. These data are very useful for short-term, and longterm, monitoring of the lands we have to manage. We used the “Landscape Appearance Method” to do this, in which we studied the grasses in several different areas of the allotment, to estimate a percentage, or color, of grass utilized. This means we drove and walked around almost the entire pasture, running transects and recording whether the grass in the area was grazed at 0-5, 6-20, 21-40, 41-60, 61-80, 81-94, or 94-100 percent. These seven categories were split into five larger categories in order to make our job a bit easier later. This is because after we get these data recorded, we take a huge map and literally color it with five different colors: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Red represents the most utilized/grazed areas of a pasture or allotment, and goes all the way up to the cool colors where blue represents almost no grazing of an area of grass. These maps are great for the specialists to compare year-to-year, and to find patterns, when necessary.
I have still continued to learn so much from the BLM, and I’m confident I will keep doing so. I can’t wait to see what other kinds of opportunities I get to experience with them, and I can’t wait to keep using my weekend time WYsely to enjoy all the other magnificent parts of Wyoming. 🙂 There is never a dull week here, and I am so fortunate for that.
August and the last week or so in July
have been just as adventure filled as my first 4 months with the BLM in
Fairbanks, Alaska. Invasive species were getting awfully close to seed by the
time we made it out to pull along the Steese and Taylor Highways in the Eastern
Interior; and though we only saw a dozen or so Caribou, we had to fly out in a
helicopter to access areas in their range not disturbed by humans; thankfully
the only SOS signals needed on any trip were related to Seeds Of Success. Barring
a very windy night up in the White Mountains that caused one tent collapse, and
a near sleepless night for everyone up there, that is.
Even the most conspicuous and damaging invasive plants in Eastern Interior Alaska are somewhat limited in their impact to date. I say this with caution, however. In most of the lower 48 states and much of the colonized world, invasive species are only given serious attention once their eradication is nigh impossible. In other words, it’s almost too late. This isn’t to say invasive treatments aren’t worthwhile in those places, just that they cost billions to manage because of the damage done to crops and native habitats – in the US $120 billion a year to be exact (Pimental et al., 2005). In Alaska, at least from what I’ve seen, invasive plant populations are limited to roadsides and cities – of which there are relatively few. What I do see because of this, is a great opportunity to make an impact on removing these species before they become a more serious problem; and even more time, resources, and money have to be thrown at tackling it. Without intervention, it won’t take much for seed to be carried away down streams and rivers, and plants like Melilotus alba (white sweetclover) and Vicia cracca (bird vetch) to begin overcrowding riverbanks as they do on the highways we targeted.
Getting to that, our ‘weed’ pulling began on the Steese Highway at various BLM managed waysides such as those at the Upper and Lower Birch Creek. We stopped at each wayside along the way to monitor, but there were only a few that had infestations of the most damaging species. Interestingly enough, the furthest wayside from Fairbanks had the worst white sweetclover infestation of any! They must have hitched a ride from an unknowing driver, or perhaps in gravel used for the lot. These guys produce an average of 9,710 seeds (Klemow and Raynal, 1981; Klemow, 1982), though some estimates suggest as high as 350,000 per plant. The most concerning factor is that each of those seeds can remain viable for up to 81 years (Crocker, 1945). The picture below is one of the bigger white sweetclover I pulled. They grow in thick patches, sprouting early to overshadow their competitors and developing tap roots that quickly drain moisture from the soil.
The following week we drove up the Taylor Highway toward Chicken, stopping along the way to pull more white sweetclover on BLM land between mile-markers 4 and 6. I was lucky enough to have a previous CLM intern’s notes to go off when planning our invasive trips this summer – it was a huge help! After pulling those weeds we drove further up the Taylor to the Department of Transportation (DOT) South Fork Station. This sits at the South Fork of the Fortymile River – the same section of river I floated on earlier this summer – but just across the road. Between the road and the fence, and following the road up to the wayside, is BLM managed land. But on the other side of the fence is state managed land – the DOT Station. In what turned out to be a dichotomy here and perhaps representative of more issues than I should dive into, I found an interesting lesson in land management.
From the same notes I mentioned
before, the previous intern and now retired biologist had discussed their
frustrations at pulling bird vetch on the BLM side of the fence whenever they
could because on the DOT side the same invasive species persisted. Talk about
futile efforts. I can’t imagine spending a day removing an invasive plant from
one side of a fence only for the same vine-like shrub to wrap its tendrils
around the wire and have its seed blown onto where you just pulled a few weeks
later. When I read this, I remembered a meeting I’d attended earlier in the
summer about invasive species management on the Dalton Highway (this road runs
through a different field office than the one I’m assigned to but I thought it
would be worthwhile to go). At that meeting was someone from the DOT – perfect,
I just needed to get hold of them and of course they’d help us eradicate bird
vetch from both sides of the fence! Right?
