Summer Rain

It’s monsoon season here in Cedar City. For us intrepid field workers, this more often than not means watching it rain a dozen miles away while we bake in the sun. Sometimes, however, it can be quite the opposite. On Tuesday morning this week, we found ourselves drenched to the bone and pelted by pea-sized hail as we sprinted back to our truck from the field. Regardless of where the storms are happening, they are quite the spectacle to behold. Like everything else out here, they are (usually) reduced in comparison to the vast scale of the landscape. It is something entirely new for me to watch, from a distance, as a cloud literally falls to the ground. With the rain comes lightning in abundance, and with the lightning comes fire. There is something about watching a mountain burn which evokes a kind of fear that feels very old. When I imagine my ancient ancestors and how wildfires would have threatened their lives and livelihoods this makes a lot of sense to me.

Water and fire are hardly the only dangers out here. On another Tuesday (Tuesdays are hard for me)  I found myself alone in a remote corner of our field office, in a radio dead zone, the sun going down and a storm approaching in the distance. My partner and I were hanging sage grouse reflectors, which are small pieces of plastic which you attatch to fences to increase visibility and decrease the chance of animals (like sage grouse) hurting themselves. We had split up to cover more ground, grossly underestimating the amount of fence we had to treat. This of course was the moment when I ran out of water. After several tense minutes of unsuccessful attempts, I was able to raise my counterpart on the radio and put together a plan of where to meet (we do that beforehand now). As I slogged my way to the meeting point, hauling my equipment with me and keeping an eye on the approaching storm, I heard an unusual noise that stopped me in my tracks.

Rattlesnakes do not all sound like they do in the movies. This rattle was very high pitched and sharp, a short burst of sound not unlike a cicada or some other insect. The rattles’ owner did not seem particularly happy with my approach, with its head raised and its eyes centered on me. I took the point, backed away slowly, and the snake continued on its way cautiously. I gave it a wide berth and continued on my own.

This short but intense encounter gave me another taste of that primal fear that we as a species have evolved with, but it also left me with a profound gratitude for the evolutionary pressures which led to that unique organ that rattlesnakes wield. What if this had been some other snake, less noisy but equally venomous? When you think about it, it’s really quite nice of these snakes to warn us of their potentially deadly presence before finding it necessary to resort to violence. I’ll take a rattlesnake over a cobra or a copperhead any day of the week.

This kind of experience is, of course, a rare part of my job out here. Most of my time in the past month has been spent combing over different field sites for signs (usually fecal) of its inhabitants prior to a scheduled development of some sort. You might think that walking four miles along a proposed fence line in the midday sun, eyes trained on the immediate area around you, would be hard monotonous work, and it is, but every day I’m out there I find something new, be it as small and simple as some pretty mineral (there’s obsidian everywhere!) or a hummingbird I never expected to see, or watching a flock of over a hundred pinion jays fly by, making their laughing cries. This place continues to amaze me, and I can’t wait to see what it will show me next.


Waiting for Rain in Farmington

Lately we’ve been spending a good deal of our time thinking about the rain. Northwest New Mexico is currently experiencing what the USDA calls “extreme drought” (for more information about current drought conditions across the U.S. visit this website) and everyone here is holding their breath to see what this monsoon season will bring. Areas outside of Farmington are definitely getting some rain; we can see thunderstorms in the distance and some of our field sites are currently inaccessible due to flash flood conditions from rain that fell in the La Plata Mountains and elsewhere. For now, though, the plants in our district are still very, very thirsty.

Despite the drought, we have been able to make several collections from some very hardy plants. Last week we made a  robust collection of Hetrotheca villosa (false hairy goldenaster) from a population that is holding on to life in a dry wash. This species is especially fun to collect because the mature seed heads are similar to dandelions and are most easily collected using a handheld Dustbuster vacuum.

Heterotheca villosa (false hairy goldenaster) -- one of the target species for the Colorado Plateau Ecoregion.

Heterotheca villosa (false hairy goldenaster) — one of the target species for the Colorado Plateau Ecoregion.

