Road Trip Stories

Wyoming is a big state and our field office covers a lot of land. That means that we do a lot of driving. I’m still getting used to driving all the long distances but one of my favorite things about driving is looking out the window and seeing a lot of country. All the country that we drive through has stories attached to it, in driving around I learn not just about the plants that we are collecting seeds from but the history of the landscape, how it has been shaped by the people who lived here and how it has shaped them. Below are some of my favorite driving stories and factoids that Frank has told me and Sydney over the past few weeks. I think that learning about the people and land use practices is incredibly interesting and relevant to my experience as a CLM intern.

One day while working in range more than twenty years ago, Frank walked up on a sand dune on a lunch break and saw a showy flowering plant. It was in the Penstemon or beardtongue genus, but it wasn’t a species that he had ever seen before. He took a picture and went back to the field office. Folks at the office thought that it was probably a common penstemon that had been found in the area before; however, the characteristics of this plant didn’t match up with the dichotomous key. Frank investigated further and eventually found out that he had found the first recorded population of the endangered blowout penstemon plant in the state of Wyoming. This was also the first endangered plant species found in the state of Wyoming.   

A long time ago miners found a mummified native American, in a mountain north of Rawlins. However, unlike most mummies this one appeared to be a tiny, fully developed red-haired man, about the size of a toddler. The mummy went on tour as a freak show, where it was claimed to be part of a race of little people with red hair, described in local native American legends. Legend has it that these little people were extraordinarily fierce fighters. This apparently was bad news for red haired American cavalry men who were treated especially harshly in battle with native Americans. Unfortunately, when someone at the university examined the mummy, they figured out that the “little man” was actually a human infant with a rare genetic disease that made him look older than he was.

Liberty Rock was a stop along the Oregon trail. Pioneers tried to get to this unassuming but important land mark in time to celebrate the fourth of July there. Today it is arrest stop and local attraction.

And so much more: A gorge along the highway that was used as a Bison fall. A valley used as a polo stadium by the local ranchers. Hundreds of new roads created by oil and gas development. A gap in the Ferris mountains where government agents caught a band of whiskey smugglers during prohibition. Etc.…

Sand dunes and mountains
Blowout penstemon Penstemon haydenii

Super Science Students

I was fortunate enough to spend a week helping lead the BUDS camp in the Black Hills. Run through a joint cooperation by a local middle school and the BLM, this program had 10-20 middle school students spend a week in the Black Hills learning about various components of science through lessons, adventures, and games. While each day was themed – wildlife, water, geography – the whole week built upon itself to provide a lasting base of nature knowledge for this kids.

I was generally the plant person for the camp. The day before the camp, I had gone round to all of the flower shops in town in an attempt to find lilies, the ideal “perfect” flower to dissect due to the large size of all flower components – the stamen, style, petals, etc. Lilies acquired from the shop and a variety of other flower from my supervisor’s garden, we were all set to teach about plants. On the actual day, the kids loved dissecting the flowers, quizzing each other on the parts and generally exploring and observing, an activity that was…immediately overshadowed by spear throwing with atlatls. When asked at the end of the day what their favorite activity was, the atlatls were a universal win, although one student took pity on my and told me that the flowers were their second choice.

Over the course of the week, we collected and identified “herbarium specimens,” went Hiking with Lichen, discovered all of the weird designations for fruits, learned the stories behind the constellations (despite dense fog), did water tests, panned for gold, learned about maps and GIS from professionals, and played endless rounds of improv and tag games that made me thankful for my camp counselor background. Even though there were sometimes tears at the occasional fall during tag or frustrations with the other campers, our kids did really well. My favorite line was when one student said “It’s like science in school, except actually fun,” a testament to our efforts to make every child there comfortable, happy, and receptive to learning. Because, while a large part of being in the CLM is interacting with nature ourselves, it is doubly important to make sure the next generation of scientists discovers its joys and beauties while they still exist, pushing us all towards preserving what we have left.

Rec Intern, BLM Buffalo WY

Raising Livestock on Public Land

Last time I checked in I hadn’t really started my routine duties, but I am now monitoring range land full time. I am learning a lot and enjoying the experience. The general area that I am responsible for, commonly referred to as Green Mountain Allotment, is over half a million acres. To cover this vast area, I spend a significant amount of time driving. Driving for hours everyday might seem dull, but I love it. Whether it’s trudging along rocky two-track roads, trying to avoid getting stuck in mud, or gliding down the highway, it’s never boring. The landscape and wildlife within are a constant source of entertainment, no radio necessary. Pronghorn antelope seem to be everywhere. Often dashing across the open land, seemingly running from nothing. They’re very elegant, captivating animals. And as North America’s fastest land animal, they can supposedly reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get any decent photos of pronghorn yet. They’re kind of skittish. On the other hand, cows aren’t really afraid of our trucks. So…here are some cows!

I wouldn’t call cows majestic, but they are kind of charming in their own way. The ungainly way that they amble about, and stare at you endlessly is pretty amusing. And, cows are the focal point of all the work that I’m doing this season. Cows can cause the degradation of the land in several ways, especially in riparian areas. For this reason, the primary objective of my work is to make sure that there aren’t too many cows in one area for too long.

The land that I work on is public land, and ranchers are issued grazing allotments. That means that ranchers are issued permits to graze their cattle in pastures owned by the federal government. But cattle are only allowed in certain pastures for certain parts of the year. Rotating cattle prevents areas from being overused and over-grazed. One of my primary duties is to ensure the proper placement of cows. I need to be aware of which allotment I’m in, and whether cattle should be there at a given time. If I find cows in a place that they shouldn’t be, I need to count them (a rough estimate if there are a lot), and try to find brands on the cows. Each rancher has there own brand, so if I can see a brand, I should know who’s cattle are out of place. Then, either I, or my supervisor will contact the rancher and ask them to move their cattle. There is more to my job than counting cows, but I can expand more on that next time.

It seems like there are endless wild places to explore around Lander. I recently hiked Johnny Behind the Rocks, a short local trail system. Here are a few photos:

The wildflower is one of twenty some species in the genus Castilleja, with the Wind River Mountains in the background.
Northern Sagebrush Lizard
Prairie Rattlesnake along with an infamous, invasive plant commonly known as cheatgrass. Don’t worry, I zoomed in to get this.

First Set of Collections!

Balsamorhiza incana

Balsamorhiza incana

Balsamorhiza incana

Since the last post, I was getting slightly discouraged as almost nothing was going to seed. In addition, the species that were going to seed were mainly vegetative and we were getting worried many collections would not be able to be carried out.

However, in the past two weeks, my co-intern Maggie and I were able to finish five SOS collections! After waiting (mainly due to the cold and precipitous weather), seeds were finally ready. We were able to collect Balsamorhiza incana, Townsendia incana, Cerastium arvense, Lomatium foeniculaceum, and an Arnica sp. For half of these collections, we are fairly confident that we have collected well over 20,000 seeds! It is interesting to see how different the plants look once they are going to seed in comparison to how they looked at the beginning of the internship–they are skeletal versions of themselves.

After going back to locations multiple times (for scouting, collecting, etc.), I’m also struck by how quickly the vegetation can change. One day at Red Canyon (one of our main collection locations), there was Linum lewisii (Blue flax) dotting the landscape. Less than a week later, all the petals were gone from the flax and white lilies were (and are) everywhere. You truly never go to the same place twice.

It has been extremely rewarding and we’re hoping that we can keep up this pace of collecting in the weeks to follow.