Another week of adventure :)

This past weekend was one of my favorites so far in Wyoming. On Saturday I went venturing into Shoshone National Forest and found an awesome camping/recreational area around Frye Lake. I met some people who were from my home state, Virginia, and enjoyed talking with them and taking in the awesome views in the chilly weather. The Rocky Mountains in the distance were still snow-capped, despite it being summer, so I’m curious to see if they will ever experience a full melt-off.

A view of Shoshone National Forest’s Frye Lake showing the Rocky Mountains and a rain shower seen in the distance.

An interactive? rock that I found while hiking around the lake.

On Sunday, a couple of friends of mine took Jon and I back into Sinks Canyon State Park and up the “Approach to Killer Cave” trail about half a mile to the rock walls there. I was taught all about the rock-climbing difficulty scale, and little did I realize how complicated it was. Actual rock-climbing, with a rope, belayer, etc. starts at a Class 5 level. 5.1-5.4 routes are considered easy, 5.5-5.8 intermediate, 5.9-5.10 hard, 5.11 to 5.12 difficult, and 5.13 to 5.15 very difficult. Starting at a difficulty of 5.10 and above, there are letters involved as well. This looks like: 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, and 5.10d. After our short hike up the trail, and getting to an elevation of about 7,300 feet, we were ready to watch Alex and Brandon (some seriously experienced climbers) have a go at the walls. They started on a 5.12d route… as a warm-up… and only went up from there. Once they got some good climbing in, they lead a couple of easier walls for us to top-rope up. This means that they set the ropes up for us so that we could club up the face of the rock a bit more easily. I was incredibly impressed by them, especially after I completed my first and only wall and was exhausted. We thought mine had a difficulty of 5.8, but later found out that it was a 5.9! I was so happy and proud of myself for getting to the top on my first try. Good thing I’m not afraid of heights. 🙂

Me climbing my very first 5.9!

Brandon climbing a muchhh more challenging wall.

Monday came around and I found myself back out in the field, only this time I got to go out with the BLM’s AIM crew. This stands for Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring. On this trip, they were attempting to go out to a couple of sites around the Shoshoni and Gas Hills areas. I quickly realized that I really liked the strict rigidity and structure of the protocols that AIM has to follow because it ensures extremely consistent data throughout the entire West. For instance, all of the sites are centered at randomly assigned GPS coordinate points, but may be rejected due to unexpected fencing, roads, or dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, their first site was centered in a corner of a fenced pasture; any adjustment that they could have made in the four main cardinal directions did not work. So, they had to reject it. We then made our way to their second site, and had better luck with the location. The types of sampling we did assessed soil horizons, stability, and erosion potential, as well as vegetative species inventory and richness. The soil samples included digging a 70-cm-deep pit at the very center of our site, and walking down three transects while assessing the ground cover and small soil tests that were performed. For the vegetation, heights were measured down the transects, and species were counted in the entire plot.

Out with AIM, I finally got to see the prickly pear (Opuntia polyacantha) cactus blooming!

On Tuesday, Matt and I stayed in the office and went through years of old files in order to try to wrap our heads around our two allotments’ pasture histories. We spent hours doing this, and ended up creating really helpful, large, summarization sheets for each. This was a nice break from the heat, and left me refreshed and ready to go back into the field the next day. Wednesday was another adventure. Matt, Jon, and I prepared ourselves to go find and read two transects, one in the Soap Holes pasture, and the other in Haypress. After some time, we were able to find a safe route to the first stop on our route. Right as we arrived and were assessing the transect site, the most beautiful barred owl (Strix varia) flew out of the willow trees. This was the second time in my entire life I had ever seen an owl, and I think beautiful is really an understatement. We soon got back to work and realized that this site was very swampy, compared to all of the other the riparian sites they had been to before. Our transect evaluation was tricky, but we were successful in completing it.

Our first site on Wednesday, Soap Holes pasture. These were the willows that we saw the owl fly out of.

One of our keystone species in Soap Holes pasture: Nebraska sedge, or Carex nebrascensis. The shortened blades are clear evidence of cattle grazing.

Some of the ground hummocks that were nearly everywhere in this riparian pasture. This is another clear sign of cattle presence and grazing.

My very first discovery of Wyoming’s wild iris flowers, Iris missouriensis.

Another first for my flower discovery! This is a wild purple lupine flower, Lupinus argenteus.

Once our first transect reading was complete, we started searching for the next pasture: Haypress. On our way out there, we saw the largest herd of wild horses I have ever seen in Wyoming. There were at least 60 of them that we could see resting on an adjacent mountain top. After stopping to take some videos, we continued our journey. We tried several different routes, many of which were washed out, until we found one that looked like it would take us straight up and over Crooks Mountain to our next stop. Upon our climb up the mountain, we got an engine warning. We stopped the truck and realized that it was overheating… we could literally hear our coolant boiling in its compartment. We checked in with the office to decide what to do, and chose to wait it out, and eventually pour some cold water into the coolant tank. About an hour or two later, we made it back to the office without any additional problems.

Today, Thursday, we got it checked out and were told that it should have hopefully just been a one time occurrence. The rest of my day was spent in the office finishing up some defensive driver training, and learning how to input our field data. Like that owl, the weeks are flying by, and I could not be happier with the work I am doing. I am so, so thankful.