Well, kind of. After exchanging a few emails, I was told that while they couldn’t support the invasive pull with staff or resources, they would allow us to come and pull weeds on their side of the fence. It just had to be approved by a few higher ups, and they needed to know what day we’d be there to do the work. While this wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, I thought great, at least we can get the work done and maybe next year we’ll get a bit of help! Inter-agency collaboration between the state and federal government is a work in progress, but I’m hopeful.
When we arrived to pull, the staff was happy to let us in and get to work. Bird vetch is a tricky plant to remove as it reproduces both through seed and through rhizomes. This means you need to remove as much (ideally all, though not usually possible) of the root system. Yanking the plant out the ground is thereby ineffective because it simply snaps at the base. A more effective, albeit more time consuming, approach is to slowly pull from as close to the ground as you can and work the root system out of the ground. Naturally this became a competition to see who could remove the longest root!
Following several other weed pulls, I was off to help out a different BLM biologist conducting caribou habitat surveys in the Fortymile and the White Mountains. In partnerships with PhD students and the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), the project has several goals oriented around improving our understanding of caribou impacts on native arctic alpine vegetation, and mapping biomass of plant functional groups with drone assistance. Because of the limited road systems in Alaska, and perhaps one of the most fun things I’ve been lucky enough to do this summer, reaching remote locations for studies such as this one requires travelling via helicopter!
Once we arrived at our randomly selected site, it was straight to work setting up the plot. I say that but often the plots were already set up upon my arrival – I had to fly alone because of something to do with weight limits in these little helicopters! My helicopter diet started a little too late apparently. You can see below some of the beautiful views we got to work above:
Caribou tend to eat a considerable amount of lichen among certain shrubs, graminoids, and occasionally mushrooms. As such, lichen identification was a huge part of this project – something I have had relatively limited experience in. Jim, Katie, and Rachel were super helpful in getting me up to speed nonetheless, and after a few days of staring into quarter meter plots identifying, estimating cover, and then trimming biomass of all vegetation, I had them just about down.
After a site was completed, which took most of a day, the helicopter would fly us to our next site where we’d set up camp, make some dinner, and chill out before starting a new plot nearby the next day. Weather dictated a lot of what we could get done with the need for a drone flyover prior to trimming any biomass. In the mountains that we surveyed, where weather is about as unpredictable as can be, this meant for a couple of days spent waiting in the tent for openings in clouds or fog. The drone can’t capture usable imagery without clear line of sight to the ground.
A couple of days in the tent out of seven waiting for clear skies weren’t the only times weather worked against us either. On our second night in the White Mountains we knew there was a chance of strong winds and rain, which is why we camped down off one of the ridges in what looked like a well shielded valley. Unfortunately these winds were stronger than expected. That, or our campsite was more exposed than we had anticipated. The work tent I lent to Rachel only lasted about half the night before the guyline snapped under the force of the wind (likely the guyline that a squirrel had partially chewed into earlier this summer!). Shortly after, one of the tent poles snapped as well, ripping a hole in the tent and collapsing it all at once. She managed to grab her belongings, find her way ou tof the fallen tent, and run down into the gear tent– a fortress of a dome tent which went relatively unphased by the gales.
Meanwhile, I was wrapped up in my sleeping bag hoping my tent would make it through the night. The wind didn’t blow constantly, nor did it always blow in the same direction. There were moments where only the pitter-patter of rain could be heard. Then a sudden crash blew into one side, followed by a smashing of wind into the other. I probably slept a total of 2 hours that night. Periods of sleep would be interrupted by the tent pole above my head collapsing down onto me under the force of the wind – not exactly conducive to quality REM. Thankfully my tent made it through the night and so did Jim’s, none of our gear got terribly wet either. All in all it was a wild night that we laughed about in the morning over coffee in the dome! The next day wind and rain continued, though at a much gentler pace. We moved our tents down even lower into the valley below another plateau. Thankfully this was one of the days spent in the tent waiting for clear weather, and occasionally napping as we recovered from the prior near sleepless night!
