Pollination, Seed Collection, and Education – Oh My!

1 September – 30 September

September was another busy month for seed collection. However, I was able to find some time to do more than scour the desert for a small, purple aster (Machaeranthera canescens) and stuff its seeds into a manila envelope before the wind snatched them up. When I was not collecting seeds, I could still be found out in the field.

Just another day in the desert. It was cool and rainy on this day, which made for one special treat.

I think these cacti are adorable – except for when they stick to my boots and poke me in the bum as I squat down to collect seeds! Yowch! Unfortunately, that’s happened on more than one occasion…

Earlier in the month, I spent some time  in the Caribou-Targhee’s Curlew National Grassland for a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) monitoring project. The Curlew is a harsh, hot environment that has been trying to recover from the Dust Bowl. Yet a stream still manages to make its way through the desert. Along a portion of this stream is a population of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). This area is a prime monarch caterpillar habitat, as there are thousands of milkweed plants around and milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat. I have been out to this area multiple times with others from the office and the community to conduct monarch monitoring. The monarch butterfly holds a special place in my heart because I spent two years of my undergraduate degree researching the migratory population of monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains. I have enjoyed working on a project that I have a decent level of background knowledge on, especially after spending so much time trying to familiarize myself with the new projects of my internship. I also enjoy any opportunity to run around with a butterfly net. And, after hearing numerous adults laugh and shout with joy over each butterfly they caught or caterpillar they discovered, it is clear many others also enjoy chasing butterflies through a field.

Monarch (D. plexippus) caterpillar munching away on some  showy milkweed (A. speciosa).

If I wasn’t chasing butterflies or collecting seeds, I could be found working on environmental education projects. Throughout the month of September, I spent a couple of days a week at the Upper Mesa Falls visitor center northeast of Ashton, ID. Fourth grade school groups came out here to learn about the geology, hydrology, and history of the area, in addition to the program Every Kid in a Park. I led the students on plant walks and it was great to be around their enthusiasm and eager questions. I also think the Every Kid in a Park program is an awesome opportunity – every fourth grader in the nation gets a pass that allows them free entry to our national parks and monuments! The other education project I worked on has been a pollinator display for local libraries. The Idaho Falls USFS office has partnered with Pocatello’s Idaho Fish and Game office for this project. We recently completed setting up a display about native bees at the Marshall Public Library and it has been rewarding to see the whole project come together.

Upper Mesa Falls produces a rainbow every sunny morning and every clear night on a full moon! The Falls make for one incredible classroom.

If you find yourself at the Marshall Public Library in Pocatello, ID, please stop by and learn a bit about bees native to North America!

As Summer moves out and Autumn moves in, the field season has begun to wind down. It will be interesting to see what else I will be working on as my internship continues into November, but I am hoping I will get to spend quite a few more days out in the field.

Cheers to more adventures!

Shannon

USFS Idaho Falls, ID

More than Idaho

15 July – 12 August 2018

I have done quite a bit of traveling with this internship, which I find to be both exciting and troubling. This suburban Midwestern gal has meandered through the wild lands of Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah in the past three months. It’s been neat to discover various pieces of so many states in such a short time, but I am deeply conflicted by the amount of traveling this job requires. In all honesty, I find this internship to be a bit of a paradox. I understand climate change to be one of the reasons this internship exists: as the frequency and intensity of wildfires increase in the Western United States, it’s even more important to have a bank of diverse and native seed available for the restoration of the sagebrush steppe. (I have recently learned a “steppe” is a large area devoid of trees.) Despite this, I find it difficult to justify the amount of fossil fuels I must burn in order to accomplish my job. Sometimes I spend one-third to one-half of the work week in a vehicle. My ability to justify my gas-guzzling activities is only complicated when the areas I visit do not have large enough plant populations to collect seed from.

My frequent traveling began in mid-July, when I had the privilege of working with the region’s range crew. I was working with four men to monitor sites in the Curlew National Grassland for the control of leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), a noxious weed. We were assigned the task of returning to sites where beetles (Oberea erythrocephala and Apthona spp.) and sheep have been used to control leafy spurge. We had 12+ year-old photos of the habitat and the occasional GPS coordinates (which we soon learned were not very accurate…) to guide us to the sites, complete vegetation surveys and take some more photos. It was pretty dang cool to look down at a photo from 2006 showing a sea of leafy spurge and look up at the exact same landscape in 2018 and find very few leafy spurge plants. I guess the sheep and beetles have been doing their job. My favorite part was using sweep nets to scoop up and count the spurge-eating beetles. My least favorite part was the 4 hours of driving each day.

If it weren’t for biocontrol, this habitat would likely be a sea of yellow, due to the aggressiveness of leafy spurge. The yellow you see here is primarily from yellow rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus).

Oberea erythrocephala bores into the stems of leafy spurge; the Apthona spp. (not pictured) consume the leaves of the plant.

As the end of July rolled around, my Seeds of Success project began to get into full-swing and that’s when some serious traveling began. I have spent quite a bit of time working with a crew from the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Boise, which included Allison Buiser – another CLM intern! It’s always great to have company. Since I have been hunting wildflowers in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah, I have encountered cattle and sheep herds on the move, visited some neat geological areas like Balanced Rock and Little City of Rocks, traveled straight through the Humboldt National Forest in one day (possibly because of a missed turn…), climbed many slopes covered in loose rock, and even started dreaming about some of the species I need to collect seed from.