We also made our second collection of evening primroses for Dr. Krissa Skogen’s research on the Onagraceae family (more information about her research can be found here). We found a population of Oenothera pallida ssp. runcinata (pale evening primrose) along a shallow wash a few weeks ago, when the water was barely running. When we returned earlier this week, we could see that the floodwaters had risen dramatically and an area that had previously been dry land was covered in about two feet of water before receding again. Despite being caught in the flood, the little Oenothera were still hanging on! We really enjoy the opportunity to contribute to Dr. Skogen’s research and hope to spot more Onagraceae species.

Oenothera pallida ssp. runcinata (pale evening primrose). If you look closely you may be able to spot some hawk moth scales on the flower's stigma.

Oenothera pallida ssp. runcinata (pale evening primrose). If you look closely you may be able to spot some hawk moth scales on the flower’s stigma.

One thing we  learned is that this is the season for baby horned lizards (also called horny toads). We’re really excited about this because most lizards are too fast too catch, but horned lizards are so pudgy that they are easy to scoop up as they waddle along. So far, we’ve caught several babies as well as a full-grown adult. The adult is about the size of my palm, while some of the smallest young lizards are smaller than my thumbnail. Finding horned lizards is considered good luck by the Navajo, so we’re hoping that it’s a good omen that we’ve been encountering so many.

An adult Phrynosoma hernandesi (greater short-horned lizard)

An adult Phrynosoma hernandesi (greater short-horned lizard)

A newborn Phrynosomo hernandesi (greater short-horned lizard). Compare the size with the adult pictured above!

A newborn Phrynosoma hernandesi (greater short-horned lizard). Compare the size with the adult pictured above! Photo courtesy of Tess Johnstone.

We recently had the privilege to meet Dr. Richard Lee, one of the authors of the book Weeds of the West. Unbeknownst to us, Dr. Lee teaches a short course on invasive plants in Farmington every summer. It turns out that we live in a veritable invasive plant mecca! He came into town with a truck full of invasive plants that we stored in my cubicle and he was kind enough to invite us on his guided tour of invasive plants in the area. It was very useful to learn more about invasive plant species and definitely helped me learn what to look out for in the field.

My cubicle became a junge of invasive thistles, knapweeds and others for the day!

My cubicle turned into a junge of a wide variety of invasive thistles, knapweeds and others for the day.

We hope to be very busy in a few weeks after we (hopefully) have some good rain and the plants perk up. In the meantime, do a rain dance for us!

Goodbye Dos Palmas

Alright! So this is my real, final blog post. Not like that one from earlier in the month, that was just a practice. So, dear readers, what were my goals and expectations for this internship when I joined up, all the way back in March?

Well, my main goal was to learn as much as possible. I am, always have been, and always will be an enormous geek, wanting to learn as much as I can about the things that interest me. On that, I can definitely say I have succeeded. The CLM program has given me an amazing opportunity to learn about desert ecosystems, about life working for the Feds, and about essential land management skills. My plant ID skills have greatly improved, I got some great experience with vegetation and invasive species surveys, with seed collection, with herbicide use. Unlike most interns, I was mostly working in one particular area, but my mentor let me assist others around the office, so I do think I got to see enough of what goes on in this BLM office. All totaled I definitely got lots of great experience, and a new centerpiece for my resume.

I was also hoping to be able to stay with the BLM for a little while longer, but that was not an option. There’s just not enough money to go around. In my time here I’ve seen several people more qualified than me struggle to keep their jobs, and despite my mentor’s efforts, there isn’t any funding for me to continue on here. Obviously, I always knew this particular goal was a stretch and would have a lot to do with luck, so I’m not too disappointed. And on the bright side, I’ve just accepted a job with The Wetlands Initiative, a non-profit habitat restoration organization based in my home state of Illinois. I’m very excited about that job, and looking forward to getting started.

All in all, I have been very happy with my experiences with the CLM internship program. I’ve learned a lot, picked up some great work experience, and got to spend some time getting to know an incredible part of the world.


