An End in the West.


16,883 – total miles driven, the equivalent of driving the entire stretch of Interstate 10 (from Santa Monica, CA to Jacksonville, FL) almost 7 times

0 – number of cows hit with our government rig (and there were a few close calls)

40 – number of seed collections collected! We saved the worst for last – Cylindropuntia leptocaulis (Desert Christmas Cactus) – where every fruit was covered with hundreds of tiny glochids (prickles) and every branch was covered with hundreds of four-inch spiny terror barbs.

56 – miles walked in the Dripping Springs Natural Area trails during my bi-monthly trail monitoring. I have a tough life, let me tell you.

2 – forgotten lunches on travel days that resulted in my upending of rural gas stations looking for anything that wasn’t a candy bar or a savory meat by-product

1- fantastic Indiana Jones-esque hat purchased in Santa Fe. Nothing beats having a rakish, cool look while on your hands and knees crawling under creosote bushes.

1- sweet gig acquired working as a Food Security Coordinator at the Sacramento Food Bank for Americorps! Hooray!

Thanks to Mike Howard, a super cool mentor and great State Botanist, and Krissa and Wes at the Chicago Botanic Garden for making the whole internship process so easy and streamlined and relaxed!  This internship has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and has helped me tremendously to narrow my future career goals and aspirations.

New Mexico, as I’ve already known, is a unique, beautiful place. You just can’t top the endless vistas, solitude, craggy mountain ranges, diversity of plant life, and quality of the people.

I’ll end with two quotes by my favorite author Ed Abbey, a devoted lover and protector of the desert.  He wrote, “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”

And one of my all-time favorites from Desert Solitaire:

“The fire. The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, in my honest judgment; I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise could equal it. One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.”


Disengaged Youth, Hybrid Swarms and Other Pressing Questions.

In the last few weeks I’ve come to realize that my time at the BLM is almost up.  I find myself looking at the calendar and ticking off the remaining work weeks on one hand. How did that happen? Wasn’t it November 1st, like, yesterday?

No doubt the time has sped by due to some of the interesting projects I’ve worked on in the last month.  One experience in particular led me to ponder some basic questions about botany, as well as its future as a field in the United States.  Eli and I were lucky enough to attend the New Mexico Rare Plants Technical Council Meeting at the Rio Grande Botanic Garden in Albuquerque earlier this month.   We were representing our mentor, the New Mexico State Botanist, who (literally) holds the key to the BLM’s Sensitive Species list for New Mexico.  The attendees were a small, passionate group of professionals from various backgrounds: academia (UNM and NMSU), government (Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife), and private business.

Like the couple other botany events I’ve been to in New Mexico, almost everyone was over fifty.  I don’t say this to disparage, I mention this only to draw light to an alarming theme.  Younger generations are largely absent from the plant sciences and botany.  Within the last few years, numerous articles have chronicled the demise of botany at universities or the merging of plant science within the larger disciplines of ecology or biology.  I’m not sure if youth just aren’t interested in botany because of our culture’s preoccupation with technology, convenience, and the artificial or if this lack of interest stems from a rift in early education where these passions should be cultivated.  I’m inclined to think (and hope) that it’s the latter because then it’s an easier issue to solve.  Even at this meeting, the issue was acknowledged – people are needed to collect the retiring generation’s institutional and local knowledge before it’s too late.

Ok- that was a brief tangent- onto the pressing meeting issues!  Two subjects held the majority of the meeting floor- instituting a new ranking system for rare plants and deciding upon a hybrid policy for the Council.

In regards to the ranking system, it is very difficult to give native plants a rarity ranking because, well, they are rare.  Often little is known about a species and no documentation exists.  Categories that must be considered for ranking are range extent, population size, population trends, threat impacts, and more.  Natural Heritage New Mexico is a division of the University of New Mexico that maintains a rare species database that uses a species ranking calculator.  The Technical Council decided to do a pilot project and utilize the calculator on 30 well-documented rare species to see how accurate or useful such technology would be.  The “pros” of a calculator are that the process is data-driven (less human opinion) and that input factors are documented.  The “cons” of the tool are that populating all the categories is a lengthy process and unknown factors could skew the calculated outcome.  In my personal opinion, I’m confident that the calculator will be useful and will help standardize the ranking process among larger areas because different states and agencies also use a similar system.

