Treasure Hunting!

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Hey Everyone ūüôā

It’s been a while since I last posted…I’ll try to keep it short and sweet.

First off, out here in the sagebrush country…. every collection day is a treasure hunt. Pretty much everything here is a crispy critter. Sometimes we get lucky and are able to collect a neat population. Since my last post, we’ve done twelve more collections. We’ve collected:

Poa nevadaensis (Nevada bluegrass)

Bromus marginatus (Mountain brome)

Lomatium dissectum (Fernleaf biscuitroot)

Rosa woodsii (Wood’s rose)

Juncus balticus (Baltic rush)

Lomatium triternatum (Nineleaf biscuitroot)

Leymus cinereus (Basin wildrye)

Achillea millefolium (Common yarrow)

Calochortus macrocarpus (Sagebrush mariposa lily)

Potentilla gracilis (Slender cinquefoil)

Carex nebrascensis (Nebraska sedge)

Cercocarpus ledifolius (Curl-leaf mountain mahoghany)

We are still hoping to collect the sagebrush species later on in the season and hopefully meet our targets. Because of the drought, many of the perennial bunchgrass species are not fully seeded so it’s been pretty nerve wrecking to make sure we collect enough for our program.

While on the subject of treasure hunting, Amanda and I had a couple of opportunities to tag along with the Alturas interns (Jaileen & Nate) and their mentor Mike Dolan to conduct some rare plant surveys. It was pretty cool to learn that there is a penstemon species (Penstemon janishiae) that’s listed as rare and endangered. What we essentially did was walk around an area that has been cleared for a juniper fuel reduction project and do some final flagging around areas where the penstemon grew. I still find it intriguing that the soil composition can change so dramatically within a few feet of each other. No wonder our Mama Duck (Andrew) gets so excited digging soil pits.

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Penstemon janishiae

Penstemon janishiae

 

Anywhoo…that’s all for now. I’ll be posting real soon this time..promise =P

Range life: Month 4

August in Idaho has been a great month. I’ve gotten the chance to travel more around my area and try some new things at work.¬†We wrapped up our habitat assessments.¬†At this point I’d say my field partners and I are pretty good at identifying dead and dry plants. ūüėČ On some days we had the opportunity of working in mountainous areas which were a treat, visually, but a test, physically.

Habitat assessment transect along a very steep hill

Habitat assessment transect along a steep hill

It took a while to get the protocol down because it has undergone many changes in recent years. I always carried a hard copy in the field with me because we had to refer to it several times when we were unsure of a measurement technique.

We also drove around some allotments for use supervision, which entails making sure the cows are grazing in the right pastures. They have to go through a proper rotation to allow for vegetation regrowth. I’ve learned that this can be a point of contention between the BLM and the ranchers or the public.

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Microphone that picks up the frequencies of bat calls. It’s connected to another device that shows us the frequencies and saves 15 sec clips of sound.

Just recently we’ve had the opportunity to work on a couple of GIS projects here in the office. It feels good to get back into that practice. I was also able to tag along with a Fish & Game employee for a couple of nights of bat monitoring! We went to a few sites, set up recording devices, and then drove along a transect near the Snake River and some agricultural land to record bat echolocation activity. It was interesting to see how different species have unique frequency patterns.

Late July and the month of August has been full of travels and time spent with friends. I’ve made 4 trips to Boise since my last post. I got to see two of my favorite bands play live and I got to hang out with several other CLM interns (shoutout to Megan, Austin, Jessica, Amy, Dan, and Lara!).

This month I also had the chance to camp in the Sawtooth National Forest, north of Stanley along the Salmon River.

Campsite along the Salmon River near Stanley, ID

Campsite along the Salmon River near Stanley, ID

 

 

 

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Craters!

Craters!

I’ve also spent time in Ketchum. Hailey and I re-visited the Craters of the Moon National Monument. I also made it down to Salt Lake City and Jackpot, NV where I won $900+ on a slot machine! (Jackpot, indeed!) I’ll be trying to take in some more Idaho beauty during my last month here. So much time and so little to do! Strike¬†that. Reverse it.

crystal clear water at Redfish Lake

crystal clear water at Redfish Lake

 

 

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Lunch stop

 

Oh yeah, and I went to the Twin Falls County Fair

Carla–BLM, Shoshone, ID

Long-awaited Collections!

