Sagebrush Living

Adversity, evolutionarily speaking, shapes organisms over time, like a sculptor chisels a block of marble. Plants and animals must adapt to eat and reproduce in an unruly habitat that does not consider their comfort when it snows during the summer or when salty soils threaten the growth of desert sprouts. I thought a lot about the prospects of working in a harsh environment as I drove North into Wyoming from Colorado to start my internship with the Chicago Botanic Gardens. The disparities between the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and the sagebrush steppes of Wyoming are immense: dark green and amber hills fade into pale green and straw-colored plains. I looked forward to diving headfirst into a new town and region, despite still having my head in the Ponderosa pines of home.

Riding my bike back into Rawlins- its just over the hills!

I pulled into the local Taco-Johns of Rawlins Wyoming to meet Frank Blomquist, half wildlife biologist, half botanist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Rawlins Field Office. He directed me towards the “Barracks”, the recently renovated housing for BLM employees and my home for the next 5 months. The men’s building, consisting of ten bunk beds and two main rooms, made me sympathize with the other organisms of the surrounding sagebrush.

Frank, our mentor, showing us a sharp-tailed grouse lek

Once Monday came, however, I remember I had a job to do this summer. Rawlins, it turns out, is the epicenter of an amazing landscape. What I had envisioned to be an oppressed landscape is in reality a gorgeous and thriving ecosystem, hiding its gems from the interstate-80 drivers cruising through what they must see as a desolate wasteland.

Camouflaged cottontail stock-still among prickly pear (Opuntia sp.), budsage (Artemisia spinescens), and Gardner’s saltbush (Atriplex gardneri)

Frank and Ray Ogle, our two mentors for the summer, explain to Julia and I our internship responsibilities. The two of us must collect at least 10,000 seeds for twenty-five different collections. Botany has always been a personal interest and hobby of mine, but the prospect of collecting plants and seeds was (and is) both exciting and intimidating. After we find the species, make sure that they are ripe for seed collecting, and then collect flowering specimens and the associated 10,000-plus seeds, we will clean and prepare them for shipment to a seed bank. Ultimately the seed bank doles out the 10,000 seeds for research and conservation efforts, while the left over seeds return to Rawlins for other local restoration projects.

Ray and Julia keying out a tough species- turned out to be blue mustard, Chorispora tenella

Local restoration projects entail maintaining the public lands that oil and gas, cattle, wildlife, and recreation all share. In fact, BLM land was, and in some instances still is, considered to be the land that “no one else wanted”. Pioneers passed it up for more hospitable land farther west and ranchers also originally turned up their nose. The government even gave some of the land to the railroad companies to pay for the transcontinental railroad with the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, creating a legacy of the “checkerboard”: hundreds to thousands of one square-mile plots of land that alternate between public and private lands. Now, when traveling through the dirt tributaries of I-80, you would be hard pressed to find more than five miles of road without seeing evidence of oil and gas production.

A population of western wallflower (Erysimum asperum), notice the well-pad in the background

The public BLM lands are leased to oil and gas companies for drilling wells. Well-pads, as they call the area around the wells, roads, and other construction units disturb and shake up the soil enough so that invasive or unwanted plants move in and outcompete the plants that sage-grouse and pollinators rely on for nourishment, nesting sites, and shelter from predators.

Sage-grouse hen posing in front of her namesake, sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)

The native seeds that we collect will be sown within these disturbed sites, helping to maintain public land and a healthy ecosystem by limiting undesirable plants from taking over. Sage-grouse and pollinators, especially native bees, are species on the decline as their habitat disappears more each year. The seeds that we will collect have these species in mind.

Pronghorn running along the fences which seem to keep them from their friends on the other side, though they sometimes can crawl underneath the fence.

As of late, we have been scouting out the early seeding plants. The targets are members of the carrot family, also called apiaceae. If you have seen carrot leaves, then you would recognize the leaves of these species. One is called Lomatia foeniculaceum, or desert biscuitroot, and has small bright yellow flowers that call out to us among pale green leaves and cracking red soils. Already we have found a large population of L. foeniculaceum and collected several voucher specimens, important for pairing with the seeds and that serve as a way to make sure we collected the right species. The moniker “biscuitroot” is appropriate for this species, as it took nearly thirty minutes to carefully dig up the foot-long, chubby root and then to press it for drying.

Lomatium foeniculaceum

The other species are in the genus Cymopterus, the springparsleys. C. acaulis has been more elusive than C. bulbosus, but the latter has led us around nearly four hundred miles of sagebrush desert searching for flowering populations with enough individuals for collection. We think that we are either too early or too late in the hunt as a very small proportion of the C. bulbosus have flowered, and even fewer have produced seed. Most of what we have found are only leaves, barely peaking out of the cracks in the soil.

