Scoring Milkweed

My recent endeavors in the Natural State have lead me in a pursuit of collecting the Monarch-necessary Milkweeds.  Monarchs have experienced a sharp decline in the most recent decades due to an array of pressures.  These pressures range from habitat loss, due to the agricultural-related land management, to droughts influenced by climate change. Given that Arkansas lies within the spring breeding area, it is becoming increasingly apparent that an initiative to assure the ample supply of Milkweed is placed in motion.  Monarch’s not only rely on Milkweeds for nectar sources to complete their migration journey (from Canada and North America to the Oyamel Fir forests in central Mexico in the fall) but as a site to lay their eggs – they are the only species Monarch’s prefer.  Additionally, as the offspring emerge, the plant serves as a source of nourishment.   It may confidently be stated that Milkweeds are essential for their survival.

The project I have been working on is establishing a Milkweed plot.  The necessary requirements lie with not only sourcing a location, but sourcing seeds possessing the local genotype.  Recently, individual gardeners, homeowners, etc, who have decided to plant Milkweeds (be it aesthetics purposes, or a desire to attract Monarchs) have unfortunately planted Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), which flowers at incompatible times of the year, deterring Monarch’s from remaining on their crucial migration path, but it also carries a parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, which infects the chrysalis, imposing on the health and success of the developing butterflies.  Often, these infections render the emerging Monarch less fit, reducing their chances of completing the migration and breaking the delicate link.

I’ve taken it upon myself to search for Milkweeds within the Ozark-St. Francis forests through an efforts driving to various locations, and with the much appreciated assistance of Forest Service employees who have caught sight of Milkweeds during their own projects. After recording the location of spotted populations I have either collected the pods, or tagged under-developed pods, with intentions of returning at a later date.

With these seeds, I plan on planting them into the aforementioned Milkweed plot, in hopes of creating a seed source. This source will prove as a living bank, which may be utilized to rehabilitate populations within restoration areas amongst the forest.  This plot will be placed within close proximity to one of the district offices.  The easily accessible location will assure that routine maintenance will be manageable, and time-efficient.

It is my hope that this project will serve as a pivotal addition to the Ozark-St. Francis district, providing a tool for restoration as well as emphasizing genetic security.

Below are photos of a Monarch, as well as a caterpillar spotted on Asclepias incarnate, while collecting pods!

“We Can’t Stop Here, This is Bat Country”

Upon my second month immersed into the Forest Service, I’ve quickly gathered dull weeks do not exist. Since the summer’s been welcomed like an old friend, and decidedly not leaving in any rush, summer-sensitive projects have begun. And similar to visiting with old friends, you wish to do as much as possible in as little time as possible. It’s a shame, yeah? Regardless of the time constraint, the days are brimming with activities.
One activity I quickly grew partial to, almost immediately upon hearing of it, was bat netting. As many species of animals, summer months are of their most active. Prey is abundant, as well as the bats. At least one would think. Bat species present, specifically the tree-roosting Northern Long-Eared, and Tri-Colored bats, in Arkansas have experienced a sharp decline in numbers due to an outbreak of White Nose Syndrome. Due to this steady decline, bat monitoring has become increasingly crucial to analyze the success of these populations – or lack thereof.
In addition to this devastating punch, forest and timber management is still expected to be conducted. However, this poses a great threat in the face of declining numbers. The aforementioned bats roost, and forage in these tree stands. If they are battling an infectious outbreak, as well as becoming subject to timber management, the disturbance to said suffering populations may prevent the remaining individuals from having a fighting chance.
Lastly, it is still largely unknown what services bats truly provide. It is this same lack of solid, cohesive information that leaves no foundation for further investigations into the importance of bats in the ecosystem. Without this information, timber management may carry on, unbeknownst of the damage it may cause to suffering populations. So, the main objective is to document, monitor, and study the activities, and presence of bats in the forest stands across the forest. The netting provides quantitative information on how many individuals are utilizing the space. Comparing this season’s with past-season’s findings may suggest the current success of said species of concern.
The night of the netting was a night one could describe as most ideal, if not exemplary. Great for the bats, and us as well. After pitching the large, incredibly fine, almost tennis-like nets, (which can be noted in the last photograph), the game of biding time began. You could describe the experience like fishing. Patience, eagerness, and witty conversation are necessary. The only exception being you don’t need a rabies shot to handle fish. You could imagine the dismay that rushed over me upon hearing that small piece of information.
Looking back at the experience however, it was probably for the better – I don’t know if I would have been able to let go of these incredibly cute creatures of the night.

