Farewell to Farmington, New Mexico

My main project, Seeds of Success, has finished for the season so I have been gaining many new experiences in the Farmington, NM field office during my last month here.


I have been able to sit in on several office meetings with resource specialists. The most fascinating was a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) discussion with representatives of BLM natural resources branches and the project manager and consultant from Williams Oil and Gas. The company has submitted a proposal for a liquid fuels pipeline spanning from Ignacio, CO, crossing New Mexico, and ending in El Paso, TX. They were doing research on possible roadblocks that could occur on BLM land with regard to protected plants, animals, riparian areas, and cultural sites. It was really cool to see an active presentation, discussion and debate on this plan.  I believe personal communication is so much more powerful than email and at times even more efficient.


A couple weeks ago I went out in the field with our tribal coordinator, Esther, to scout the proposed pipeline route and make a tally of Navajo homesteads near the path of the pipeline. Esther will be consulting them about the pipeline and present information about the installation process. It seems that they don’t have weighted input for the pipeline but Esther is doing her best to explain the project and answer any questions. I wonder how the oil company views these homesteads. 


This past week I filled in for the threatened and endangered species biologist. The purpose of my last field trip was to record any evidence of golden eagle nests or eagle presence in the Largo Canyon area. There is an oil well proposed to be constructed above the main canyon wall and one of the contractors thought she saw an eagle soaring off the edge of the cliff. The golden eagle is a Biodiversity Conservation Concern species in New Mexico. It is a fairly stable species throughout its range but its small population size make it vulnerable to habitat encroachment. A GIS specialist, Adam, was anxious to get out of the office and accompanied me. The road we were going to follow to the target site had been closed to conserve the wilderness area. We climbed a couple of hills to view the canyon wall and eventually decided to bring our adventure deeper into the canyon to check out some side tributaries. With binoculars swaying and tripods teetering we hiked through the thin layer of snow up canyon. Adam saw a large bird swoop down in a hunting motion, but just for a glimpse. We documented a few sites of whitewash (poo) on the walls, but there were no recent nests to be seen. It was still a lovely day to be outside as my last field day in New Mexico. We did see some fresh and cool tracks in the canyon wash- a large cat and a bear.

Adam using the spotting scope to scan the distant canyon wall. The crisp magnification on that instrument is absolutely remarkable


This is my last week in Farmington and I am devoted to trying to finish up my last project. I am working on a plant identification field guide that will accompany the new reclamation seed mix requirements our office is administering in January. My mentor, Sheila, has removed most of the introduced species off the seed mix choices and developed mixes specific to 8 native community types in northwest New Mexico. It is a very rewarding project with which to complete my CLM term. I feel very proud and privileged to be working on this field guide. I see it as a form of environmental education that I only recently obtained the education and experience on myself. When I first came to New Mexico, I would have needed that field guide to look at the flora here. Now I have acquired the skills to create it with a familiarity of the plants. The guide will be used by our office staff who survey oil and gas well pads and also by operators, contractors and consultants who are responsible for reclaiming vegetated areas that have been disturbed by their energy projects.

I will treasure the experience and exposure I had with many different resource types in the four corners area: plants, wildlife, canyons, rivers, rangeland. I will especially remember the friendships I have made here in the 7 months. When field work wound down I was able to get to know many fine people in our office and what their work entails. I wish the next interns good luck in their quest for seeds in this unique part of the country. Even though Farmington isn’t my dream town, I know I was meant to spend some time here. To learn and to love and now, to leave. 

Deidre Conocchioli

Farmington, NM BLM


View from the Farmington BLM office. It’s our first snow that has stuck around for a couple days




The Bold, the Beautiful and the Ugly

The San Juan River at Simon Canyon, NM


        Seed collecting is wrapped up in Farmington, NM, and the seeds themselves are wrapped up in packages waiting to be opened by the Bend Seed Extractory personnel. We unloaded the pickup of our gear, trash, sand, and seeds in preparation for its complete purging at the auto shop. I think fall cleaning takes more energy for field workers than spring cleaning.  Finishing up the SOS collections has allowed us to help other natural resource folks in the office.


Living in the desert has instilled a deep fondness for cottonwood trees




The last collection- Chenopodium graveolens







 We went out with the Threatened and Endangered Species Specialist to look for the Mesa Verde fishhook cactus (Sclerocactus mesae-verdae) in areas where a powerline will be installed. We encountered a couple of oil wells that were not actively pumping, but leaking oil. The San Juan basin has over 18,000 active oil and gas wells in urban and remote areas. I will be seeing how the process works to report an oil leak and hopefully more attention will be paid to some of the remote sites that can easily slip under the radar.

Mesa Verde fishhook cacti


An oil well leaking oil in the San Juan Basin

Old car grazing the San Juan river


The right fork of the San Juan river is shallow this time of the year


The rock in the horizon down river is Shiprock, a sacred site of the Navajo that can be seen for miles around the four corners area



Yesterday we finished canoeing a section of the San Juan River to assess its proper functioning condition- a national criteria to evaluate riparian health and potential. There were numerous areas of illegal dumping- the weirdest being a large metal framed boat and an old car. Even so, it was an absolutely gorgeous day as we spent what I believe is the last day of summer-fall. Winter fall is not far behind.

