This IS My First Rodeo

“The county fair is pretty laid back here. Feel free to take breaks and explore around, but you absolutely must see the rodeo”. These were the final instructions given to my partner and I before we stationed ourselves at the fair’s Bureau of Land Management booth. We thanked our boss for the advice and looked out from our booth to the fair grounds.

The Harney County Fair is one of the largest events in Burns, OR. With hundreds of people frequenting the fair-grounds daily, in a town of roughly 4,000, the annual fair is a highly anticipated event. On the premises there isa row of food trucks serving meals ranging from smoked-ribs to shaved-ice confections. There is a carnival section, containing classic rides and deceptively difficult games. Another section of the fair features wall-less barns for 4-H animal competitions (e.g. largest pig, cutest rabbit, wooliest sheep, etc.). There is also a main stage, in the center of the fair grounds, which features three main acts, each taking an hour in the lime-light, twice a day. The acts consist of a Japanese taiko drumming performance, a magician, and a hypnotist.

In addition, there are several rows of booths for selling of merchandise or providing public-information. There is a booth representing the Oregon Hunters Association, a custom cow-boy hat maker, a mini-market of gag-gifts and fake weapons (and some real ones too), dozens of other vendors, and our humble BLM booth. Our booth has traditionally been passive in nature; it typically has been a table full of pamphlets and maps regarding different activities or programs available in the local area. This year however, my fellow intern and I were tasked with making the booth more engaging for kids. After a day of brainstorming, planning, and shopping, we devised a scavenger-hunt, with a fire-roasted s’more being the reward for completion (we were only given permission for this because the fire-fighters’ booth was directly next to ours).

Now, this is all good family fun; an excuse for parents to let their kids run around while they catch-up with old friends. However, to many this also just fluff, filler to kill time until 7:00 PM when the rodeo starts. There is a professional rodeo tomorrow, were seasoned cow-boys will travel cross-state to come and compete for glory, and many will go see it, but tomorrow night is not the event that has everyone excited. The true attraction people are talking about, the one that has everyone coming out in their nicest hats, is the local amateur rodeo.

The local rodeo has no limits on age or skill, just a willingness to hang on tight to a bucking bronco or one majorly pissed-off bull for as long as you can. In addition, there is a lassoing competition to see who can catch a run-away horse the quickest, and Barrel-Racing, where cow-boys and cow-girls run their house through a path set by barrels in an effort to complete the course in the quickest time.

The rodeo commences with an announcer, possessing a thick drawl, leading the crowd in prayer and the National Anthem. After this, a tractor carrying a large rake attachment clears the field in neat linear paths, reminiscent of a Zamboni at hockey games. When the tractor’s job is complete, the bucking-broncs begin. Without warning, a gate is flung open and a cow-boy is sent out on a riled-up horse. The horse sprints and flails, in an effort to launch the cow-boy clean off its back (what is done to upset the horse in the first place is beyond my knowledge). After only 5 seconds, the cowboy is flung forward, and the horse runs over him, but he appears to be uninjured and quickly gets up to run back outside the fence. Not entirely sure what to make of the whole thing, I look around and see people looking slightly disappointed and shaking their heads.

“What went wrong”, I ask a local man behind me, wearing an immaculately white and large brimmed hat.

“They have to stay on for at least eight seconds, or the score is no good”.

Immediately after, the score-board flashes “No Points Awarded”.

The next cow-boy manages to hold on for about 9 seconds before being flipped over the side of the horse. The score-board reads “65/100”.

“Not too bad”, the man behind me says, while clapping his hands.

“Why only 65”, I ask.

“Well, there’s two judges and they each give up to 50 points. 25 for how well the guy holds on, and 25 for how well the animal does. Then they combine their scores for a final number out of 100”.

“How well the animal does”?

“Yeah. A calm horse is much easier to ride, so they’re not going to give it many points. But if you get one really worked up…well I’d be sorry to be the guy on one like that, but at least you could make a better score. This is just amateur though, the scores will probably stay in the 60’s all night”.

And on it went. The highest score wound up being 71.

Next they begin the lassoing. I start feeling bad for the horses in this one and decide to leave for a bit to grab a drink. When I get back, the final event has started, barrel racing. The first few racers go through, all making decent times and showing good control of their steeds. Suddenly, the announcer brings special attention to the next racer, a small boy who is doing his first barrel race. I stare at the boy amazed and turn to the white-hatted man behind me.