Hybrid policy- now this was a point of contention in the group.  What constitutes a hybrid? At what point does a hybrid constitute its own species?  However simple this questions appears at first glance- it’s not, think about it more.  Say two species cross and create a hybrid.  Ok, this is just one weird plant, no biggie.  But what if this happens ten more times throughout the population? Ok, still not a problem- you might say- those hybrids are spread throughout the population and probably won’t pass along their unique genetic makeup.   But THEN, what if all of these hybrids crop up in the same area and being reproducing primarily with each other? It’s now a hybrid swarm, and if you decide to call the population a new species haven’t you got a new rare plant on your hands?  Can every hybrid swarm be considered rare?  Ok, ok, that’s a lot of questions but hopefully you see what I’m getting at.  It’s difficult to define when a hybrid becomes a distinct species, and then it’s difficult to decide if it should be protected or not.  At the meeting, someone raised a great point- looking at a plant is simply looking at an evolutionary snapshot whose endpoint we cannot see.  Therefore, we must reference whatever data has been published and work on a case by case basis as hybrids are brought for review.  The council generally agreed that a hybrid is a species if it is reproductively independent from its parents, but they would only acknowledge a new species if someone had published the data to support it.

Since my post has already passed the maximum length that can hold my reader’s attention span- I’ll only address one more exciting event.  (Although many of you might not think this qualifies as exciting… I mean KEEP READING THIS IS SOME THRILLING STUFF).  A soil scientist from NRCS came to the office a couple of weeks ago and gave a tutorial on “Creating Soil-Based Thematic Maps and Reports Using Soil Data Viewer”. I was at first, skeptical, of how much I might get out of this training but I was mistaken.  The speaker introduced us to an alternative to Web Soil Survey (an online soil data database that is notoriously slow- cue painful memories of late night studying for Soil Science in college).  Soil Data Viewer is faster, easier to navigate, more informative, and did I mention faster?  There are so many different attributes you can explore and the program can rank these attributes of the various soils in an area and spit out a fantastic report.  So you want to know what areas in Doña Ana County have the best soils for sinking fence posts? Done. Want to know which areas have vegetation cover best suited for cattle ranching? Done.  This resource could be useful to a vast majority of government and private agencies concerned with land management and other fields.  Hopefully, it will be used for improving our knowledge and appropriate use of different landscapes- in addition to the entertainment value of the pretty, vividly colored maps that I use it for.

Oh, and one last thing – IT SNOWED! I’m from Sacramento, CA and have never woken up and seen snow outside.  Needless to say I was pretty excited.  Pictures galore!



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The Times Are a Changin’

Fall has hit the Southwest.  Temperatures have dropped, the bosques are yellow-tinged, and BLM employees have unwillingly pulled out their flannels.  There appears to be a general consensus that this is the best season – and I concur, based solely on the fact that field work is much more pleasant when you aren’t sizzling (metaphorically and literally).

My report for the month will be fairly slim because about half the month was lost to the government shutdown.  I made the most of my undesired vacation by attempting to exercise, nullifying all exercise attempts by making delectable foodstuffs, watching movies (Like depressing? Watch Doctor Zhivago!), and stuffing my brain with reading. The most annoying part of the shutdown was fielding the inevitable questions, “How’s the shutdown going? Any word on when it will end?” My internal responses: “I think the shutdown is doing great because everything is shutdown!” AND “Well, in my personal conversation with John Boehner today he wouldn’t give me any hints”.

But alas! We returned to work and scurried around to check if any of our potential collections were still viable. Most were, and we’ve been making speedy work of finishing up our collection season.  Soon we will be moving onto some interesting projects that include monitoring some previously-planted sand bluestem and cataloging night-blooming cereus cacti.