Fall is here in the Southeast, and some new seeds have ripened! Over the past few weeks, we’ve been collecting from a few plants that we have not seen ready thus far. One in particular that we are most excited about is our¬†Rhexia mariana collection. We’ve seen this pesky¬†Rhexia in just about every preserve and park we’ve visited, but until now it has not been ready. Luckily, we found some at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, and our long wait to collect came to an end.

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Rhexia mariana flower

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Rhexia mariana seed capsules. They look like little vases.

We also recently made our first collections of¬†Polygonum sagittatum¬†and¬†Rosa palustris.¬†Polygonum sagittatum¬†has¬†quite aptly received the common name of “arrowleaf tearthumb”, because of its prickly,¬†recurved spines. Alongside the thorny¬†Rosa palustris, both of these collections were a bit challenging at times. We had to be sure not to¬†tear our¬†thumbs.

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Polygonum sagittatum

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Rosa palustris. Look at those thorns.

Finally, we were able to make two collections of Aralia spinosa (which is also laden with spines along its stem and leaves!). Both collections were a lot of fun. It is easy to spot ripe Aralia spinosa by its bright maroon inflorescence. This made it easy for us to find as we drove throughout Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Vandell Preserve at Cumberland Marsh.

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Aralia spinosa with ripe, maroon inflorescences.

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Dark purple to black A. spinosa berries.

– Maggie Heraty

North Carolina Botanical Garden CLM Intern

 

 

 

back to the lab

serpentine and glacial refugia endemics galore!

Well, my internship has drawn to a close. It has been an immense pleasure to be able to spend the greater portion of five months in the field. The opportunities that avail themselves when living in the rural west are incredible.

I’m pretty happy with the work I was involved with. I think SOS is an awesome program, and I‚Äôll be interested to see how it develops in the next decade. I‚Äôm very proud of the accessions I was able to add to their collections-and doing so was a very rewarding experience. I was able to make¬†24 collections; but they are sorely lacking in some vouchers and pictures-of the original 30 plants I took vouchers from and monitored the progression of only a handful were able to be collected-but opportunity can be found in any parched, scorched, ravine in the steppe, again‚Ķand again‚Ķ I spent a bit of my spare time studying genetics, plant demography, plant communities, and reading other assorted things to help guide my collection techniques and choose/prioritize plants; I think that this was an incredible way to study this sort of material. ¬†I‚Äôm also really happy to be able to feel like I‚Äôve got a really good feel for the sage steppe flora.

sitting in the snow, a backdrop to krummholz junipers.

sitting in the snowfall.

I was enthralled to be in a ‚Äėseasonal town‚Äô. For the last few years I‚Äôve just been flat broke, that means only like 5-10 hikes a year. Having a job and basically already being in the mountains changed that! I‚Äôve done a lot of the best hiking of my life this year. I still botanized a lot in my spare time too. Highlights looking back were: I went to this canyon (Swakane) to learn most of my sage-steppe plants early in the season, I recently learnt that the gentleman who wrote our flora (PNW-Hitchcock) use to do study weekends out there for decades with his friends. Another highlight were the endemic plants of the Wenatchee mountains. I think I saw about 20 endemics there this year- most of these rank in my (mental) top ‚Äėmost aesthetically appealing plants‚Äô top 100. A final highlight was spending a lot of time in the sub-alpine and alpine and becoming familiar with those plant communities¬†too. These are two groups of plants that I had no experience with until this year; and I’m very¬†happy to now feel comfortable with my knowledge of the alpine, sub-alpine, east side forests, and sage-steppe¬†areas of the PNW.

how is your senescent ID?

learn to ID dead things!

So I’ve learnt a lot about: plant ecology, orienteering, navigating, scheduling, planning, paperwork  (!),  dealing with people, keying a handful of new families, genetics, and monitoring. I’ve also cemented a lot of undergraduate knowledge that I would have probably ended up forgetting in a few years! I feel like a much more competent field worker now than I did five months ago, but I also still think I can grow significantly before pursuing formal instruction again.

So how does someone follow up something like this?

Well, easily discernible from the blogs is that most folks go to graduate school, right on! However, I‚Äôm not doing that, I‚Äôm going back to the analytical chemistry lab I work in as a phytochemist. I‚Äôm very excited to be able to reflect upon many of the interesting chemicals and their distributions throughout the steppe flora as I‚Äôm back¬†at the bench. I’m also excited to hike the West cascades and Olympics for another year. I‚Äôve also resolved to earn another bachelors as a part time student (I work in my old college town); this time in Plant Ecology (to supplement my B.S. in Plant Biology). I see how having a wider framework can be valuable for interpreting the natural world, and how a enhanced skill set can be an asset for various projects.