Cymopterus acaulis

We have been studying all the species of the area as well, and nothing excites me more than searching for one particular species while also being able to identify all the others underfoot. The species that I cannot identify, however, I defer to Julia, whose background is in botany. She recognizes species, new and old, as if she has run into old friends on the street. I would still have my face immersed in the plant-term glossary if it were not for her. For more elusive identifications, we ask Frank.

Young male mustang guarding the road

On top of collecting our share of seeds, there seems to be many enticing projects around the BLM office. These include pine needle collections for a study of whitebark pines, raptor nest monitoring, and more plant work with the BLM Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring Strategy group, or AIM.

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, notice the pointy tail

Coming from an ornithology background, I am also fascinated with the local birds. So far I have added some “lifers” to my list: Sage sparrows, Sage thrashers, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, Sage-grouse, and the Ferruginous hawk. As far as other wildlife goes, the Pronghorn antelope are always nearby and feral horses occasionally make an appearance. Most recently, I stumbled upon a “horny toad”, which is not a toad at all, but the lizard Phrynosoma hernandesi and the state reptile of Wyoming.

The “horny toad” sizing me up

As I learn about the species here in Southern Wyoming, both plants and animals, the region grows on me more each day. I’ve learned to embrace this small town off of the interstate and to focus on the plants of interest. Because as long as I have plants, animals, and places to explore, I can adapt to live just about anywhere. Over time, the botany has become easier and I look to the day when I can list off species’ names and attributes much like the botanists I work with.

Pronghorn everywhere!


Rawlins Field Office, Bureau of Land Management

Off to a Great Start

Rawlins, Wyoming has treated me well over the past two weeks. Being a small town girl from Montana, I had some sort of an idea of what I was getting myself into upon moving here. With any transition comes uncertainty, and this can be rather nerve-wracking. I drove over 1,000 miles to arrive in this high elevation city of around 9,000 inhabitants. On the way, I drove through canyons, glided passed incredible rock outcroppings, and started to acquaint myself with my new ecosystem. I was greeted by the smiling faces of my new mentor, coworker, and housemate, and immediately felt comfortable and welcomed.

The first few days in the Rawlins Bureau of Land Management field office were overwhelming, but only in the best ways possible. My mentor, Frank, introduced my coworker, Kyle, and I to close to everyone in the office (probably 35 handshakes). From range management, to the minerals division and (of course) the wildlife department, each and every person was welcoming and light hearted. I found that the office was a rather close-knit community, each division and department working together in ways unique to most offices.

The weather in Rawlins the first week (the last week of April) was rather daunting. Sideways blowing wind, sleet, rain, and even hail throughout the week, and a foot of snow on Friday to top it off.

My housemate, Katie, assured me that summers around here would be amazing- warm with clear skies close to every day. This made me forget about the 20 degree temperatures and look forward to the field season to come.

So far I have spent three days in the field, each day so new and exciting. I have seen wild horses, golden eagles, Columbian sharp tailed grouse, sage grouse, a horny toad, cottontail rabbits, antelope, and so many more creatures. But, even more exciting, are the plants. Although it is still early in the season (it snowed last week, after all) I have become acquainted with a diverse array of inhabitants of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem. Multiple different species of Artemisia, other shrubs including Atriplex, as well as forbs- Lomatium foeniculaceum, Cymopterus bulbosus, Phlox hoodii, and Astragalus spatulatus– just to name a few, were introduced to me the first day. I am so amazed by these high desert plants, each with a unique life history to be able to sustain life in such an extreme environment.

I look forward to the season to come. I know that I will not only find curiosities and excitement at work in the field, but also at home with my new roommates and in my surrounding area. Here’s to a great season!


Prineville, Oregon – Month 1

After 10 days of traveling across the country, again, I am finally in Prineville, Oregon, where I will call home for the next 5 months. The trip from New Jersey was outstanding just like it was last year but this time I got to bring a friend, Ryan, to explore with me. Ryan had never been in the west so I thought “What a great time to see it!” We got to spend 10 days driving, camping, and exploring new places as we made our way to Oregon. I got to bring him to one of my favorite places in the US and that was Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. We spent three nights camping on the Estes Park side, where we got to do some pretty awesome hikes, including Cub Lake. Most of the park was closed off due to winter snow that had not receded yet, but that didn’t stop us. From there I got to reconnect with some friends in Casper, Wyoming, where I called home last summer through my CLM internship. It was wonderful to see familiar faces and hangout at the local watering holes again. From there we hit Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Grand Teton National Park. Luckily, the time we got to Jackson Hole was the same time the World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb was going on. The Hill Climb was an awesome experience, it was something I had never seen or heard about before and I am so glad I got to experience it on my way. After Wyoming we finished the route and ended up in Prineville!