I’ll end this post with some key hints/tips related to seed collecting:

1. When it is windy outside, bring a top for your bucket. Watching hundreds of feathery, miniscule seeds blow out of your bucket is highly demoralizing.

2. When you find yourself collecting seeds in a huge grassy area out of sight from your co-workers, follow this procedure: sit down, close eyes, pretend you’re Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. Repeat for maximum atmospheric effect.

3.  Have a strategy for remembering what hundred number of seeds you’ve collected – forgetting what number you’re on when you need 2,000 seeds gets old quickly.

R.I.P Insects

Hello all,

Hard to believe it’s almost the end of September. (I know, I know – how characteristic of me to start with an exclamation of wonder about how fast time passes, really novel). Thinking back on the month’s activities nothing really stands out- but I believe this is because I’ve become quite comfortable with my pleasant routine.
Eli and I have accomplished quite a bit this month- we have met our 25 collections goal (crowd cheers!) and continue to monitor numerous plant populations. I can also confidently say that we are New Mexico driving experts and have logged over 10,000 miles in our quest for botany greatness. A number of these miles have been on hideous roads that don’t deserve to be called roads – they seem more like ancient wagon trails or rocky-slopes-with-negligible-vegetation-masquerading-as-roads. I think my 4-wheel drive experiences have encouraged me to be more liberal in driving my own little Honda sedan, Sparkle Stallion. Driving to work one morning, Sparkle Stallion forded multiple streams crossing our road and navigated a section that had actually become the stream channel! Sparkle Stallion performed wonderfully! (No one tell my parents).
In other news, there is an upcoming event that’s stirring up quite a bit of excitement at the BLM- the potential government shutdown!  It’s interesting to be on the side directly affected; I know that a lot of beneficial and important services will be suspended and people relying on the BLM will be negatively affected. I can only hope that all will be resolved soon! (A girl can dream).
In other (positive) news, my ascension to ultimate plant nerd-dom continues! (Cue my college friends groaning in unison). My keying skills have drastically improved, I can rattle off the Latin names of native plants at lightning speed, and I’ve begun pressing flowers for my own personal collection. All in all, I’m pretty stoked with the direction my life is currently taking.
That’s the update for this month- I will leave you all with some poetry. This piece was inspired by the thousands of insects I’ve slaughtered while driving around New Mexico. Buggies, this is dedicated to you.


Fighting with my windshield
75 mph impact
Gelatinous streak
Yellow, orange, green
Rainbow of insect innards
Not quite dead
Fishing them out of the fender with a stick
Mangled exoskeletons
Squishy squishy
Inglorious death

-Kate Wilkins



Zen and Monster Moths!

Goodbye August! It was quite a whirlwind of a month here in Las Cruces. In the last two weeks of the month Eli and I have scurried around the state making seed collections as the plants start to drop everything after the July rains.  Tridens, Erioneuron, Senna, Physaria, Fallugi and more! I absolutely love driving around to new places and walking through the endless grasses and flowers and seeing nothing but sky on the horizon.  I think seed collecting is a serious form of meditation: thoughts are whirring through your head as you begin and you worry about all the things you need to do and suddenly your mind goes deliciously blank as you move from plant to plant.  You are unaware of anything not directly surrounding you – the sun on your neck, the flies buzzing, and the sharpness of gravel on your knees.  Suddenly- you’re done! You didn’t even know that you’ve been stooping over the ground on all fours for the last two hours. (Until you notice the terrific sunburn you’ve got on your back later that night).

This month we also had the pleasure of hanging out with Krissa, Wes, and Sophia from the Chicago Botanic Garden.  We made a day of collecting some cuttings of the rare Lepidospartum plant that the Garden had attempted to propagate about a month ago.  Despite various GPS malfunctions and a significant lack of shade, it was a great afternoon full of story-swapping and great advice.  As a recent college grad, I can definitely say that I’m not exactly sure what I want to do with my life/career so it’s always great to hear from other professionals or friends in interesting fields.

