From the Colorado Rocky Mountains

CLM Internship May-October 2009.  After a long arduous journey in graduate school I was somewhat nervous and anxious to begin to apply my knowledge and skills at the Bureau of Land Management.  My mentors, Carol Dawson (the Colorado State Botanist with the BLM), and Peter Gordon (Carol’s co-worker for nearly 5 years and newly hired botanist) made me feel at ease right away.  I began in late May, 2009 during a spring in Colorado that was breaking precipitation records.  It just kept raining and raining and raining.  Big snow storms in late March and early April shifted to massive thunder storms in May and June.  And oh how I loved that weather.  By the final days of spring, Jefferson County, Colorado had accumulated 10 inches of precipitation.  In comparison, the spring of 2008 barely spit out half this amount with about 5 inches of rain.  It was a great time to begin this internship.  I knew a big part of my job was to collect native seeds, and tons of water meant tons of seeds (well in most cases)!   I also knew we would be monitoring some very rare plants in Colorado, and I wondered what kind of an effect an extremely rainy spring would have on both the vegetative growth and fruit production for some of these rare plant species we would collect data for.

Some mycological results of a rainy rainy summer....they just were popping up everywhere.

Some mycological results of a rainy rainy summer....they just were popping up everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Astragalus shortianus a Kew collection from Green Mountain.  One of our first journeys out into the field was to locate and evaluate Astragalus shortianus for a possible seed collection with the Seeds of Success program.  The neat thing about this species was the fact that it would be a collection for Kew at the Royal Botanic Gardens.  This means that the seeds of this plant had not been collected previously…we would be the first collectors.  As a new intern this notion intrigued me.  Folks had been collecting seeds all across the western United States for some nine years, and no-one had ever collected A. shortianus.  Amazing.  I knew this plant well, and I had always admired it as one of my spring favorites.  The really great thing about collecting seeds is that you get to know the plants up close and personal from the time they begin to bloom to the time they set seed.  You keep a close eye on each prospective seed collection species as if it was kin.  [Maybe I am strange, but these plants often feel like family to me].  And you keep watch until it looks as if fruit dehiscence and seed dispersal is imminent.  And then we pounce with collecting bags in hand, clippers, a Munsell soil color chart, lunch, water sun screen, boots for potential rattle snake encounters, etc, etc.  An attitude was also necessary to assist us in accomplishing the daunting task of collecting 20,000 seeds for Kew.  All in all it took Carol, Peter and I two and possibly three journeys to Green Mountain to obtain enough seeds to send out. 

Green Mountain, Colorado is in the distance.  We collected seeds from at least four different plant species from here.

Green Mountain, Colorado is in the distance. We collected seeds from at least four different plant species from here.

It is can be hard work searching for plants and tediously bending down to find and collect the seeds, although it is the kind of work that gets rather addicting.  You get addictied to finding that next plant that will possibly hold a treasure of beautiful plump fruit full of healthy seeds.  And each plant is one more addition that adds to a final tally of 20,000 seeds.  You not only find the plants you are looking for, but since you are wondering around like a lost hiker off trail zigzagging here and there, you come across other really great treasures of nature.  We came upon and pondered a small population of Physeria bellii, a lovely little endemic mustard plant that is restricted to shale formations in Colorado’s Front Range.  So not only is seed collecting quite zenful in and of itself, it also inevitably forces you to stumble upon additional natural history treasures.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.  I think it was early June when I first heard we would be heading off to Dolores, Colorado in the south west part of the state for a couple of days.  Our mission was to train a Forest Service ecologist the specifics on Seeds of Success procedures.  Since I was just learning these procedures, it was a great way to practice my recently acquired skills.  The best part about this adventure was meeting some great folks at the BLM/USFS office in Dolores.  This included the local archeologist who shared all kinds of amazing stories regarding archeological digs, and some of the crazy scary encounters with people attempting to steal artifacts in Canyon of the Ancients National Monument.  These thieves dig tunnels underground like rats to search for ancient artifacts.  The amount of open space in this area is so massive; they often easily get away with these horrible acts.  This kind of robbery is so difficult and sad to imagine.  We headed out early in the morning to look for Plantago patagonica, a small little plantain they were hoping to collect.  This is a species that blooms early (March) in the southwest, and sadly the rain did not begin until late March so the seed set was low.  After much time examining the seeds in numerous individual plants, we decided we needed to save this for a possible 2010 collection.  We headed out to have lunch in Canyons of The Ancients National Monument

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in South West Colorado.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in South West Colorado.

near some ruins these local scientists knew about.  It was amazingly beautiful, and I got to learn a lot of new plants growing locally in that extreme desert environment. 