Klamath Falls, OR

The past few weeks have been busy. During most of the second week of July I got to assist with bull trout surveys. They were at a site about an hour and a half out of town and because of the heat we wanted to start early each morning, so we camped at a site close by and were able to enjoy the mountains and rivers for a few days. The surveys consisted of electro-shocking the river, catching the trout that we could, and then weighing, measuring,, tagging, and releasing them. The data is used to see if fish are utilizing, and returning to, sites that were restored over the past few years.

P7092671 P7092672 P7092674

The week after that I took a motorboat operator certification course offered by the Department of the Interior, and required by the government in order to operate federal boats. It was three days long and consisted of a few lectures as well as knot tying, rescue procedures, maneuvering drills, and driving with a trailer.

The past two weeks have been filled with data collection and water quality monitoring. The dissolved oxygen keeps moving to our threshold value, but hasn’t quite bottomed out yet, so we’ve been keeping a close eye on it and getting the aeration systems ready to go should we need to start them up to increase the DO. Next steps are to sample the fish that we have to see what percent are the suckers, and try to keep them healthy for the rest of the season!

Seed Collecting in Grand Staircase/Escalante

Hello all!
Not a whole lot to report, working mostly on data collection at Rio Mesa Center for my Master’s project and when I’m not doing that I’ve been working on a database of restoration projects monitored by the Watershed Restoration Initiative in the Colorado Plateau. More info can be found here: The hope is to use this database to track which species and cultivars are being used for restoration and be able to measure the effectiveness of these seeding efforts based on pre and post treatment monitoring data. This weekend I’m going back to Grand Staircase/Escalante to collect Heterotheca villosa for another master’s student’s thesis, which I’m pretty excited about. Here’s some photos of the last time we were there doing some SOS/research collections:

Our awesome REU intern, Lisa Hintz

Our awesome REU intern, Lisa Hintz


Sandy Hills and Moonworts

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Astragalus ceramicus at the Sandhills in Centennial Valley

Lots has been happening here in Dillon and the internship is going quite well.  My mentor and I have made eight collections for SOS already.  I love Montana and often find myself in awe of the immense amount of open spaces and wildlife Montana has to offer.  I even took to liking country music, mostly the old stuff like Dolly Parton.

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Cool mutation in this Aster — click on the photo & you’ll notice it’s conjoined twins.

Beside collecting for SOS I have been fortunate enough to participate in lots of different monitoring and projects.  Last week my mentor and I helped the Nature Conservancy folks monitor a very unique system of Sand hills in Montana’s Centennial Valley.  It’s one of these weird systems where disturbance, over-grazing and uprooting plants is a GOOD thing because it creates ‘blow-outs’.

Blow-outs are basically exposed hills of sand.  It’s best if there’s not a lot of grass stabilizing the blow-outs, because several sensitive plant species and insects thrive on the disturbance the moving sand creates.The BLM and Nature Conservancy are closely monitoring the sand hills using fire, over-grazing, and other techniques to keep the disturbance rate high.  When we were there we monitored the frequency of bunch grass, rhizomatous grass, and a scruff pea.  A Nature Conservancy fellow and myself got in a bit of a skirmish about the pronunciation of ‘rhizomatous’.  He said ‘rhizomanous’ and I said ‘rhizomatous’.  We eventually came to the conclusion ‘tomato’ ‘tomahto’ although according to google I am right. The endemic species in sand hill system were absolutely incredible.  Especially stunning was this type of Astragalus specialized to live in the sand hills called Astragalus ceramicus.


They look like little easter eggs hanging from stems with linear leaves– not your typical Astragalus.

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Wetland Plant training with the Heritage Foundation

The photo above is from a very helpful riparian plant training along the Beaverhead River with the Heritage Foundation.

Most recently I went to an amazing training on Moonworts.


Moonworts, also known as Botrychium, are plants from before the dinosaurs related to the ferns. The dust from their spores is said to have powers to make people invisible. The entire plant family of moonworts was largely forgotten until the 1980’s when University of Michigan biologists Herb and Florence Wagner dedicated roughly ten years to looking for them. They are mostly found in moist meadows of the Rocky Mountains. Their chloroplasts are like our appendix…. inactive. They get all the need from fungus and the entire plant is considered one leaf. The Forest Service had a training with Moonwort Specialist Steve Popovich and I was honored to participate.