Compared to the invasive species work and caribou habitat surveys, collecting seeds for the national Seeds of Success program went off without a hitch! One of the targeted species was Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, otherwise called Kinnikinnik, or Bearberry. There’s a huge population of this low growing shrub near the small town of Tanacross, Alaska, so that’s where we drove to gather seed. The goal of 20,000 seeds per species sounds quite daunting at first, but considering there are multiple seeds per berry makes the task more manageable. I’m sure many other CLM-ers have been out collecting too, and hopefully in good conditions! We had a beautiful sunny day to pick berries and collect a couple of herbarium samples, and quite enjoyed the relaxing pace of doing so. The only thing that could have made the day any better would have been if the berries were more edible – Kinnikinnik have the texture of lint if you bite into one! A native group called Gwich’in would eat the berries mashed up and mixed with dried fish or roe in a sort of pemmican, while the Dena’ina would mix them with oil or lard. They preserve quite well and maintain their nutritional value this way. Apparently the berries were also important as a food for survival when Alaska first became colonized, though I’m thankful not to have had to depend on them for sustenance. Trying one was more than enough!
Crocker, W. 1945. Longevity of seeds. Journal of the New York Botanical Garden. 46:48.
Klemow, K. 1982. Demography and seed biology of monocarpic herbs colonizing an abandoned limestone quarry. Syracuse, NY: State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 228p. Dissertation.
Klemow, K.; Raynal, D.1981. Population ecology of Melilotus alba in a limestone quarry. Journal of Ecology. 69: 33-44.
Pimentel, D.; Zuniga, R.; Morrison, D. 2005. Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States. Ecological Economics. 52:3, 273-288, ISSN 0921-8009.
We began the month doing Wyoming Toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) surveys once again. However this time instead of breeding surveys, where we were looking for tadpoles and egg masses, we surveyed for the adult toads specifically. The procedure is mostly the same with the exception that the plots we were surveying extended farther from the waters edge. When we captured a toad we measured lengths and mass and took a sample for chytrid fungus. This fungus causes an infectious disease in amphibians called Chytridomycosis which is believed to be a factor in the global decline in amphibian populations and is possibly a factor in the decimation of the Wyoming Toad population in the mid 1970s.
After toad surveys, I assisted fisheries with their seining surveys. Seining is a method of catching fish using a seine, which is a net with poles fixed to either end, a weighted bottom and buoyed top. The net is dragged along either side of the shore and many of the fish in the river get trapped inside. We were doing a depletion removal study to estimate the actual abundance of fish species. This consists of three successive passes done with the seine per site and the number of each species of fish that was caught was recorded. If done correctly each pass should yield less fish then the last and the rate of decline can be used to determine species abundances. I also had my first experience electroshocking which is another method to determine fish species abundance. In this method, one surveyor administers a non-lethal shock to the water with an backpack electrical generator to temporarily stun the fish so the other surveyors can net any observed fish. Again three successive passes are done per stream section and actual abundance can be determined.
One of the most compelling things I did this month was Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) surveys. These remarkable animals are North America’s only native ferret and were once considered to be extinct until one was caught by a farmers dog in Meeteetse, WY in 1981. Since the discovery of the extant population, many breeding and reintroduction efforts have been underway to save the population and have been considerably successful. Black-footed ferrets main food source is prairie dog and they use their burrows to hunt, sleep, hide from predators, and reproduce. The ferrets historic range coincided with that of the prairie dogs. The project I was helping with is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and we were surveying the Shirley Basin population. The goal of the surveys was to attempt to determine population size but also to tag and vaccinate as many ferrets as possible. Surveys took place from 7pm until 6am as the ferrets are nocturnal. Everyone was given a section of land to survey and spotlights were used to locate eye-shine. Black-footed ferrets eyes appear an emerald greenish blue when light is shinned on them. Once a ferret was located it was followed until it entered a prairie dog burrow and then a trap was set in the entrance of the burrow and all other exits from the burrow were plugged. The trap site was then checked once per hour for any trapped ferrets. When a ferret was capture it was transferred to a tube that resembled the inside of a burrow and it was brought to the processing trailer where measurement were taken and vaccinations were administered. Once processed, the trap set up was disassembled and the ferret was released where it was captured. Over three nights of surveying I caught four ferrets, two female kits, a male kit, and a young adult male. Between the 10 survey areas 16 ferrets were captured and processed. We also observed many incidentals, including badgers, swift foxes, red foxes, coyotes, pronghorns, jack rabbits, and ferruginous hawks. Getting to work with and observe such an iconic species in the wildlife conservation world was an absolutely incredible experience and I couldn’t be more grateful that I got to assist in the conservation efforts for the species.