Another great shot of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Another great shot of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Driving home was great fun as we ventured through Moab, Utah (lunch stop), and _MG_3188_89_90_tonemapped

Moab, Utah.  Close to our lunch stop on the way home.

Moab, Utah. Close to our lunch stop on the way home.

stopped in Rabbit Valley (I-70 on the boarder of Utah and Colorado) to collect Calochortus nuttalli.  This is a lovely mariposa lily that blooms only on the west slope of Colorado in a deep shade of purple pink, not the color I was used to with Calochortus.  On the eastern slope of Colorado, another species called Calochortus gunnisonii blooms in shades of creamy white, and we collected two populations of this species later in the season.

Grand Canyon National Park.  How could I possibly be getting paid to do this?  I flew into Phoenix and a very nice lady (Marian Hofherr) picked us all up in a van and we arrived at the National Park late that night.  The lodging, the people, the training, the food, and the hiking were all fantastic.  Over the 7 full days we were there, one of the most astounding sights I witnessed was seeing the rare and endangered California Condors soaring tirelessly in the mouth of the great Grand Canyon.  These moments viewing an endangered species back from the brink of extinction were spiritual moments for me.  And I just kept asking myself, I am actually getting paid to be here?!  I think the greatest part of the training for me was participating in the presentations that Dean Tonenna and John Willouby gave.  Dean is a botanist with the BLM in Carson City, Nevada.  (I just paused for a moment to send Dean an e-mail to tell him I would love to work with him next spring).  Dean was brought up in the traditions of the Kootzatudadu people who live in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.  He has in depth ethno-botanical knowledge, and he integrates this knowledge with his work at the BLM in California.  He gave an ah-inspiring talk on the ethno-botany of the Sierra Nevada area.  The amazing thing was that the talk he gave was from 7-10pm after a long day of lectures.  Everyone in the audience was completely enthralled and interested in the topic.  I think folks would have stayed until midnight asking questions if the National Park Service would have allowed it!  Dean also gave a talk on the power of using GIS when studying the impacts of rare plants in a dune ecosystem.  It was all about the Sand Mountain Blue Butterfly that is known to occur only at Sand Mountain (a dune system located in Nevada).  This tiny bluish butterfly depends entirely on the Kerany Buckwheat which is a long lived perennial shrub.  The larvae feed on the leaves and adults feed on the nectar of the flowers.  By using his superb GIS skills, Dean was able to show over a few years time, the actual impact that was occurring to both the shrub and the butterfly due to Off Road Vehicle use in the area. GIS maps revealed and emphasized layers of abuse the shrubs were attempting to withstand as ORVs literally drove over the shrubs.  Therefore Dean was able to secure a large sum of money in the form of a grant (I think 1 million dollars) and put in place (via actual enclosures and signs) strict management measures to protect the plants and the butterflies. This presentation was inspiring.  I was impressed by Dean’s commitment and ability to use his knowledge and skills to make a difference and enforce needed protection for these precious species.  I also learned a great deal from John Willouby’s presentation on monitoring plant populations.  Not only were John’s presentations dynamic and alive we also went into the field to apply our classroom skills first hand.

Monotoring Colorado’s rarest of the rare.  In order to manage rare, threatened and endangered plants they need to be closely monitored.  This process involves collecting quantitative data over a number of years and constructing statistical calculations.  After years of data collection and number crunching, particular trends may appear regarding population stability or instability and real recommendations based on real facts can then be made. 

