Surveying for (and finding!) blowout penstemon

Two additional populations of blowout penstemon were found in central Wyoming, by a few hardworking and dedicated CBG interns.  Yep, I happen to be one of those interns.

For me, it all started on a cold, wet July morning in Rawlins, WY.  I was to meet two other people at the old “town” of Ferris.  Down a winding two-track road I drove, with some bluegrass on the radio and the Ferris Mountains guiding my way.  I finally met up with my group after a few miles and got out of the government rig to talk about our strategy for surveying the surrounding sand dunes for occupied blowout penstemon habitat.  After some discussion it was decided that I would trek around with Emma, a CBG intern based out of Laramie, WY.  Emma has spent much time looking at aerial photos of Aeolian (wind-derived) sand deposits in the state, with the goal of mapping all potential habitat for blowout penstemon in the state.

After stuffing some rain gear, food and water into our packs, Emma and I headed towards the sand dunes that are scattered across the valley south of the Ferris Mountains.  With the storm clouds building above us we made a pact to head back to the trucks if the rain became a nuisance.  I had been out with Emma before scouting for blowout penstemon and had no luck, so I was unprepared to almost step directly on a plant less than 1 mile from where I left my truck.  It was at this time that rain drops began to fall.  After a high-five, we got out our pencils and paper, threw on our rain gear, and started to systematically survey the sand dune.  Within 10 minutes we were soaked, and had only found a few additional plants.  We discussed our pact about quitting once the rain became a nuisance, which it had become, but decided to keep on scouting for additional plants.  After a few hours, we were smeared with sand, our fingers were turning blue, BUT we had found over 80 blowout penstemon plants that have never been documented before in the area.  As we made our way back, the clouds began to break and by the time we arrived back to our trucks the sun was fully out.   We ate a late lunch, with our bare feet basking in the sun and our boots and socks strewn across the hood of the trucks to dry out.  It was a good day.

Beyond surveying, still working on updating the statewide programmatic biological assessment for blowout penstemon in WY and preparing for a meeting with the USFWS next week….


Surveying for blowout penstemon in the sand dunes of central Wyoming.

"Town" of Ferris, WY.

Endangered species in the high desert of WY

I am excited to be working with the BLM this summer in Wyoming to update a programmatic biological assessment (BA) for the plant species Penstemon haydenii or blowout penstemon (BP).  BP was listed as an endangered species in 1987, and was originally thought to be endemic to Nebraska.  In 1996, my mentor Frank Blomquist, observed the species on sand dunes north of Rawlins, WY in the foothills near Bradley Peak in Carbon County.  However, this was a rediscovery of BP as historic collections were made during the Hayden expedition in 1877 from Casper to Rawlins.

Since its initial discovery in the foothills of Bradley Peak, other populations of BP have been observed in wind-driven environments, such as sand dunes and blowouts in Carbon County, WY.  Total plant numbers at each site fluctuate each year based on physical and biological factors including spring precipitation, vegetation cover and browsing by range animals such as pronghorn antelope and domestic livestock.  These factors make monitoring and surveying life-history traits challenging for biologists charged with the task to delineate protective measures for known populations.  Additionally, since BP habitat is unstable biologists must be vigilant in mapping and surveying wind-driven habitat throughout the state to account for new BP populations that may occur.

Blowout penstemon is listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act and as such the BLM is required to write up a BA for the species to assess how BLM management actions could affect known and potential BP habitat.  This BA must then be sent to United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for a “consultation”.  During the consultation FWS will draft a biologic opinion (BO), which is meant to ensure that protective measures and management actions listed in the BA by the BLM are ecologically appropriate and logically rationalized to protect BP habitat.

This is where I fit into the picture.  A final BA draft for BP has yet to be finalized in WY as new concerns have arisen regarding the development of wind farms.  Unfortunately there is a lack of information concerning how wind farms might impact BP habitat both directly and indirectly.  A few studies have shown that wind farms create microclimates altering wind patterns and speed, which could then affect BP habitat through changes in the creation of new sand dunes and/or blowouts.  Further, wind farms could impact BP pollinators such as bees, which could have negative consequences for BP population stability in the long-term.  I will be working with both the BLM and FWS to update the BP assessment to include potential impacts to BP habitat from wind energy development in WY.  This will be a challenging task given the general lack of knowledge concerning wind turbine effects on the surrounding landscape and the rapid pace at which the industry is developing.

Next week I will be working with another CBG intern surveying BP for population counts.  I am very much looking forward to these field days as BP will be the first endangered plant species I have ever seen in person!  I will share this experience in my next blog post, hopefully with positive news (existing population increases, new population occurrences, etc.) and pictures of BP in flower.