The Natural State

Upon my late arrival across the Arkansas border, after driving a short 2-day drive from New Hampshire, I was swiftly confronted by high winds, heavy rain, tumultuous thunder, and threat of a tornado, (which I shortly learned was nothing out of the ordinary for the Natural State – lovely, isn’t it?). I remarked, “Thanks for the hearty greeting, Arkansas – glad to make your acquaintance, too”.
Within my first week, the clamorous episode I had experienced that night began to reflect my emotional state. I felt vivid strokes of enthusiasm followed by weighted anxiety reaching depths I had never wished to explore. In a land obscured by canopy, and my obliviousness of the world beyond my home town, it felt as if I uncovered my own “City of Z”. However, unlike the unfortunate assumed fate of Percy Fawcett, the ensuing days were brimming with the firm handshakes and animated faced of many, all willing to assist in my transition. Through what began to be a routine conversation of “what brings you down here?”, “New Hampshire? Oh, just right down the road, yeah?”, and “How do you like the humidity?” I shortly grew comfortable (as well as a fine layer of sweat), with the community I would be spending the following months with.
Given the arduous efforts to complete HR protocols, and other seemingly innumerable procedures to be recognized in the system, receive a government license, etc, I spent my first few weeks tagging along with various individuals to assist in conducting biological evaluations, surveys, and other projects in the district. This allowed me to receive an understanding for the local environments, ecosystems, and flora that are present. Not to mention an understanding just how very cold, and very dry Arkansas weather is…
A few projects that illustrated the successful restoration efforts the Forest Service has embarked on is the use of prescribed fires in disturbed, and previously unmanaged environments, fraught with ill-motivated invasive species. Interestingly, I learned of how some of the plots had formed into what they are today – agricultural lands abandoned after financial pressures of farmers reached too grand of a scale. These previously open, and breathable plains were subject to encroaching invasive species, sinking their roots in vulnerable, fertile soils, inviting others to join the party. The kinds who bring friends who trash the place, eating all of the provisions. However, through the application of fire and selective cuttings, even an untrained eye can recognize the significant improvements present. Native species are experiencing a triumphant return, as well as the soils, landscape, etc – the starkness creates such a contrast that burned, and unburned sites do not appear to belong to the same plot of land. Not even of the same region.
Additionally, among these native species are the lesser studied grasses. In efforts to enhance our knowledge of grasses, their diversity, as well as their minute taxonomy, our office, including others in the district, attended a course, which was wonderfully organized by my mentor, Jessica Hawkins. The photos attached to this post capture a glimpse of how the course was conducted, and what the attendees gained. Thoughtfully, notebooks were provided, which were filled with specimens located in the restoration fields. Notes were scratched, grasses were taped, heat was felt, but much needed knowledge was acquired. In total, 46 species were marked! (That was our location alone – just one restoration area). Now we are all equipped with a personalized grass ID field book, and they’re fantastic.
I must say, I never imagined the complexities noted, and exhibited by the locally present grasses. Often disregarded and viewed as a homogenous green mass we either walk through, or drive by daily, my newfound appreciation for grasses has bloomed. Mowing will now become a problem…
Needless to say, I am looking forward to the months to come, and what they include. I’m elated with the way this month has unfolded.

Corey Skeens

USFS Russellville, AR