Machaeranthera canescens – one of the species I need to collect for Seeds of Success. I think this plant is cute, but it has haunted many of my dreams…

Several hundred sheep, seven dogs, two horses, and two shepherds creates a bit of a traffic jam on a Forest Service road. There were no casualties though!

Allison (right) and me (left) cheesin’ at Balanced Rock – we thought it looked like such a happy rock!

Little City of Rocks was an exciting place to explore. What do you see in these rocks?

Some 17-year-old gazetteers helped Allison and I navigate through the Humboldt National Forest. Kind of…

When Allison and I took a lunch break in the Humboldt National Forest, I couldn’t resist splashing into the stream. It had been so long since either of us had worked near a body of water.

There have been many disheartening days where I have not found any of the plants I am looking for. However, I usually finish the week with at least one population to collect seed from, which is definitely better than nothing. And while I am not fond of the amount of gas I burn in order to travel to all these sites, I am still excited to have been so many new places in such a short time.

Cheers to more adventures!

Shannon

USFS Idaho Falls, ID

Trailer Life

1 July – 14 July 2018

One of this summer’s new experiences includes living in a trailer in Idaho’s Snake River valley. I had difficulty finding a place to live in downtown Idaho Falls before I arrived here in June. However, since I am working with the US Forest Service, I am allowed to live in a trailer at the USDA Snake River Administrative Site. This option was not ideal, but I have found benefits to match the drawbacks of my living arrangements.

I have not tired of passing this view of the Snake River on my way ‘home’ from work.

I have never camped in a trailer before, let alone live in one for an extended period of time, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I decided not to hope for anything glamorous. In fact, I was eager to live in a quaint space. Upon first arriving at my trailer, I was pleasantly surprised with the setup. Sure, the window sills were loaded with fly carcasses, the floor could use a sweeping, and it smelled a bit stuffy inside, but I kind of expected that. Overall, the trailer seemed pretty spacious to me and it was decked out with a fridge, oven, 3-burner stove, and a microwave. There was even a shower in the bathroom! I had not been expecting to have all of those luxuries.

I have had a few battles with the trailer, such as a leaky roof when it rains, lost power, and hot water that lasts for exactly 2 minutes and 30 seconds in the shower (when the water heater decides to work). Maybe this isn’t the most comfortable lifestyle in America, but I really don’t mind. I haven’t quite mastered the art of showering under 2.5 minutes, but if I only turn the water on when I need it, I usually don’t have to worry about frigid showers and I’m reducing my water consumption! I think that’s pretty neat.

I am not fond of the 45 minute drive to Idaho Falls from my trailer – I am burning a lot of fossil fuels just to get to my office or the grocery store. I also have to deal with a plethora of oversized pickup trucks on the highway, none of which seem to be able to get to their destination fast enough. Despite this, I am happy to be in a beautiful area and to have access to numerous trails within an hour’s drive from my trailer.

The Palisades Trail is a 20 minute drive from my trailer – a gorgeous place for a long run!

Fall Creek Falls is three miles from my trailer, making it a great place to cool off during the hot Idaho summer days.

Cheers to many more adventures!

Shannon

USFS Idaho Falls, ID

Uprooted

11 June – 30 June 2018

Last December, as I began to ponder where I wanted my life to head after my upcoming graduation, I decided it would be a good idea to entirely uproot myself from familiar places and faces. That decision led me to apply for Chicago Botanic Garden’s CLM Internship and has since landed me in Idaho Falls, ID. I am from the Midwest. I have only been “out west” twice, so relocating to Idaho fit the bill of moving to the unfamiliar. As the start date for my internship approached, I told myself I was excited to scamper around the mountains of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, to learn about plants and ecosystems new to me, and to meet new people. This was true, I was excited for this opportunity, but I was also telling myself to be excited in an effort to ignore my anxiety of living in a new place without a single familiar soul around.

Since starting my internship, I have experienced some disorienting excitement. I happily dashed out to the field on Day 1 to help with vegetation surveys. I laughed as my coworker casually maneuvered our rig through a small herd of cattle lounging on the road. I smiled as our crew splashed back and forth across a small creek before ultimately deciding the weather would be good enough to safely conduct vegetation surveys in the field. I found it amazing to be greeted by the sights of foothills, cows, and vegetation. I certainly am not in the Midwest anymore. Yet beneath this joy lurked a slight fear in not recognizing any of the plants around me. My “help” with the vegetation survey mostly consisted of me asking everyone else what all the plants were in that area. Everyone graciously and patiently shared their knowledge with me.

It was great to get out in the field on my first day of work!

The next few days have already begun to blur together. I have spent many hours swimming in piles of paperwork that I hoped would be a little more straightforward than reality seems to allow and I have also happily spent more hours out in the field. I was able to follow a pair of entomologists around the Scout Mountain area as they conducted bee surveys, I have camped out in the field for work, and I am learning to identify the four wildflower species I am responsible for collecting seed from. Through it all, I am beginning to learn a bit about the flora, fauna, and people around me. I would not say Idaho Falls feels like home, but I am slowly becoming more familiar with the area and I am eager to learn more about the ecology of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.

Chaenactis douglasii – one of the four wildflower species I need to collect seed from.

Watching the sunset and moonrise from the top of a mountain is one of many perks associated with camping for work.

Cheers to many more adventures!

Shannon

USFS Idaho Falls, ID