The Labyrinth to Success

The Seeds of Success field season has begun by scouting sites where we may find large populations of our priority species.  Sites were carefully selected on a map, based on data such as previous seed collection locations, herbarium specimen locations, and desirable climate adapted traits.  However, the plants didn’t read the map.  Blooms shift based on a myriad of precipitation and seed bank characteristics, so may not reoccur or be found in anticipated locations.  This is where the scouting comes in to play.  The majority of my time has been spent navigating a maze of backroads. Each day, I delve deeper into the labrynth of nameless dirt access roads. It consists of named but unsigned roads, numbered signs that don’t appear on maps, roads on the map that no longer exist, and roads that are drawn on no map but mysteriously exist anyway.  By the end of the season in November, they shall exist in a mental map.

The end of the road for our Beeplant site. Just imagine the size of the flood that ate the road! We may have to bring in the UTVs and camping gear on the second attempt.

When I do leave the truck, the desert rewards a keen eye. The landscape may appear barren from a distance or while it passes by at 70 miles per hour, but in fact quite a bit of diversity can exist within feet of the tires.  Many of the species are unique to this area, so are especially rewarding to come across.

The flower is beginning to open on this federally threatened Sclerocactus in the Uinta Basin.

Uinta Basin Spring-Parsley (Cymopteras dushesnensis) is one of 50 or so species that are endemic to the Uinta Basin.

Field Excursions

This month focused on the creation of a priority species list for this season’s seed collections.  It consisted of a delicate balance between native plant communities of anticipated future reclamation needs, competition with invasive weeds, erosion control, pollinator habitat, seed market needs, and the overall needs of the Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program.  Inclement weather and completion of the priority list have been limiting factors for ventures into the field.  As the rains have receded, roads dried, and the list solidified, the desert has become more inviting to field work.  In an effort to maximize my time at the Vernal Field Office, I have expressed interest in accompanying the field excursions of a variety of specialties, including botany, paleontology, and law enforcement. Recently I took part in surveys for reported fossils as well as endemic species of yucca, cacti, and beardtongue. In addition to exploring career paths and learning BLM methodology, these field days were valuable opportunities to orient myself in the varied landscape and become familiar with the flora. As the season progresses, my time in the field will be increasing. I am about to start scouting potential seed collection sites, and will continue to pursue field excursions with multiple specialties.

Asteraceae through the loupe

Old Growth Sclerocactus alongside the next generation

Close-up of Sarcobatus vermiculatus (Greasewood)

View from the survey location of a potential gravel pit site

Native Pollination in action, this Astragalus chamaeleuce has a Bombus visitor

This herd was on a site as we surveyed it for the presence of Sclerocactus, a threatened native plant. As domesticated horses have escaped captivity or been abandoned on public land, some survive and reproduce to create feral herds. Feral horses can be detrimental to native sensitive plant species by trampling vegetation, overgrazing, and altering soil properties. Their impacts differ from native large ungulates and livestock because they aren’t limited by hunters, natural predators, or grazing permits.

Where is Vernal?

The right seed, in the right place, at the right time.  This straight-forward goal was synthesized by the Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program, at a conference in Monticello, Utah. It assimilated a broad range of presentations, including the latest research on local plant genetics intertwined with climate variability, new conservation technology, and agronomic requirements for successful seed production. This simplistic goal resulted from a conversation of the various stakeholders involved with collection and production of native plants for habitat restoration.  Often, the center stage of this conversation was Vernal, UT.

I have been an intern with the Bureau of Land Management in Vernal now for several weeks. During that time, I was able to attend the conference in Monticello and see where Vernal lies in the big picture of native plant restoration.  When I first arrived in my new habitat, the local flora was covered with two feet of snow after what had been an unusual winter.  However, I have learned it is a botanically interesting region due to roughly fifty endemic species associated with local geology, especially the oil-shale.  The energy sector also finds this area very interesting. Consequently, there are abundant future reclamation needs. The anticipated demand for native seeds played a key role in Vernal’s place at the conference.

While the snow melted, I compiled data to answer the question of “what seed?” I have become acquainted with the local flora of the herbarium and their locations on a map. However, I got my first taste of the field today, checking on seedlings of a milkvetch species that is endemic to a particular bend of the Green River.  The tiny seedlings were exciting to find and identify, being that they are so unique to that location. The landscape was enamoring, and I look forward to a season of discovering its hidden gems.

A view of the Uinta Mountains

Endemic Astragalus species

Endemic Astragalus species

Budsage… enamoring landscape in the background