Rain, arthropods, and crop circles in the De-Na-Zin

De-Na-Zin wash we have been collecting in


Exposed sagebrush root on bank of De-Na-Zin wash

In Farmington, New Mexico, news about the weather is informative to the news about the plants. The news is, we have received some rain, about 40 miles south of town near the De-Na-Zin/Bisti Wilderness badlands area. A wash that we had started monitoring two months ago was yielding young shoots of a couple species.  When we returned last week, those little forbs in the wash were completely buried in a blanket of sand brought forth by a rushing flood that barreled through the desiccated desert. The dusty, smooth slopes of the sandy wash had been transformed into violently cut jagged banks. Hearty sagebrush plants had been ripped out of their bed and left to dangle on edge, calmly billowing in the wind. Heaps of disheveled soil were scattered around curves of the wash. Portions of the sand bed had been transported elsewhere in the flow, leaving areas deeply sculpted into fragile miniature canyons. Despite this destruction, many native plants were flourishing on the edges of the wash. Seeing how the wash had transformed was one of the highlights in the past couple weeks. It was a reminder that the earth is an organism- and this particular wash just went through a molt.  

Cute Little Tarantula of the De-Na-Zin

Blister Beetle- Genus: Megetra. If handled, adults exude an oil called cantharidin that causes dermal blistering and can be fatal to livestock if entire beetle is ingested









                                               As hours passed by collecting broom-like ragwort, hoary tansy aster, and galleta grass, the movement of a black, leggy patch caught my eye. It was the first tarantula I have seen in the United States. I went on a short (yes, Sheila, short) arthropod chasing safari at the De-Na-Zin site. For me, part of being a botanist is noticing the other biota of your surroundings and becoming fascinated by an organism that you don’t quite understand and taking a little time to observe.  

 The De-Na-Zin/ Bisti wilderness area has a reputation for being an abyss of eerie phenomenon. So far, the photo below depicts all strangeness I have seen. The wind and water of the De-Na-Zin can be quite powerful as well as artistic.

 Fall is here in Farmington- the cottonwood leaves are firing up. We are racing to collect seeds before the frost sets in. I see that many others are finishing up their internships. Please get in touch if you would like to visit the four corners area or are passing through! I will be here through December.  

Deidre Conocchioli

Farmington, New Mexico, Bureau of Land Management

People less predictable than plants… or are they?


The Farmington Donut Hole

 When it comes to rain, Farmington is still “the hole in the donut”, as I recently heard someone say in our BLM office. Still SOS optimistic, we have been focusing our monitoring and collecting efforts in the rolling Piñon-Juniper hills near Cuba, New Mexico, about 100 miles south of Farmington. This little 25 square mile area at 7,000 ft has been a botanical paradise for us in the dry desert.

While this plant oasis has been absorbing the precious monsoon that has evaded much of northern New Mexico, not all of the plants have been able to flourish. Number one on our SOS target list is galleta grass (Pleuraphis jamesii), a grass that is a powerful species for reclamation projects due to its vigorous growth with robust rhizomes. Last week is when we discovered that ~ 80% of the galleta seed had not properly matured after testing spikelets with our teeth at each population we marked.

Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome serrulata) we are collecting in Cuba (it’s tall enough to stand up while collecting!)


The plants that have been lucky enough to receive rain were mostly in flower last week. Yesterday we went down to Cuba expecting to collect at least one species. At our first site, 6 species had seeds that were mature and ready to collect! In attempt to expedite the collecting, Henry had the idea of using a vacuum to suck the seeds off the plants. This idea materialized into bringing a dustbuster to the field. Several fluffy asters we thought would do well with the vacuum clung dearly to the involucre. Finally, Heterotheca villosa relinquished its clutch from the motherplant and was swept up into the vacuum. I hope Henry titles his next blog, “Housekeeping with Henry.”

Housekeeping here for Heterotheca– with Henry


We don’t often run into the public when we are scouting or collecting seeds in remote BLM land. When we do, it is exciting to explain why we look like we are digging through the brush and in turn, find out what the public does use the lands for.  The BLM road we were on yesterday oddly had a lot of traffic. Several people pulled over to chat with us, which made for some nice breaks of sitting upright amidst the standard “SOS forward hunch” (though I have begun to collect seeds in a circle around the stool that I sit on so that I really have to twist to reach the seeds directly behind me. It gives my back a little stretch but it looks ridiculous).