Spring to Summer in the Cowboy State

Things are heating up here in Lander, Wyoming!  One of the perks of being out in the field most every day is that you get an intimate view of the seasonal progression.  When I first got to Wyoming I was blown away by the wildflowers.  Fields dominated by Balsam Root littered with patches of dainty Sego Lily and scattered Larkspurs made me think I was living in a post card!  A wet fall was the cause of this forb-ilicious spring.  I consider this first half of my internship as my “reconnaissance” phase.  I spent most of my time driving around the field office on the hunt for my plants and then visiting them about once a week. A lot of my time in the office is spent keying out unknown plants supplied by myself and everyone else in the office.  I could not have been in Wyoming for a better spring.

As the spring showers slow down the dry summer heat amps up and my fields of flowers turn into fields of brown grass.  The month of July has been a race against time to collect all the seeds before they drop, and believe me, those seeds don’t collect themselves!  I’ve completed around 10 collections so far with more coming in every week!  It has been a great year for grasses too!  As the spring time flowers are seeding out, the grasses are getting ready to drop too.  Grasses are certainly not as glamorous as the showy forbes, but are equally as important.

As time marches on my list of favorite flowers grows and changes depending on their seed productivity.  Lately I’ve been a huge fan of the prolific Northwestern Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia), while the increasingly unfriendly Miner’s Candle (Cryptantha celiosoides) has fallen a few notches down.

The seed flow has kept me busy but has not stopped me from going to a few rodeos, dancing a few two steps, visiting a couple of ghost towns and going to a TON of garage sales.

Things are chugging along here in the Cowboy State.

Emily Usher

Lander BLM

Time is Flyin’!

Good Morning Dixie Valley

Good Morning Dixie Valley

Greetings and salutations readers near and far!  It’s been a bit of time since I posted my last blog, and let me tell you, a ton has been going on out here in the Great Basin.  From fire monitoring, seed collecting, to rare plants monitoring and doing some educational outreach, we sure have been keeping busy here in Carson City.

Sacred and Beautiful Sand Mountain

Sacred and Beautiful Sand Mountain

Summer is in full swing- the heat is here, the dryness is ever-present and the explorations are never-ending.  Unfortunately, we have been experiencing some daily storms rolling through the valley.. Meaning lightning strikes and fires.  It’s a strange feeling coming from the East Coast and now having wildfire on the front line of concern.  In any case, in the midst of worrying about fire, I have had time to sit back and enjoy some incredible lightning- it brings me back home to the large thunderstorms!  There have been a few times in the last couple weeks where huge dark clouds have rolled in so fast and we just beat the rain.  That said, recently while fire monitoring and almost all done with the work day we got caught in a huge rainstorm!  Soaking wet and running back to the truck for some reprieve while dodging small bits of hail and trying to protect all things that might get damaged by water, it was quite a way to end the day!  Luckily, we made it back safe and sound and no equipment was hurt along the way.

Walls of the Cave!

Walls of the Cave!

On another note, we as a botany team have been making seed collections like nobody’s business!  Visiting breath taking places like Sand Mountain and Indian Creek Reservoir has been a great treat.  Not to mention, nothing beats camping out in the desert under a star lit sky exchanging stories of the past and excitement for the future.  Suffice to say, my stay here in Nevada has been nothing but enjoyable, eyeopening and entertaining.  I have really appreciated the time (as in hours) spent staring at tiny plants, huge rock formations, mountains and sunsets that stretch across the sky for what seems like days.  Beginning to think about my next steps, and although I’m not quite sure what or where yet I’ll be this time next year, I am confident in saying this experience will certainly help me get there.  As for now, enjoy the few pictures and keep up the good work.

Shine on!


BLM Carson City

Hey little Dude!

Hey little Dude!

Everyone is thirsty in the Great Basin

Everyone is thirsty in the Great Basin

Not a bad Saturday afternoon !

Not a bad Saturday afternoon !