Thanks for opportunity Krissa, Rebecca & Molly.

 

SMILES

hey Justin, the fifth stratovolcano!

hey Justin, the fifth stratovolcano!

“And the seeds that were silent all burst into bloom, and decay
And night comes so quiet, it’s close on the heels of the day”
-words by robert hunter of the grateful dead

“Graze it, Don’t Blaze it”: Cows, Fire, Sage Grouse, & People

After writing a lot of generalized blog posts that summarized my work and travels, I¬†decided to dedicate a post to America’s favorite ungulate- the cow!

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Dramatic cow photo. Such mystery, so aloof…what are they thinking about?

Every day I encounter hundreds of cows to, from, and during work. We drive by packed dairies carpeted by manure and spotted with black and white heifers during our commute. But mostly we encounter free-range beef cattle on BLM lands at work. When we see the cattle they are usually either crowded at watering areas or in repose among the sagebrush and grasses. They also play chicken with the truck, giving you the blankest, emptiest cow stares until the truck is literally inches away and they bolt and scatter.

Usually the cattle are well-fed¬†and calm, with lots of clumsy and chubby calves that gallop around, always less than a year from being full-grown and ready to have their own calves that will replace them after slaughter. There are also the occasional unlucky¬†individuals that get separated from the herd. It’s usually a lame bull, a skinny¬†cow, or a fatigued calf.

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A lot of cows.

We’ve also become experts at spotting sun-bleached cow bones from our truck and¬†our hikes to our monitoring¬†sites. We’ve even collected a few choice bones for our balcony museum of dead things (several cow bones and skulls, a dog skull, and a coyote skull)

But the¬†constant exposure to these ungulates is¬†starting to get to me. Sometimes I’ll spot some cows on the slope of an extremely steep mountainside or floundering in the dust of a veritable desert and just laugh. I know they’re deceptively surefooted and extremely self-sufficient (I mean, they turn wimpy grass into BURGERS), but most of the time they just look completely lost or out of place.

We’ve also¬†encountered a couple calf-dumping sites¬†which, as you can imagine, are¬†considered bio-hazards. About a month ago¬†we spotted four dead calves decomposing next to a¬†trailer. As we drove past, two herding dogs came out of nowhere and chased our pick-up. It was¬†a little¬†creepy. We’ve been told that sometimes dairy farmers will dump their dead calves on BLM land as a show of hostility that stems¬†from a dairy vs. beef ‘beef’ that has grown in recent years. We spent a lot of time at that¬†particular allotment, which has gained some¬†infamy at our field office for having less than desirable grazing, habitat potential, or diversity in some pastures.

That isn’t to say that this is¬†representative or typical¬†for our field office’s lands. On the contrary, we have an enormous range of different ecosystems from lush and green mountainsides covered in Douglas firs and snowberry to your classic¬†sagebrush steppes, and of course, a few cheat-grass dominated sites. ¬†And it’s rare to see any sick cows. But after encountering¬†thousands of of beefy bovine¬†and a fair amount¬†of areas¬†nearly desecrated by grazing, drought, or¬†erosion, I wanted to learn more about the other less obvious implications of cattle grazing.

The last Habitat Assessment Framework site we did at Muldoon Canyon

I’m from Florida, which has almost 1 million head of cattle that supplies $2 billion of our state’s economy. Historically, we are the first state to have large-scale cattle¬†ranches. At the moment, the majority of the beef produced in Florida is shipped elsewhere, like Oklahoma or Texas, due to there only being one industrial-sized¬†slaughterhouse located in Florida (Florida Beef Council).

A few Florida cows hanging out under the palm trees at my friend's family ranch in Loxahatchee.

A few Floridian cows hanging out under the palm trees at my friend’s family ranch in Loxahatchee.

This is in stark contrast to Idaho’s beef industry, which caters its own products within the state and has more than double the amount of cattle in¬†Florida. The profits from Idaho’s¬†beef industry are only surpassed by that of Idaho’s dairy industry. Despite having gigantic corporate operation headquarters, the majority of the cattle in Idaho are raised on privately owned feedlots and ranches. More than 2/3rds of the state’s lands are owned by state and federal government, which means most cattle spend a portion of their lives on public rangelands (Idaho Beef Council). They’re a pretty big deal out west, and the BLM grants¬†18,000 permits and leases for ranchers and ¬†puts aside 155 million acres for grazing.