For the last half of August we completed our second round of trapping for herptiles North of the Ferris Mountains. This trapping period was great for garter snakes (Thamnophis elegans) as we trapped around the time that females were giving birth. Many of the garter snakes we caught this period were young of the year. We also caught our second Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipens) which was an excitement. My most exciting opportunistic catch this period was a three foot long bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi)! I also had the opportunity to tube and process a Prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis), which was an incredible learning experience. The rattlesnake was a small female caught outside the office so we relocated her to one of out trap sites. Unfortunately we couldn’t count her in our data but fingers crossed we can catch her again later in the season. We added some sherman traps to three of our sites in an attempt to trap more mammals but they were much less successful then I was expecting based on past experiences. Only one deer mouse was captured who unfortunately had succumbed to the environment. Overall for mammals we caught plenty of deer mice and voles, plus a hand full of shrews. Overall it was a good trapping period but I am hoping for an increase in diversity for our next, and last, trapping period.
The day that my crew now knows simply as “Thursday” started like any other day. We were scheduled to do monitoring on two long-term range plots northwest of town. The drive out there was going to be about an hour, so we got to the office and headed out right away. Driving to the first plot, we were about 10 minutes away according to our GPS, and we hit a huge ditch in the road that we weren’t confident driving over. We weighed our options and decided to load up our packs and try to hike to it. After about 5 minutes of walking, we reached a tiny road that we realized connected back to the highway and could take us to our plot. Rather than walk 4 miles round trip, we walked back to the truck, hopped in, and made it to our plot via a small two-track road. We finished our protocol, had lunch, and were ready to tackle the next plot.
The second plot we planned to complete that day was only 2 miles away as the crow flies, but of course in order to drive there, we had to drive over an hour on roads with boulders and rock slabs. In the Carlsbad Resource Area, roads are constantly changing and moving because of the oil and gas development, so we had to turn around two times to follow roads that were not on our map. The road that our second plot was allegedly on had completely disappeared, so we took a gamble and followed a road not on our map to get as close as possible to the plot. At this point, it was already 4pm, there was a thunderstorm fast approaching, and we were on an exposed ridge.
Fortunately, we found the plot rebar, collected our data, and were back to the truck before the storm got too close. The road we had been on looped back to highway, so we decided to continue the direction we were going rather than try to drive over the horrible roads we’d already driven on. We messaged our supervisor that we would be late and started making our way back.
Initially, the road seemed great. Not as many rock slabs, easy to follow, and we even saw a javelina (small wild pig) run down a draw right in front of our truck. Once we got about 5 minutes from the highway, we hit a roadblock. In front of us was a 12 inch drop into loose gravel at the bottom of a draw, an uneven hill on the other side. At this point, if we had to turn around, we wouldn’t be back to the office until about 9pm and would have to drive horrible roads in the dark and potentially the rain. We weighed our options, and decided to get out of the truck and see what we could do. As we looked at the draw, before we all decided to get out, my crewmate Alex said, “Snake? Rattlesnake!”. Off the driver’s side corner of the hood, curled up behind a rock, was a beautiful rattlesnake. It uncurled itself and slithered off the road into the bushes, all 4 feet of it disappearing into the brush.
We still didn’t want to turn around, so as my crewmates Alex and Catherine got out and began moving rocks into the draw to lessen the drop, I kept my eyes on the surroundings, making sure the rattlesnake didn’t come back. Before we made the move to drive over the draw and our makeshift road, we noticed a house up on the hill by the draw and noted that if something went horribly wrong, we could go to the house and ask for help. We heard a dog barking, so we knew the home was inhabited. Then we started the truck. Apparently my crew has secret roadbuilding skills, because our truck made it through the draw and we continued down the road toward the highway. Then we saw a gate.
I got out of the truck to open the gate, which was unlocked and blocking the county road we were on that went through to the highway. As I walked up to the gate, I heard an engine start. Up drove a man in an ATV. It was perhaps the strangest encounter with a person I’ve ever had. He repeated, “It hasn’t rained out here in 3 years” in a slow Southern drawl about 3 separate times in our conversation. After about a 5 minute talk he drove away and we proceeded through the gate, drove 3 more minutes, and hit the highway. We got back to the office unscathed and only an hour and a half late.
Just about every safety talk they give you at the Carlsbad Field Office came to our minds that day – horrible roads, roads not existing anymore, thunderstorms, rattlesnakes, strange men living in the middle of the desert. We maneuvered around every challenge and ultimately I think our crew became closer because of it. And we went to get ice cream afterwards, so at least we ended the day on a high note.