“How old is that boy”, I ask wide-eyed

He lets out a deep laugh and informs me, “he’s probably four. We like to start them young around here”.

The boy looks like a small doll riding on-top of a full grown horse. While not the fastest, the boy manages to complete the correct path of barrels in a reasonable time. I genuinely doubt the child’s ability to talk in complete sentences, yet there he is, confidently riding an animal easily 4 times taller than him. Everyone enthusiastically cheers him on, as do I (more out of awe than excitement).

The barrel races conclude and awards are given out. Trophies are in the form of large and ornate belt-buckles, decorated on intricate designs of silver and gold colors (belt-buckles, like hats, are worn as a status-symbol and essential accessory here).

Everyone begins to trickle out of the stands. I follow suit and return to my car, where I plug in my phone and start playing Glen Campbell’s cover of Rhinestone Cowboy, as I begin my ride home.

Big Bear has tiny plants

Big Bear Lake is a place of escape for many Southern Californians. Folks come out in droves to leave the smoggy summers of their respective concrete jungles, or to opt out of their non-winters to get some snow time in. And I don’t blame them, because it is absolutely beautiful there and everybody deserves to experience the great outdoors. As for myself, I had never spent any time at Big Bear Lake until I was given the opportunity to spend the last week of August shadowing Marta Lefevre-Levy, the regional botany technician of San Bernardino National Forest in the Mountaintop Ranger Station in Fawnskin, CA. The week turned out to be a great opportunity for exploring, learning, networking, and of course, botanizing.


A view of the lake from Juniper Point


My work for the week consisted of establishing and surveying 10x10m and 1m diameter-circular plots in critical habitat areas within the 2017 Holcomb fire area. The critical habitat areas are known as the pebble plains and the carbonate hills, which host a number of threatened and endangered plants that are tiny and adorable. The pebble plains are a relict habitat left over from melted glacial deposits that have remained in place for tens of thousands of years. Apparently the pebble plain has such small plants for a number of reasons. One reason being that there are so many pebbles in the soil column that churn about over time that it is a very hostile environment for a plant’s roots. Thus, the smaller plants have evolved deep, strong taproots or many fibrous roots that minimize pebble movement around the plants. Another reason is that there is not much available water for the plants to grow, and being small is growth strategy for plants to persist in extreme conditions. Though they may be small, you can’t let the buckwheats fool you; some of them range from 500-1200 years in age.


Eriogonum kennedyi var. austromontanum


The Holcomb fire mostly impacted the pinyon-juniper woodlands adjacent to the critical habitat areas, however, during the fire there was a misapplication of aerial fire retardant in  the pebble plains and carbonate hills. They are considered “designated avoidance areas as discussed in the 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Nation-wide Use of Aerial Application of Fire Retardants on National Forest System Lands” (USFS, 2011). The release of fire retardant in the pebble plains and carbonate hills triggered the establishment of monitoring plots to be surveyed for the next three years because aerial fire retardant has high phosphorous and nitrogen content in its makeup. Nitrogen and Phosphorous are two of the three plant macronutrients, so naturally there is some concern with the fire retardant stimulating the growth of non-native and invasive species.


Tiny Gilia sp. found in the pebble plains


The standard protocol for conducting the monitoring surveys involves the establishment of 10×10 meter paired plots. We established 9 paired-plots (18 total) to compare parts of the critical habitats that did and did not receive inputs of aerial fire retardant. 6 of the paired plots were within the pebble plains, and 3 were in the carbonate hills. Within each plot, we measured percent canopy cover by species within a circular 1-meter quadrat placed 5 meters from the southwest corner of the plot. We took photos in each cardinal direction, and created a species list of all plants present within 10 x 10m  boundary. The listed plants in the critical habitat area include southern mountain buckwheat (Eriogonum kennedyi var. austromontanum), silvery mousetail (Ivesia argyrocoma var. argyrocoma), Bear Valley sandwort (Eremogone ursina), ash-gray paintbrush (Castilleja cinerea), Cushenbury buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium var. vineum) and the below featured Cushenbury oxytheca (Acanthoscyphus parishii var. goodmaniana).