While the CBG team was in Las Cruces we also got to capture hawk moths! “Capture” meaning grabbing the docile beasts in our hands and unrolling their proboscis to swab them for pollen. It was ridiculous! First we settled near a Datura plant (a large, white flower perfect for the hawk moth’s long proboscis). Krissa and Wes unrolled a large white sheet onto a frame and illuminated it with a UV light.  Suddenly, little moths were flocking to the sheet.  “Surely one of these are a hawk moth!” I surmised. Wrong. A hawkmoth finally did show up and it was as large as a small bird.  I had no idea that a moth could get so large, it was quite an eye-opening experience.  Then, someone grabbed the hawkmoth gently while Krissa unrolled its long, shiny “tongue” with a needle and rubbed it with a slice of agar.  Later, she would burn off the agar and look at the pollen left on a slide.  This would tell her what flowers the hawkmoths had recently pollinated.  During all this I suddenly thought – if I think this is cool, everyone else would too!  Imagine how interested you could get kids in science and pollination if you showed them this!? (Or they would at least be excited by standing in the dark with a black light and probably freaking out passing motorists, like I was).

We sadly bid adieu to Krissa, Wes, and Sophia and then embarked on our monumental collection spree.  It’s been quite the month and I’m thoroughly tired and happy.  I can’t believe it’s been over two months! I’m excited for what’s to come and also to shatter our mentor’s goal of 25 seed collections.  Onward!

Peace out,


Out with the Old, In with the Green! And Other Short Stories.

A month has passed here in Las Cruces, NM and it’s made a world of difference. The sizzling, dry, fry-an-egg-on-the-asphalt heat has ended and the monsoon season has swept in in all its humid, thundering glory. While most of the country languished under a heat spell I laughed evilly at our good fortune of days in the high 80s! (Sorry, rest of country). Grasses and wildflowers are pushing themselves out of the soil and the ocotillos have leafed out. Green! Praise Gaia! Eli and I had been feeling somewhat pathetic about our two seed collections, but realized that the record number of collections for Las Cruces teams in July WERE only two. Onto brighter, greener things in August!
Besides the collections, we’ve had a few other interesting endeavors. Mike, our mentor, has been our guide on a grand tour of New Mexico! Using our GIS greenness index coupled with continuously updated precipitation data we’ve been to the Bootheel, Otero Mesa, Socorro, the plains of Augustine, Carlsbad, and Lordsburg (and everywhere in between) to monitor possible collections and look for green spots. I’ve learned that there is quite a formula to finding seeds: knowing what species are where, utilizing records of past collection locations and dates, monitoring rainfall and greenness, and scoping out locations while indulging in the finest gas station junk food.

In addition to getting a lay of the land, I’ve learned quite a bit about the multi-faceted nature of the BLM. Ranching on public lands is widespread throughout New Mexico and range management specialists appear to make up the majority of the BLM staff. If not managed properly, cattle can graze an allotment down to the dirt and the land suffers from erosion and invasion from unpleasant, inedible plant species. Especially in years of drought, like the last three in New Mexico, many ranchers let their stressed cattle overgraze public lands to the chagrin of many BLMers and the public. It’s annoying and depressing to drive through a dust storm and realize “there goes the topsoil” of the nearby field.

Another large stakeholder in public lands is the oil and gas industry. We just drove through a huge oil and gas field in Carlsbad first developed about seventy years ago. It’s a dramatically altered landscape, with wells and grasshopper-like pumps chugging away as far as the eye can see. Of course it’s not a beautiful sight, and one could easily say “This is horrible! Oil and gas development is horrible for the ecosystem!”. But I recognize the BLM’s efforts to keep the drilling concentrated when in theory, there could be wells spread out all over public lands. And as long as consumers demand petroleum and gas, someone has to provide them.

Also, we recently went to a meeting at the Santa Fe State Office where a private company (or mash of a few companies) was pitching its skills and resources in performing habitat restoration with native plant materials. It was incredibly interesting to hear the about their network of professionals (biologists, archeologists, landscape architects, etc.) and access to dozens of small nurseries focused on growing native, to-order plants for restoration. There were talks of restoring a farm in northern New Mexico as a demonstration garden focusing on restoration techniques and possibilities that the public and private sector could visit and reference. All in all, quite a few exciting things could be happening in terms of restoration in the near future.