 Penstemon grahamiiWe set out to monitor Penstemon grahamii sometime in June.  This is a little wonder of a plant.  Tiny and tenacious as it is endemic growing only on certain types of oil shale formations in both western Colorado and eastern Utah.  For years efforts to list this species as threatened have been unsuccessful.  Sadly, the struggle to get these little jewels listed seems to be related to our (Homo sapiens) constant push and need for oil.  Penstemon grahamii habitat is desolate, dry and downright rugged.  I think Vince Tepedino sums it up well.  This exert is taken from a 2008 article Vince wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune: “Developing the oil shale lands of eastern Utah would require overcoming staggering obstacles…But even if we resolve these difficult issues, what of that glorious native wildflower, Graham’s penstemon, in all the world, known only from the oil and gas lands of eastern Utah and western Colorado?  Are we content knowing we’ve converted all its known populations to car exhaust for a few idle moments’ diversion? Is this the best we can do with the gifts we’ve been granted?”  What a notion.  How down right stupid are we?  

Penstemon grahamii.  Photo by Sue Mayer.

Penstemon grahamii. Photo by Sue Mayer.

I must admit monitoring the rare plants were some of my favorite experiences during this internship.  I stand in awe as I gaze at the little plants.  These rare beauties with the seemingly extra large (proportionately) flowers that are happily growing in some of the extreme environments the west has to offer. 

And so we got started counting each and every plant in predetermined micro-plots within a well designed larger macro-plot.  This was early June, and as the day and the work of counting, documenting and searching for new little baby plants proceeded, the temperature continued to rise.  All I could think of was how hot it must get in this spot in the middle of August!  I asked Peter Gordon what sort of results we obtained from the data this year compared to all other years.  As of moments ago (2:19 pm, 15 October 2009), it appears this Colorado population remains stable.  This includes vegetation density, #fruiting stems and # of rosettes.  These results include quantitative data back to 1986.  So I suppose we can sigh a breath of relief and continue to be in awe of this hardy little Penstemon growing so persistently in the face of such harsh conditions.

Astragalus osterhoutiiThis is one of those Latin bi-nominal’s that is just plain fun to pronounce.  Oster-hooo-tee-i (with an emphasis on the hooo)!  And the plant itself is one that only a botanist could love.  Anyone else would wonder why the heck we even care.  It has the appearance of a gangly weed sort of homely plant.  Carol Dawson spent years and years studying every detail of this species for her PhD research.  It was fun to constantly ask her questions about the plants as we carefully counted every single individual within the micro-plot.  This plant is listed as federally endangered (that is why we counted each and every individual rather than individuals from just a few pre-chosen micro-plots). I like to think you are truly in the presence of nobility when you are with the plant. 

Astragalus osterhoutii and Colorado endemic federally listed as endangered.

Astragalus osterhoutii and Colorado endemic federally listed as endangered.

I doubt the off road vehicle riders feel that way as they zoom around close to and sometimes even over these rarities.  The plant happens to be growing in what the BLM signifies as a “Play Area” which is basically a place people and their beloved dirt bikes etc. can go to rough up the land a bit (too much sometimes in my opinion).  The other cool thing about this plant is that it is one of a few in the genus that signifies the presence of selenium in the soil.  Quite simply the plants stink with a metallic sort of stench (some say garlic, but I would not give the smell that much credit.), and if eaten can poison ungulates, especially cattle.  The selenium incorporated in the tissues of this species come from the Niobrara, (another fun word to say), Shale in Grand County, Colorado.  They say it is so narrowly endemic that it only occupies about 800 acres of land in north central Colorado.  We monitored two entire populations of the plant over two days. 

Astargalus osterhoutii's habitat.

Astargalus osterhoutii's habitat.