Acanthoscyphus parishii var. goodmaniana


I spent most of my free time at Big Bear Lake hanging out with Sophie Heston (my fellow intern at Chuchupate), Andre Jackson (Restoration and Phytophthora intern at Big Bear Lake) and Veronica Avalos (Restoration and Phytophthora intern at Big Bear Lake). Though I only spent a week in their barracks, I could tell Andre and Veronica had become great friends through working and living together throughout the summer. They drove me around the lake and showed me where they liked to hang out, we played a couple rounds of uno, and talked story for hours. I really admired them and the time we spent together. They are bright, sensitive, beautiful, hilarious human beings! I’m hoping that our paths cross again in the near future.


Fellow interns and friends, Sophie and Andre

Also, big shouts out and thanks to Marta Lefevre-Levy for making this week happening! It was great working with her and I learned a lot about the Big Bear area, its plants and career opportunities because of her. I wish her luck in her future endeavors!

Signing off,

Eli Grinberg

US Forest Service

Los Padres National Forest – Mt. Pinos Ranger District

Chuchupate Ranger Station

The Magic Spring

Recently, my co-intern, Eli Grinberg, and myself, made a trip up Cerro Noroeste in hopes that there would be seeds for us to collect, or insects for us to capture to add to our collection. Along the way we stopped at multiple locations, collecting seed pods and berries from different plants. When we got to our destination, a small spring, we were expecting to find multiple different species of flys, bees, and wasps, however, we found something much more magical.

To locals, this spring is known as Lion’s Gate. Although in the quaint mountain town of Frazier Park, California, there are no real lions, the spring was just as magical. When we first pulled up to the spring, we were not that impressed. If we did not know exactly where we were supposed to go, we would have missed it. The spring was a small trickle of water coming out of the side of the mountain along the main road, nothing special. Upon closer examination, Eli realized that there were a few hummingbirds flying around. We knew the birds would not be comfortable unless we remained extremely quiet and still. After a few minutes of still silence, the birds became comfortable with our presence, and came out of hiding.

When the birds came out of hiding is when the true magic began. At one point, we attempted to count how many hummingbirds were hanging around the spring, which can be extremely difficult. We counted seven birds at one point, all of which were flitting around, some drinking from the spring, others were chasing each other, and some were posing for us to take pictures of.

It was truly magical to watch the hummingbirds in their natural habitat, playing and simply enjoying their lovely home.

Photo by: Eli Grinberg

Many Layers To This GIS Onion (I Like Puns)

For many everyday users of ArcMap, layers are brought into a map, labels added and edited, a few colors that mesh well together selected, drop in a legend and scale, and place a compass somewhere that’s out of the way but not too out of the way. With the guiding hand and patience of our GIS Specialist, Courtney, I’ve been improving on my Editor skills and learning to code in Python (right click on feature class, click on Python snippet, add to Python, understand magic). Most of my job up to this point has been editing, merging, and appending datasets from consultants into our office wildlife database, a necessary tool for our wildlife biologists as they write NEPA documents for projects.

However, this has begun to change the last couple of weeks. Courtney has encouraged me to dip my toe into Python and learn coding with the hopes that I can put together several scripts to automate some database processes. While this doesn’t sound that exciting to some, running some lines of code to replace an hour of step-by-step instructions sounds like a gift from above when you’re doing the same process for the second time that day. However, Python has made me incredibly frustrated at times while trying to debug a syntax error that I swear I fixed before. At least, until I solved it and the tears of joy puddle on my keyboard (do I bill the CBG for that?). Now, Courtney and several staffers have dangled something in front of me that I can’t say no to: a challenge.

The field office is heavily invested in maintaining and improving habitat for sage grouse within the office boundaries and to that end I’ve been asked to help on a couple projects. While there is no need to tell you about each project, the challenge that was laid at my feet involves looking at fire disturbances, sagebrush habitat quality, existing road networks, and cheatgrass to help determine planning habitat and range improvements for the next couple of years. This intrigues me so greatly because of the wealth of information that will have to be compiled, sorted through, interpreted, and visually represented is a wonderful scholarship opportunity. And to know that I was part of a project that helped steer sage grouse towards recovery….well, someone’s cutting onions again.