One other thing from our trip to Santa Fe stuck out- I overheard a manager say, “If they aren’t mad at us-we obviously haven’t done our job!” He was jokingly referencing the difficulty in managing various stakeholders and their desires for the use of public lands. The interests of ranchers, energy companies, and recreation enthusiasts (and more) seem to rarely coincide (obviously). The BLM’s role in crafting use plans for its millions of acres of lands never completely pleases any stakeholder. But I can attest to the fact that BLMers are reasonable human beings who have to make tough calls when caught between various powerful interest groups.

On a more personal note, the last month has brought some difficulties as well. It’s hard to shift from college and being surrounded daily by friends to a completely new place and atmosphere. And other things are difficult too, like why won’t mom and dad pay my rent anymore?! (Haha, just kidding mother) My and Eli’s little isolated casita at the base of the Organ Mountains is gorgeous, but offers little possibility for human interaction. I’m starting to practice my harmonica, making epic desserts, planning cheese and bread-making, writing letters (oh my goodness people still do that?!), and enjoying every million-dollar sunset. It’s quite a change, but a good one and I’m sure it will only get better.
PS- Coolest place ever- the Very Large Array in the Plains of Augustine- makes me wish I was an astronomer!

The eensy weensy VLA (from far away)

Till August,

A Southwestern Summer Begins…

Well hello there all, this is my first post for the CLM internship – probably one of the very last “first” posts of the season!

Two weeks ago I arrived in Las Cruces, NM after a meditative two-day drive out from Southern California.  Throughout those couple of road days I observed my car’s temperature gauge break the three-digit number barrier and beyond! This was a sure sign that I was entering a summer in the Southwest.  I met up with my new partner in crime, Elisabeth, and we headed to our new BLM digs at the Dripping Springs Recreation Area.  To my surprise we drove out of town, up gravel roads and to the base of the looming Organ Mountains, where our little adobe casita awaited us.  We watched the glowing sunset over the entire city and then sat down to enjoy the show – lizards doing push-ups, deer timidly browsing, and the illuminated city lights. Talk about a million dollar view! (See my co-intern’s awesome pictures in her post).

The next couple days we toured the office and completed various safety trainings, and at night we explored Las Cruces.  I have a very strong inkling that we will be eating copious amounts of delicious Mexican food throughout these seven months if the last two weeks have been any indication.  Our proximity to the Mexican-American border provides many tasty opportunities, but comes with other interesting aspects.  Unlike many of our CLM counterparts in states north of us, we attended a lecture by a Border Patrol Officer.  He explained the importance of his agency’s  job, their means of action, and the most common situations they face during the workday.  He also explained to us how we should act if we come across any suspicious people or objects while working in the field. While I didn’t find this information alarming, it was still reassuring to be advised what to do by someone with lots of border patrol experience.

And soon enough we rolled through our first border patrol stop on the way to our first day of field work!  Our mission: to look for Dermatophyllum gaudalupense, Guadalupe mescal bean, a rare evergreen shrub that favors slightly gypsum soils on sandstone outcroppings.  We worked with the Carlsbad Field Office (hometown of the famous Carlsbad Caverns) to survey a few canyons and arroyos that seem to be suitable habitat for the plant.  We scurried up bone-dry stream beds, past spiny cacti, and spindly ocotillo.  It was in this remote place that the reality of this amazing opportunity and work environment struck me in the face.  I’m paid to do this?! I didn’t even mind that it was about 100 degrees outside, I was surveying and monitoring in the beautifully stark Chihuahuan desert scrub.

Unfortunately, we didn’t locate any unknown individuals but it provided me with a good opportunity to get comfortable with the land and the ecosystem.  We returned to this area the next week to collect plant samples from another rare species, Lepidospartum burgessii.  We worked with a post-doc from the Chicago Botanic Garden and used our polished GPS skills to locate individual plants, take cuttings for future propagation, and sample DNA.  It was an exhausting but fulfilling three days and a great start to the internship.  I’m excited for what’s in store next!