My first couple weeks in Prineville have been amazing so far. I started out my season with Greater Sage-grouse lek Surveys, which were incredible because that was the one thing I missed out on in Wyoming last year. In order to do a lek survey one must get up around 2 or 3 AM and start heading out to the lek locations to make sure you arrive at the lek before the sun rises. Once you are there you get to see male Sage-grouse strutting and calling to the females to get them to mate with them. Getting up at 2 AM had never been worth it before until those days I got to see Sage-grouse strutting across a lek just as the sun rose. After lek survey days I got to go out and do Golden Eagle nest surveys, which included seeing a Golden Eagle sitting low in its nest incubating eggs. With all of these surveys comes hiking, which was incredible, any excuse to hike is good enough for me. These first couple weeks of exploring the ecosystem I will be working in this summer have been amazing so far with some spectacular views.

At the end of my first month I got to travel up to Cheney, Washington with the AIM crew, I will be working with, and attend the National AIM Training which was a blast! This was a very hands on training that I believe anyone who needs to do AIM plots for the BLM should absolutely attend. It was very informative and the trainers were wonderful to work with. It also was a wonderful time to get to know the crew that I will be working with for the remainder of my time here in Oregon.

Overall I believe my time here in Oregon will be spectacular and I cannot wait to explore the cascades and high desert areas!

Month one in Prineville

I have now been living in Oregon for just over one month, and I’ve had some great experiences.  I found housing in a small ranch style house on a 5 acre property in Redmond, about 35 minutes from the BLM office in Prineville.  This may seem like a hassle, but the drive is gorgeous; a great way to enjoy the morning or unwind after work while listening to music or a podcast.  I am one of 3 interns on the Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring (AIM) crew at the Prineville District Office (PDO) this season, but have yet to complete a single AIM plot.  The reason being that we only completed the AIM training last week, and only received our assigned plots today!  Hopefully this means we can begin next week, following at least one planning day.

Although we have been unable to begin our AIM plots, my time here at PDO has not been wasted.  I’ve been performing a variety of wildlife related jobs, including Greater Sage Grouse lek monitoring.  Leks are essentially breeding grounds for the greater sage grouse where the males strut and display the large, yellow gular sacs on their necks in an attempt to attract a mate.  Despite living in prime sage grouse real estate in Wyoming, I had never seen an active lek; suffice to say it was a fascinating experience.  The strut is absolutely bizarre to witness, and I would encourage anyone who has not seen it to give it a google and watch in amazement/incredulity. Unfortunately, none of the leks here in Oregon rival the 200+ grouse populations of Wyoming.  In fact, one of the leks I checked this year was completely abandoned, possibly indicating a departure from the area by the sage grouse.  Some inferences can be made by this as well, since sage grouse are considered an indicator species in this ecosystem.  The BLM may decide to do some habitat monitoring in the area, to discover if any notable changes or disturbances have occurred.

In addition to lek monitoring, I also performed some Golden Eagle nest monitoring.  The nesting season is beginning, and the BLM keeps tabs on all active nests in the area.  I have yet to see any offspring, but I did discover one nest where a large female eagle was sitting low on the nest, likely over some eggs.  This monitoring was a very cool experience, as it involved a good deal of off trail hiking and searching for wildlife in beautiful high desert ecosystems.  I was also able to see some of the cool tools that wildlife biologists use to monitor these birds, including GPS backpacks that can display the eagle’s travel area on google earth, and give us an idea of where to find the nests. Unfortunately, one eagle was discovered dead in the nest, and we are currently unsure of the cause of death.

Living in the area has been very fun, with a variety of outdoor and indoor activities to occupy one’s time.  I have been spending a good amount of time snowboarding at Mt. Bachelor, a large volcano in the Deschutes National Forest that offers 360 degrees of terrain to ride from its breathtaking summit.  Hiking and trail running is very prevalent, and I have taken full advantage of the BLM trails behind my house for these purposes.  Additionally, the Bend area is absolutely packed with craft breweries and distilleries, which prove fun to explore and compare.  Although I have visited Portland once, the west side of the nearby Cascade mountains still remains unexplored, and I look forward to getting over there once the weather improves.  Overall, I’ve had a fantastic experience so far, and I’m excited to explore more of Oregon!