Sagebrush Living

Adversity, evolutionarily speaking, shapes organisms over time, like a sculptor chisels a block of marble. Plants and animals must adapt to eat and reproduce in an unruly habitat that does not consider their comfort when it snows during the summer or when salty soils threaten the growth of desert sprouts. I thought a lot about the prospects of working in a harsh environment as I drove North into Wyoming from Colorado to start my internship with the Chicago Botanic Gardens. The disparities between the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and the sagebrush steppes of Wyoming are immense: dark green and amber hills fade into pale green and straw-colored plains. I looked forward to diving headfirst into a new town and region, despite still having my head in the Ponderosa pines of home.

Riding my bike back into Rawlins- its just over the hills!

I pulled into the local Taco-Johns of Rawlins Wyoming to meet Frank Blomquist, half wildlife biologist, half botanist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Rawlins Field Office. He directed me towards the “Barracks”, the recently renovated housing for BLM employees and my home for the next 5 months. The men’s building, consisting of ten bunk beds and two main rooms, made me sympathize with the other organisms of the surrounding sagebrush.

Frank, our mentor, showing us a sharp-tailed grouse lek

Once Monday came, however, I remember I had a job to do this summer. Rawlins, it turns out, is the epicenter of an amazing landscape. What I had envisioned to be an oppressed landscape is in reality a gorgeous and thriving ecosystem, hiding its gems from the interstate-80 drivers cruising through what they must see as a desolate wasteland.

Camouflaged cottontail stock-still among prickly pear (Opuntia sp.), budsage (Artemisia spinescens), and Gardner’s saltbush (Atriplex gardneri)

Frank and Ray Ogle, our two mentors for the summer, explain to Julia and I our internship responsibilities. The two of us must collect at least 10,000 seeds for twenty-five different collections. Botany has always been a personal interest and hobby of mine, but the prospect of collecting plants and seeds was (and is) both exciting and intimidating. After we find the species, make sure that they are ripe for seed collecting, and then collect flowering specimens and the associated 10,000-plus seeds, we will clean and prepare them for shipment to a seed bank. Ultimately the seed bank doles out the 10,000 seeds for research and conservation efforts, while the left over seeds return to Rawlins for other local restoration projects.

Ray and Julia keying out a tough species- turned out to be blue mustard, Chorispora tenella

Local restoration projects entail maintaining the public lands that oil and gas, cattle, wildlife, and recreation all share. In fact, BLM land was, and in some instances still is, considered to be the land that “no one else wanted”. Pioneers passed it up for more hospitable land farther west and ranchers also originally turned up their nose. The government even gave some of the land to the railroad companies to pay for the transcontinental railroad with the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, creating a legacy of the “checkerboard”: hundreds to thousands of one square-mile plots of land that alternate between public and private lands. Now, when traveling through the dirt tributaries of I-80, you would be hard pressed to find more than five miles of road without seeing evidence of oil and gas production.

A population of western wallflower (Erysimum asperum), notice the well-pad in the background

The public BLM lands are leased to oil and gas companies for drilling wells. Well-pads, as they call the area around the wells, roads, and other construction units disturb and shake up the soil enough so that invasive or unwanted plants move in and outcompete the plants that sage-grouse and pollinators rely on for nourishment, nesting sites, and shelter from predators.

Sage-grouse hen posing in front of her namesake, sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)

The native seeds that we collect will be sown within these disturbed sites, helping to maintain public land and a healthy ecosystem by limiting undesirable plants from taking over. Sage-grouse and pollinators, especially native bees, are species on the decline as their habitat disappears more each year. The seeds that we will collect have these species in mind.

Pronghorn running along the fences which seem to keep them from their friends on the other side, though they sometimes can crawl underneath the fence.

As of late, we have been scouting out the early seeding plants. The targets are members of the carrot family, also called apiaceae. If you have seen carrot leaves, then you would recognize the leaves of these species. One is called Lomatia foeniculaceum, or desert biscuitroot, and has small bright yellow flowers that call out to us among pale green leaves and cracking red soils. Already we have found a large population of L. foeniculaceum and collected several voucher specimens, important for pairing with the seeds and that serve as a way to make sure we collected the right species. The moniker “biscuitroot” is appropriate for this species, as it took nearly thirty minutes to carefully dig up the foot-long, chubby root and then to press it for drying.

Lomatium foeniculaceum

The other species are in the genus Cymopterus, the springparsleys. C. acaulis has been more elusive than C. bulbosus, but the latter has led us around nearly four hundred miles of sagebrush desert searching for flowering populations with enough individuals for collection. We think that we are either too early or too late in the hunt as a very small proportion of the C. bulbosus have flowered, and even fewer have produced seed. Most of what we have found are only leaves, barely peaking out of the cracks in the soil.

Cymopterus acaulis

We have been studying all the species of the area as well, and nothing excites me more than searching for one particular species while also being able to identify all the others underfoot. The species that I cannot identify, however, I defer to Julia, whose background is in botany. She recognizes species, new and old, as if she has run into old friends on the street. I would still have my face immersed in the plant-term glossary if it were not for her. For more elusive identifications, we ask Frank.

Young male mustang guarding the road

On top of collecting our share of seeds, there seems to be many enticing projects around the BLM office. These include pine needle collections for a study of whitebark pines, raptor nest monitoring, and more plant work with the BLM Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring Strategy group, or AIM.

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, notice the pointy tail

Coming from an ornithology background, I am also fascinated with the local birds. So far I have added some “lifers” to my list: Sage sparrows, Sage thrashers, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, Sage-grouse, and the Ferruginous hawk. As far as other wildlife goes, the Pronghorn antelope are always nearby and feral horses occasionally make an appearance. Most recently, I stumbled upon a “horny toad”, which is not a toad at all, but the lizard Phrynosoma hernandesi and the state reptile of Wyoming.

The “horny toad” sizing me up

As I learn about the species here in Southern Wyoming, both plants and animals, the region grows on me more each day. I’ve learned to embrace this small town off of the interstate and to focus on the plants of interest. Because as long as I have plants, animals, and places to explore, I can adapt to live just about anywhere. Over time, the botany has become easier and I look to the day when I can list off species’ names and attributes much like the botanists I work with.

Pronghorn everywhere!

 

Rawlins Field Office, Bureau of Land Management