Cows¬†are arguably the most important domesticated animal that has ever existed and the “second most influential mammal in North America” (you can probably guess who’s number one). Some consider cows to be the oldest form of wealth and today is one of the most resource-intensive forms of agriculture (Cowed).¬†We use 25% of the world’s land to graze cattle. It costs 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef and producing one pound of grain-fed beef has the equivalent ecological footprint of burning one gallon of gasoline (Rise & Fall of Cattle Culture). These gentle giants are as tasty as they are costly.

Our obsession with the ungulate can be traced back to humanity’s¬†first attempt at¬†domestication 10,500 years ago. We started with¬†80 of the first domesticated cows from Turkey, which grew¬†to between 1.3-1.5¬†billion cows worldwide (UCL). The effects of this¬†milestone has¬†altered¬†our landscapes and resources. It started¬†as a symbiotic relationship where cows converted grasses into¬†food, labor, and fertilizer, and we provided them with water and protection from predators (Cowed). However, taking into account global warming, declining soil quality, contamination of our water systems, the spread of invasive species,¬†heart disease, erosion, and even wildfires– the symbiosis is equivocal at best.

Drill-seeded crested wheatgrass

On the other hand, cows are a¬†celebrated resource- a seemingly endless supply of hamburgers, steak, cheese, milk, ice cream, fertilizer, leather etc.¬†Our obsession with cows is evident in our favorite foods as well as scientific research. Cows are the only animal to have their entire genome mapped (and share 80% of their genes with humans). They also played a crucial role in settling the west. As the demand for beef grew, so did the need to expand westward in the 1900s (Humane Society). As a result, cattle culture is completely ingrained here in Idaho. There’s a new rodeo in town every other week, a surplus of western wear outlets, and trucks with unfathomably long trailers absolutely stuffed with bright yellow hay, ready to be munched on by dairy cows.

Most of the work we’re assigned (directly and indirectly) is a¬†response to these animals’¬†existence and their profound effects on the environment. We monitor vegetation at long-term trend sites to gather vegetation data on pastures that will be used to inform allotment management plans and we perform grazing¬†reintroduction surveys to determine when and if pastures can be grazed after a wildfire occurs.

These grazing reintroduction studies are conducted a few years (usually 2-3) after a fire has occurred and restoration efforts have begun. Some sites are naturally regenerated while others that require more intensive management are drill-seeded. Data on species type, count, and how established the root systems of the grasses are collected to determine the health of the pasture and when cattle or sheep can be reintroduced.

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A grazing reintroduction monitoring site that burned about 3 years ago. The vegetation that followed was naturally regenerated and surveyed to determine when permittees can let their cattle graze in these pastures again.

We frequently encounter¬†cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) during our monitoring. Cheatgrass is an invasive species that¬†thrives in fire-prone ecosystems and is also an incredibly flammable fuel source. They’re also prolific reproducers, peaking at 10,000 seeds for every square meter of established cheatgrass and are expert competitors when stacked against most native flora (Greenwire). The Fish and Wildlife Service predicts that “in 30 years we may have five times more cheatgrass dominated areas in the Great Basin than we have today”. Between 2012-2014, 3.7 million acres of suitable sage grouse habitat went up in flames– and that number is rapidly¬†increasing¬†after this year’s sporadic incendiary fire events, like the¬†Pooping Cyclist Fire¬†in Boise (National Interagency Fire Center).

To combat this, the BLM has been pushing to plant more native grasses since the 80s, as well as introduced species like crested wheatgrass (a non-native that’s good for grazing, wildlife¬†cover, and less flammable than cheatgrass) and forage kochia that tend to fare better than natives when it comes to out-competing cheatgrass and happen to be extremely palatable to cows (Greenwire).

Bromus tectorum, aka cheatgrass, aptly named for¬†its poor forage value. It ‘cheats’ cows out of nutritious grass!

Although a strategic and calculated maneuver, it hasn’t¬†been enough to deter¬†wildfires. The¬†recent fires in Idaho have¬†created a lot of¬†controversy and pointed fingers between the BLM and ranchers.¬†Idaho has battled 21 wildfires this year. Ranchers and¬†the Idaho Cattle Association have been very vocal about their opinion that the BLM could have drastically reduced the size of the Soda Fire. Many ranchers are arguing that had the BLM allowed more grazing this year to reduce the fuel load, which¬†has increased due to higher than normal rainfall, the Soda Fire would not have reached the size or intensity that allowed it to destroy hundreds of acres of land. In an interview with KTVB,¬†BLM state director Tim Murphy explained¬†that the extreme weather, conditions that have not been seen in the area for nearly 90 years, was to blame and that increased grazing would not have affected fire behavior (KTVB).

