Holding Back the Tears
This is my final post as a CLM intern, and like many before me, I am having trouble accepting that it will soon be over. I feel like I just got the hang of my job, there was always something new being thrown my way both in the field and the office. Now that I finally feel comfortable, it’s time to move on. There were great days when I couldn’t believe I was being paid to visit beautiful places around Colorado, and there were days that dragged on and tested my resolve. The AIM program required us to visit randomly selected plots across northwestern Colorado and collect data on plant species richness, vegetation cover, vegetation height, soil stability, soil texture and more. The plots we visited were sometimes a few feet from the road, others were several miles.This variability kept things interesting, some days we would take gnarly hikes through thick brush wearing heavy packs full of field gear, other days we could basically see the plot from our car. The amazing thing about Colorado is that when you travel, you do so in three dimensions and the elevation gain from the plains into the alpine creates conditions for distinct plant communities.
I Now Posses Great Skills
Coming from southwest Michigan, I was used to prairies and oak-hickory forest and it was a rude awakening when I arrived in sagebrush country. At first, sagebrush with its characteristically dry sandy clay soil, seemed like a plant community with little to offer in diversity. My first AIM training was staged in the sagebrush just outside Kremmling, CO. The State botanist, Carol Dawson, took us on a walkabout to get us acquainted with the system. Her well trained eye could pick out tiny forbs that I overlooked in the landscape, seemingly dominated by Artemisia tridentata. Buy the end of the day my head was spinning, trying to remember the scientific, common and USDA code names of the new plants. There was a surprisingly wide variety of different shrubs, forbs and grasses and I could hardly keep track of them. That compounded with learning the procedures for AIM monitoring really had my brain flexing. Fortunately, I had the guidance of my mentor, Amy, to assist with plant identification and I was given some time to get familiar with our field guides, ‘Flora of Colorado’ by Jennifer Ackerfield and ‘Grasses of Colorado’ by Robert B. Shaw.
Over the next few weeks I worked through the learning curve of AIM. I was familiar with most of the field techniques we used, such as line point intercept and soil stability, but the repetition was good practice. I became quite good at the soil ribbon test, where a handful of soil is taken from a soil horizon dampened, kneaded. Once the soil reaches the right consistency, it is formed into a ball and pinched in between your thumb and forefinger to form a ribbon. The structural strength of the ribbon helps determine the soil texture. for example if it is a silty loam, a sandy clay, or just a clay loam etc. If nothing else, this will really help with my sculpting career.
This internship has also greatly improved my plant identification skills and I feel much more confident navigating a dichotomous key. I was intimidated by grasses coming into the internship simply due to the sheer diversity we encountered. I learned to get over my fears and dove into the grass key. After identifying dry and decrepit grasses later in the season, when most of the characteristics were missing except a crusty ligule or one last floret, I felt much more confident identifying specimen. One of my favorite grasses to ID is Poa Pratensis because of its characteristic cobwebby pubescence at the base of the spikelets.
Much of our time was spent in the sagebrush and it forced me to learn the minute differences between the subspecies of Artemisia tridentata. Artemesia tridentata is the most abundant shrub in the world in regards to area and biomass. Differentiating between its subspecies can be nearly impossible due to hybridization, but there are some indicators that can help improve the confidence of an ID. For example the Subspecies vaseyana tends to have a more camphor or sweeter smell than subsp. Tridentata or wyomingensis and the inflorescence is flat topped, giving it a candles on a cake look. Rarely did we identify plants to subspecies, but in the case of Artemsia Tridenta, it was important to distinguish because it is a critical part of Sage grouse habitat.
Many hours were spent at the end of the field season getting the data ready for submission to the state office. I learned a lesson about organization when it came time to go through 4 months worth of plant specimen, field notes and data. Had we not been more diligent about keeping our files in a safe place and organizing our field notes in a well marked binder, fixing some of the errors we came across would have been nearly impossible. I became more familiar with Microsoft Access and it was actually fun to find errors with the error checking module. The module was designed to detect any errors in the data such as missing vegetation height measurements or improperly marked GPS coordinates. The work was tedious at times, but it was rewarding to see a project come full circle and submit it to the state office.
The wild Goat chase
Later in the season when the AIM project was coming to a close there was some time to join other field crews and assist them with various tasks. It was a nice change of pace to try something new. One week we loaded the truck up with grass seed and UTVs and headed to BLM grounds along the Trough road to seed campgrounds and previously burned areas. Some of the species we spread included western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii), bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) squirreltail (elymus elymoides) and muttongrass (Poa fendleriana).
On a more exciting note, we also got to go on a wild goat chase when the wildlife biologist, Darren, received calls about a goat that was spotted walking along the Trough road. We were called into his office to review the pictures that were sent in. He was an interesting specimen. The goat was clearly domesticated and sported a long white goatee and shaggy hair that covered his eyes. We didn’t know how he got there, but it was important the we find him and contained him because he was dangerously close to a small herd of bighorn sheep. The reason for concern is that the goat could potentially spread disease to the herd, and if he were to make contact, the entire herd would have to be euthanized.
Wasting no time, we jumped in the truck and went searching. We hiked around the area where he was spotted but to no avail. I didn’t have much confidence that we would find him, there was just way too many places where he could hide behind juniper trees. Then, when we were going to head back, Darren spotted him standing proudly on top of a hill. I couldn’t believe it. When we approached we could see that he was a big boy, with a very potent smell. Knowing that we would not be able to immobilize it ourselves, we called in the Colorado Parks and Wildlife in for backup.
They pulled up with a horse trailer and brought out the lassos. Before they arrived, the goat was pretty calm and was eating carrots out of my hand. He must have sensed that something was up when the rangers approached. He gave chase, running up and down the hills and across the road. People driving by would stop in confusion wondering what the hell we were doing chasing a goat around the backcountry. Eventually the ranger managed to get the rope around one of his legs and I grabbed his horns. Once we got him, they tied the ropes round his horns and guided him into the trailer. The best part is that we had to keep him in our wear yard until we could find his owner. This was probably the most excitement the office has seen all year. Eventually we found him a home and we had to say goodbye to our friend, Billy. Word is he has a new girlfriend and is living happily on a 200 acre ranch.
The Corny Part
When we were not working there was a lot of time spent outdoors. More often than not we would spike camp for the week, due to the fact that our plots were in remote areas. I easily camped more nights in the last 5 months than I have in the last 5 years. I came to appreciate the time I spent away from cellphone service and internet. In the field I finally had enough time to read some of the books that have been sitting on my shelf half read. I don’t know how I will handle going back home now that I’ve gotten used to the rocky mountain night skies and the silence of the country life. Another thing that I will miss is the sheer magnitude of public land out west. Almost every weekend I would visit a new destination, either to mountain bike, hike, swim or climb.
So yeah, the CLM internship was pretty great, I had my reservations at first, I didn’t want to leave my friends and family and dog behind. Of course I also had a little anxiety starting a new job in an unfamiliar state where I didn’t know anyone. I remember when I was driving west towards Colorado I would have moments when I asked myself, “Am I really doing this?”. Once I got started I knew I made the right choice. I did miss my friends and the life I left behind, but that time passed. Looking back, I am glad I went with the bold choice and set out to explore something new. I made some new friends along the way and I am looking forward to visiting them this winter for ski season. I admit that I don’t know for sure if working for the government is something that I want to do for the rest of my life, but the experience I gained is invaluable, and it has opened a lot of new doors for me and my career.
So if you are wondering about applying for the CLM internship, I say go for it !
Kremmling Field Office, Colorado