This plant was one member of the new population of blowout penstemon we found.
As I approach the end of this internship, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on new perspectives I’ve gained working here at the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database (the Natural Heritage program for the state). Most of the field work that I’ve been doing this summer has been combing sand dunes searching for Penstemon haydenii, a threatened perennial forb, and Elymus simplex var. luxurians, an endemic grass. Both grow in sand dune habitats, but so far we have not found that their ranges overlap. Spending so much time in one specific habitat has really tuned me on to not just the plants that grow in this type of ecosystem, but also the animals that are here. My mentor and I, in an effort to help out the invertebrate biologist we work with, collected beetles that have never been documented in this part of the state. We also noticed some toads crossing the dunes the morning after a rainstorm. We took pictures and it turns out that these toads are a species of concern as well; the data we took will be valuable for herpetologists here. I have very much enjoyed working with so many knowledgeable biologists who are willing and excited to talk about their areas of expertise and lend a hand in others’ projects when they can. Sand dune environments often harbor species of concern – opening my eyes to the animal species of concern has made this an even richer experience. Although plants are still absolutely the most interesting part of the ecosystem for me, I am seeing the value in being well-rounded. There is so much land out there and so few biologists to cover it, we’ve got to help each other out.
I’ve had an excellent time in this internship and would absolutely recommend this program to anyone interested in getting into the field of botany or natural resources.
Wetland in the middle of sand dunes. The endemic grass we were searching for growing around it.
Spadefoot toad, about to bury itself in the sand.
Elk on the dunes.
In my last blog post, I wrote about the discovery of blowout penstemon in Wyoming. Briefly, blowout penstemon is a Wyoming and Nebraska endemic that grows only on blowout sand dunes; it’s federally listed under the Endangered Species Act. A big part of my internship is helping to find and document more populations or lack thereof.
Since I wrote last, I had the chance to do some field work documenting the number of individuals in the Wyoming type locality population and searching nearby sand dunes for more. I was in the field with several people who are very knowledgeable about the history and status of conservation of blowout penstemon. I learned that the populations in Nebraska face different threats than the populations in Wyoming. Land management in Nebraska has promoted “healing” of the blowouts by promoting vegetation growth in the sane and in some cases reshaping the dunes. The blowout sand dune habitat is inherently unstable; it is subject to high winds that can erode some vegetated areas and bury others. Healing the dunes makes them more stable and deceases the chance that the dunes will shift and cover a road or otherwise interfere with development. This practice, however, significantly decreases suitable blowout penstemon habitat. This penstemon needs sparsely vegetated, relatively recently disturbed habitat to survive. Harsh weather and shifting substrates are barriers the plant has evolved to deal with, but competition is not. Habitat decline due to blowout healing is a major threat in Nebraska, but in Wyoming there have been no attempts to heal dunes. Because the populations face different threats, the effective management is different for each state.
I had a great time censusing one of the known populations with my mentor from the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, the Wildlife and Botanist person from the BLM, a Biologist from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and another CLM intern. We also looked for new populations but have found any more – yet. Here are a few pictures from the dunes:
There are four vascular plant species in Wyoming protected under the Endangered Species Act, and arguable the most charismatic of them is blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii). This showy, fragrant species has an extremely narrow habitat range; in Wyoming it is only known to occur on the vegetated, leeward sides of blowouts within sand dune habitat.
Blowout penstemon was thought to occur only on some sand dunes in Nebraska until BLM botanist Frank Blomquist found a population in Wyoming in 1996. The story goes that he stopped on the sand dunes for a lunch break and, while he was sitting there, noticed a penstemon species he wasn’t familiar with. This summer I’ll have the exciting opportunity to do some blowout penstemon monitoring with Frank, and I’m looking forward to hearing the story from his mouth.
A wasp visits a blowout penstemon flower
Since it’s discovery within the state in 1996, there has been a lot of work done to collect data on the three known populations of blowout penstemon in Wyoming. However, there are still many square miles of sand dune habitat that remain unsurveyed. A big part of my internship so far has been searching aerial photos in ArcMap for habitat that looks similar to that of the known occurrences. When the plants start to flower in June my mentor and I, along with some folks from the BLM Rawlins field office, will be searching the areas I identified in order to find undocumented populations. I feel like I know the area well from looking at aerial photos, but I’m excited to see it in person.
My mentor here at the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database (WYNDD – the natural heritage program for the state of Wyoming) has shared a lot of stories with me about how certain rare species or populations of species were originally discovered. A recurring pattern is that people who know the flora of the state really well see something different that catches their attention and it turns out to be a rare species – kind of like what happened with Frank Blomquist and blowout penstemon. This is extremely inspiring to me. I think that a lot people (including myself) probably encounter rare plants more often than they think but don’t have the baseline knowledge to know whether they are rare or not. The more well-trained botanists there are, the better we can get a grasp on where sensitive plants occur in order to more effectively manage their populations.
I’m planning my next post for right after the blowout penstemon survey; I hope to be able to report back that we found some more populations.