Peter Gordon informed me that the population numbers at Wolford Mountain Dam were slightly increasing up until 2005.  In 2005 hungry blister beetles attacked and thus the number of flowering plants went way down.  These numbers have been recovering since the feast.
Heading to southern Colorado to help monitor Eriogonum brandegeei.  Mid-summer was upon us as we ventured south toward Canon City, Colorado to find Brandegee’s Buckwheat.  Townshend Stith Brandegee, an excellent botanist, was the first collector of this species and lived in the early 1900’s.  Ahhh, south central Colorado has a sweet place in my heart.  I spent many summers attending to the pollination biology of the rare and endemic Penstemon degeneri.  But this time instead of heading south from prison town USA, we headed north toward a couple of small populations occupied by E. brandegeei.  On the way up the dirt road, we were blocked Colorado style by a group of local horseback riders.  So we moved along at a horse walk pace for about a mile, (ok maybe ¼ miles) and the riders seemed to think nothing of the inconvenience.  You got to love it.  As we hiked toward the first population to meet folks from the Denver Botanic Gardens, we stumbled upon the decayed head of a horse with the red wiry forehead hair still intact against the bone white skull.  Another sign we were in the heart of Colorado.  Of course I had to stand there for a few minutes and wonder how this horse got here and then subsequently died.  As the three of us stood there gazing at the poor animal, Carol suggested some rancher may have driven out here and dumped the carcass for the dining pleasures of vultures.  I had not thought of that nasty possibility.  Meanwhile Denver Botanic Garden folks were waving from a rather steep slope in the distance greeting our arrival to “Brandegee country”.  Once again my botanical heart kind of skipped a beat just knowing we were now in the presence of not only a dead horse, but some very rare plants.  This day of work went by surprisingly quick with a total of 7 people counting plants.  Sadly on our way out of town the Ford Escape had a melt down.  We hung out in a Mexican restaurant eating chips and salsa, while the American mobile was checked out (luckily Canon City is home to many car dealerships).  The day in the life of a CLM intern can be amazingly diverse.

 Seed Collections for Success.  With a goal to collect 20,000 seeds from each species, Carol Dawson, Peter Gordon and myself collected over ½ million seeds!  That is just nuts.  Actually we did not collect any nuts.  Although nutlets were collected from Ligusticum porteri, sumaras from Acer glabrum and Acer negundo, capsules from Penstemon gracilis and Penstemon virens, and legumes from Astragalus shortianus, A. bisulcatus, and A.laxmannii.  The seeds came from vines, shrubs, trees, forbs and grasses.  Sometimes a handful contained literally thousands of the gene packed little jewels, and other times you struggled to obtain 20 in one grab. 

Calochortus gunisonnii, the Chalochortus that grows east of the Continental divide.  The west slope species is rose colored.

Calochortus gunisonnii, the Chalochortus that grows east of the Continental divide. The west slope species is rose colored.

Seed collection can be a zenful process with every seed collecting adventure is different.  Many days I was out all on my own wandering around the woods with a purpose, and yes, constantly amazed I was getting paid for this!  I even was able to collect Delphinium geyeri right from my house.  I live adjacent to Jefferson County Open Space, and I had my eye on those lovely Delphiniums for many weeks.  With all the rain the plants produced a huge amount of seeds.  It took me a full 8 hours to collect 20,000 seeds, but how wonderful to wonder out your back door for a collection!  And you run into the most interesting things.  While grabbing handfuls of Nine Bark seeds, I saw the biggest puff ball ever.  At first I thought it was some strange blob of mud, but

The fruit of Calochortus half full of seeds.  We obtained 3 collections from two species within this genus.

The fruit of Calochortus half full of seeds. We obtained 3 collections from two species within this genus.

than I realized that is a huge pile of spores (2’x2’) just patiently waiting for a strong gust to carry them hither.  And the ant hills were gorgeous, big, and intricate and obviously well organized mounds of detailed work. 

The ever lovely Frasera speciosa.  I came upon 1000's of these plants while searching on west Mount Falcon.  Each plant contained 1000s of seeds making it an enjoyable collection.

The ever lovely Frasera speciosa. I came upon 1000's of these plants while searching on west Mount Falcon. Each plant contained 1000s of seeds making it an enjoyable collection.

Once I watched a goshawk drop straight down out of a Douglas fir tree onto the ground most likely in pursue of a small mammal. It did not know I was there, and I had know idea what this animal was until I could see its birdly shape standing somewhat awkwardly on the ground.  I just stood there and eyeballed the raptor for many quiet and delicious woodsy moments. 

Watched this baby American Dipper at Lair o'the Bear park while scouting for seeds to collect.

Watched this baby American Dipper at Lair o'the Bear park while scouting for seeds to collect.

Also I had the pleasure of coming upon a young American dipper at Lair o’the Bear park while Another time while collecting Liatrus punctata, I came upon a harem of deer.  There was one big beautiful buck enjoying the company of at least a dozen females.  His head moved slowly as it was top-heavy with a giant antler rack that apparently was working well for him.

A special population of spurless Columbine known only from one location in Colorado.  Some of the flowers had no spurs at all, while others like this one had little nublets for spurs.