Wild and Wonderful West Virginia

“Almost Heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads”

View on the Highland Scenic Highway- just a few minutes from the office!

When I told friends, family members, or even strangers I was moving to West Virginia, their first response was to serenade me with John Denver’s ode to the mountain state. Now that I’m here, I have to say- the country roads do live up to the hype.

A stunning view of the Allegheny Mountains from the side of the Highland Scenic Highway.


My new home in Marlinton, WV is in the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ). The NRQZ is a large area where radio transmissions are heavily restricted for scientific research and military intelligence purposes. In my case, this means no cell service.

At first, I was anxious about not having my cell phone available to me whenever I needed, or, rather, wanted it. This all disappeared within the first few days, when I realized this gave me all the time in the world to read, to explore, and to live in the moment. At work, I’m fully able to focus on the task at hand. I am more observant and in tune with nature. Though we have WiFi in the bunkhouse, I have come to prefer watching lightning bugs blink in the night to watching the blue light of my laptop screen.

A peaceful evening’s view.

Moving to West Virginia has given me a chance to slow down and take things in at a new pace. A pace that allows me to pull over on the side of the road to watch wildlife for hours at a beaver pond. One that allows me to stop my rollerblading to key out a plant on the side of the rail trail. One that allows me to ask questions about the world around me and seek out the answers. The peace and quiet of the mountain state is just what I needed to further my botanical knowledge in this internship.

A photo of Seneca Rocks, a scenic attraction in the Monongahela National Forest. I took this when my fellow CLM intern, Abbie, and I went on a hike here on our day off… we ended up working here just days later!

Protecting Native Ecosystems

Native plant communities support a variety of wildlife by providing food and habitat. We, as humans, also directly benefit from other ecosystem services native plants provide such as water filtration, erosion control, and carbon storage. However, these communities are threatened by invasive species. Invasive species are species non-native to the ecosystem whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.

Coming from Massachusetts with a background in primarily wildlife, my West Virginia plant identification isn’t perfect. This big book is helping me learn the beautiful flora of West Virginia.

In the early 1970’s, areas of Monongahela National Forest were mined for coal, negatively impacting the ecosystem. When the areas were reclaimed, the species that grew back were grasses or non-native pines. One major focus of the U.S. Forest Service’s mission in this area is to restore red spruce ecosystems through planting of native species and removal of non-native invasive species (NNIS). As a CLM intern, my main emphasis is management of NNIS.

Abandoned coal mine at one of our restoration sites. We are re-vegetating the area with native plants.

Through my NNIS work so far, I’ve helped to protect several rare species- some of which I got to see up close and personal! For example, I saw the Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae), which is only found in two places in all of West Virginia. Other beautiful rare plants I helped protect through NNIS management are Yellow Nail-wort (Paronychia virginica), Smokehole Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa var. brevis), Limestone Adderstongue (Ophioglossum engelmannii), and Kates Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) to name a few.

Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) in bloom.

Although NNIS identification, inventorying, and treatment/removal can be grueling work, West Virginia native ecosystem and views like this make it all worth it. As my first month here comes to a close, I’m feeling more at home in the area and with the people I work with. I’m looking forward to all that this internship has in store for me in the coming months!

A day of herbicide treatments, an important part of NNIS eradication. Because this was an area with protected plants, we carefully applied herbicide with sponges to reduce any drift.

A panoramic view of Smoke Hole Canyon- a perfect reminder of why I do what I do!

Until next time,

Tara McElhinney

Marlinton District Ranger Station


Welcome to the West

One of the many scenic drives on our way to monitor Spadefoot Toad calls.

One of many gorgeous wetlands we stopped at for species monitoring

Calceolaria mexicana at the Chicago Botanical Garden

Lamprocapnos spectabilis at the Chicago Botanical Garden

Peace and tranquility at the Chicago Botanical Garden



Egg Masses of the Great Basin Spadefoot Toad



The past couple of weeks have been full of excitement and I have already learned so much during my short time living here in Rawlins, WY. The amount of change after coming from the southeast has been immediate and overwhelming, but in such a positive way. I jumped right in my first week and started night shifts with my co-intern and mentor. Our goal was species monitoring. We surveyed along various two tracks that our mentor mapped out in order to listen for calls of the Great Basin Spadefoot Toad. Their natural history is somewhat unfamiliar but is thought to be closely related to the Plains Spadefoot Toad. Key characteristics of this species include elliptical pupils and a single tubercle found on each hind foot, which aids in burrowing during the colder months. Only after two days were we able to hear their calls as well as find their egg masses. This was the first time our mentor heard their calls in three years. This was such an exciting time for everyone, especially since this was my second day on the job! I then realized how incredibly lucky I was to experience this moment and to be here getting paid for what I was so passionate about.

During my second week I attended the Conservation Land Management Internship Conference at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. I was able to meet others with similar interests that were just as passionate about our environment and conservation as I was. Our week was full of classes and field work, as well as Seeds of Success training. Because of these classes I was able to gain so much knowledge and enhance my skills during my time here in Rawlins. Everyone I met was so generous, including our hosts. I had such a positive experience and it made me realize that whatever goals I have set for myself, I can fully reach them with the networking and skills that I will now have after this program. I appreciate every piece of advice and every person I met along the way. I will fully embrace this internship with an open heart and mind, and I cannot wait to see what the rest of this internship has in store for me.