The last fellow that stopped at our site was a little Navajo man that waved me over to his truck. He opened the bed cover and I stepped back, overwhelmed with the unmistakable sharp scent of sagebrush. The truck bed was full of it! He had been collecting soft flowering sagebrush tips all day off BLM land. Why? To make little incense bundles that he dries and sells on the internet! A couple years ago he needed a permit to collect sagebrush, but now he no longer does since the BLM is trying to rid their land of the “invasive” native sagebrush. As he was describing to me a-mile-a-minute about how the airplanes have been dropping kill pellets, I thought he may be upset about the BLM sage-attack as it directly affects his business. Turns out, he is very pleased about the sagebrush herbicide because he believes no matter what, the sagebrush will always grow back for him. He also said the new regrowth is bright green and much easier to find! He gave me his phone number to notify him of where sagebrush has been sprayed so he can track it for new growth in the next year. For his sake, I hope the sagebrush stays predictable.

Area where the Navajo man was collecting sagebrush for his internet business



Deidre Conocchioli

BLM, Farmington, New Mexico

The Grass that was Right Behind our Backs

I will start with the story of the grass right behind our backs. Henry, my co-intern and I were keying out potential SOS plants we had collected to find the species out and see if they were native. We had just put down two sedges  (Schoenoplectus americanus and Schnoenoplectus maritimis) and began a long tackle on the grass we collected. Hitting many dead ends in the key and starting over in the POACEAE several times, we finally had our mentor, Sheila, come in to take a look at the unruly grass.  While she was looking in the dissecting scope, Henry pointed to a grass on a BLM native plants promotional poster that was hanging behind us in the cube.  “This foxtail barley kind of looks like our grass,” He said. We found our mistake in the key (what we thought were bristles were really glumes reduced to awns and several sterile spikelets) and where did we key it to in about 10 minutes? The foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) on the poster! It had been staring at our backs the whole time! I know keen observation of the field surroundings is always helpful, but I am now going to be more aware of our office surroundings!

Last week we had the opportunity to go out with a couple wildlife biologist interns. We accompanied them to a site where they were monitoring pinyon jays. A group of pinyon jays had been captured and radio transmitters were attached to their tail feathers. We were tracking their signals with receiver equipment (pictured). The pinyon jay is a species of special concern in San Juan County; it is an especially important species in the local ecosystem due to its symbiotic relationship with the pinyon pine. It was really cool to see the different kind of “hands on” approach wildlife biologists use to monitor species. As a botanist, I appreciate being able to get up close and personal with the species I am studying.

We picked up the signal for one bird- the range is about 100 feet

Last week we also made our first Seeds of Success (SOS) collections in conjunction with Native Plant Materials Collection. Andrea and Alicia from the Chicago Botanic Garden were visiting Farmington and we helped them collect Plantago patagonica, Heterotheca villosa, Descurainia pinnata. It was helpful to have the SOS training workshop prior to making an SOS collection. It also was pleasantly nostalgic to see Chicago Botanic Garden logo on the car while at our field site in New Mexico!

Plantago patagonica (about 1 inch tall)

I have really enjoyed exploring different canyons of Northern New Mexico doing SOS scouting and collecting. I am looking forward to using my comp time to do some canyoneering in Canyonlands of Southern Utah over the 4th of July weekend. Hope to run into some other CLM interns!

Deidre Conocchioli

BLM- Farmington District Office

Oh Charmington, You are Not Flat


Sheila directing us from beside the truck

Exploring Northern New Mexico BLM Land -Sheila directing us from beside the truck (what a surprise there isn't an oil or gas well in this photo)

Opuntia polyacantha

My name is Deidre Conocchioli, and I started working at the lovely BLM field office in Farmington, New Mexico this past Monday. Farmington is about 40 miles southeast of the Four Corners and is on the Colorado Plateau. I just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and stopped at home in the Twin Cities, Minnesota before coming to Farmington.  I had previously never been to New Mexico and while I was excited about the new flora, I was greatly anticipating what the landscape in Farmington would be like.  Colorado Plateau kept giving me the  imagery of a city on a high, dry, flat top without trees to shelter from the sun’s ever-watching gaze. I found myself thinking along the drive, “please don’t let Farmington be as flat as the plains I am coming from.” Even one mountain range within sight from the town would be a mental oasis.  Driving past the plains, the earth erupted into majestic uprisings of forested slopes and snow- capped peaks west of Denver. Pressing through southern Colorado, the mountains held out as I looked for indication of the distinctive plateau I had in mind. There was none, the land never flattened. Even rolling in at 9 pm, we could tell that this plateau had big rolling hills around the town, as I especially discovered on my 4 mile uphill bike ride to the BLM office.

I will be primarily working on the Seeds of Success program with another CLM intern, Henry. Our mentor, Sheila, is a sharp botanist and she has been acquainting us with Four Corners specimen she collected for us. Or rather, A Utah Flora, Flora of Arizona, New Mexico Flora, and Colorado Flora keys have been divulging the intimate details of a plant’s private areas (gynobase positioning) and more provocative features of the leaves, spines, and pubescence. It was a good change of pace when we were able to learn flora in the field. The prickly pears in bloom were absolutely gorgeous.

Looking forward to meeting everyone at the training in Chicago!