A special population of spurless Columbine known only from one location in Colorado. Some of the flowers had no spurs at all, while others like this one had little nublets for spurs.

While searching for a population of Carex to collect just North West of Boulder, Colorado, we randomly ran into another botanist.  He showed us a population of Botrychium (moonworts) close to where we had parked our vehicle.  What are the chances of running into another botanist, especially a moonwort specialist?  He said he figured we were botanists because he noticed the field press in the back of our vehicle. 

Gaillardia aristata getting pollinating 6 weeks before we collected!

Gaillardia aristata getting pollinating 6 weeks before we collected!

Other strange things happen as well.  As I was hiking down from the top of Green Mountain, I noticed a woman approaching me.  As I got closer she asked if I was alone, and she told me she was confident she saw someone else with me.  I assured her I was alone, and just out here searching for Astragalus plants!  And then I noticed she held tight in each hand a large stone ready to launch if I suddenly posed a threat.  I also had a Rottweiler dog want to eat me for lunch.  It could have been my large sunhat that provoked the canine, but I waited while the owner struggled to get the dog past me on the trail.  The lessons learned (although I had learned these lessons before) include keeping your wits about you, and following your instincts as you move through out the woods collecting seeds.  This is especially true if you are on your own.

Possible new discoveries while collecting.  Penstemon gracilis var. gracilis is a somewhat rare Penstemon in Colorado, but because of all the rain one particular population was blooming like crazy.  I heard about the plants in early June and went to check them out up at Reynolds Park, Colorado.  There were 1000’s of plants blooming, more than I had ever seen in this location.  I checked to see if the species had been collected before, and that particular variety had not been collected.  I was excited because that meant it would be a Kew collection and the seeds would go to the Royal Botanic Gardens! 

Penstemon gracilis at Reynolds Park, Colorado.  I think you can see an Osmia bee in the center flower.  These little Penstemon pollinators were everywhere on these plants.

Penstemon gracilis at Reynolds Park, Colorado. I think you can see an Osmia bee in the center flower. These little Penstemon pollinators were everywhere on these plants.

I returned to obtain voucher specimens and as I was carefully digging up the plants, Formica ants began to attack.  Crawling all over me and biting viciously anywhere skin was showing.  I was able to obtain the vouchers, but I was glad to be leaving those lovely lilac Penstemons alone to the ants and the bees.  I kept a watchful eye for the next 6 weeks or so, and finally I returned to collect the seeds.  As I began to collect I was struck by a familiar very strong smell.  It was the smell of a squished Formica ant.  I used to rock climb a lot, and every once and a while as climbers we would situate a belay near an ant nest (Formica ants), and I would smell that smell of formic acid.  The smell is distinct and rather nasty in large doses.  Every part of these plants smelled of formic acid including the stems, the leaves, the fruit, and the seeds!  I began to wonder what was going on.  Is there a connection between the ants and the plants?  From the early season attacks when the flowers were blooming and now to the strong smell.  I just happen to tell the story to a botanist and an animal behaviorist who studies ants at University of Colorado Denver.  Their eyes lit up and suggested the seeds may contain elaiosomes.  Elaiosomes are oil droplets that contain lipids and sometimes proteins.  These droplets are attached to the seeds and are meant to attract the ants.  Apparently fats and proteins are limiting substances for ants, and they go WILD for them.  We looked at the seeds under a microscope and sure enough we could see what looked like tiny little white bulb-lets on the ends of the seeds.  This made me wonder if other populations of this Penstemon gracilis smelled like formic acid as well.  I searched the Boulder Herbarium records for other populations and after a lot of searching and assistance with a ranger botanist person I know in Boulder, I was able to locate a few more plants.  Sure enough, the plants 50 miles away in Boulder, County smell like formic acid and the seeds also look to have possible elaiosomes.  Now I find myself with a dissecting scope, tiny little P. gracilis seeds (smaller than pepper grains), sharp forceps and a razor blade painstakingly attempting to remove the “elaisomoes” so that we can analyze what they are made of.  I think this was one of the most fun consequences/observances that happened during the CLM internship while collecting seeds.  I suppose the lesson here is keep your wits about you, observe what you see and what you smell, and you might just make a new discovery!

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