BLM Director Neil Kornze recently toured¬†Owyhee County to survey the Soda Fire which burned 280,000 acres and is now the agency’s priority rehabilitation site. The project to restore the lands may cost as much as $10 million. Grazing permits are an important factor when considering the complexity of how rangelands are managed in the future. This in combination with restoration efforts are exceptionally crucial for¬†next month’s USFWS decision on whether the sage grouse will be put on the endangered species list¬†at the end of September (Idaho Statesman).

I hope to write a post about at least one more¬†human-rangeland topic (i.e. the BLM horse round-ups) before¬†my internship comes to an end in October. Until my next post, I hope to speak¬†to ranchers, range conservationists, and wildlife biologists to¬†develop a better understanding of this complex interface of people, weather, flora, and fauna.¬†It’s a sensitive and contentious time for Idaho’s ranchers,¬†natural resource agencies, and¬†public lands–but it’s¬†also an invaluable opportunity to observe the sociology¬†and ecology of this unique state.

Poorly organized sources

Get out of your shell (or bring it with you…)

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Ornate box-turtle found during an archaeological and botanical survey. (brought my shell)

The time here has flown by at the LBJ National Grasslands the past month. The Asclepias viridiflora seed collection is nearly complete. With the change of pace, I have been able to shadow the Range Specialist here. We met with state and regional Range Conservationist with the NRCS to organize a field trip for landowners to the grasslands to teach about range land management concerning the use of grazing and fire. (No fires occurred, only lectures) My mentor has also recently had me go with an archaeological crew while searching for milkweeds to gain exposure to their field.  We also measured an old grave.

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It gets better! The local monarch butterflies have at last revealed themselves. To my surprise these butterflies have become extremely active in pollination in the evenings, starting around 5:30 pm. The primary pollinating target of the monarchs has been Liatris mucronata. The monarchs have been accompanied by various species of swallowtails, bumble bees, and honey bees. Last,but not least, I finally found a monarch caterpillar! Life is great!

-Keagan Lowey

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Monarch butterfly pollinating a Liatris mucronata on Unit 49.

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Monarch taking flight from a Cephalanthus occidentalis by Black Creek Lake at Unit 48.

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Monarch caterpillar on host Asclepias viridis on Unit 31.

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Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

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Fall is Here Today is the last day of my internship. My mentor and co-workers took me out for Thai food. They are such warm and fuzzy people!

Every year that I’m out in the field, I learn a bit more about my beloved shrub steppe plants. I really enjoy keying out plants. It’s like doing puzzles. Once I was stuck (well, more than once!), and I desperately googled “3.5 mm ligule, open sheaths”, etc. and I actually came up with an answer for a grass that had lost all of its seeds. I had keyed out this grass last summer.

This is the first summer I collected seeds. Collecting seeds makes a person take a close look at the plants when they’re beyond the flowering stage, which is good for doing “sleuthing” botany when all of the plants have dried up.

This year I was sent on a few different missions. I went for a day with the bat woman to look in old mines for bats. No success, alas. But, it was really neat seeing the old prospector cabin and all the tailings. We had great views of the huge fire northeast of Republic.

I spent a couple of days downloading three game cameras that were set up at watering troughs at Juniper Dunes. I counted the number of times each species showed up in the frames. Lots and lots of magpies! These birds just have a party at the trough–they relish their baths. Mormon cricket, porcupine and coyote photos were also plentiful. We had a single kestrel, a single great-horned owl, some ravens, doves, elk and deer.
Game Camera CoyoteGame Camera ElkGame Camera PorcupineGame Camera Raven

I did some monitoring in more mesic plots this year, which forced me to learn a few more grasses (like quackgrass, finally) and forbs.

Just two days ago, I was hiking by myself (seven miles that day) and wondering out loud how far away the sagebrush was from the mesic area, when I noticed a coyote just right there. He didn’t even look up. He stared hard at the ground. ¬†Suddenly, he made a most beautiful, catlike pounce, and next thing I know I am hearing him crunching bones. He happily trotted away without ever noticing me!

Yesterday I packaged up all my vouchers and shipped them off to Smithsonian and the University of Washington.
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Vouchers Ready to Ship

Today, my last day, a package came to the office containing neatly labeled bags of the excess seeds that we requested for restoration projects. It made me so happy that I collected enough (except for one species so far) to have excess. You always wonder if you did the calculations correctly. What a nice going-away present.  Extra Seeds

Extra Seeds Arrived on my Last Day of Work!