Bureaucracy and butterfly plant

Howdy from Cheyenne, Wyoming! Requisite cowboy-speak; it is, after all, Frontier Days in Cheyenne this week, and everyone and everything is rodeo- and country-music-crazy. Over one million tourists come through over the course of nine days, and I can hear the nightly concerts (Florida Georgia Line, Brad Paisley, and Tim McGraw, to name a few) from my house, two miles from the arena.
But outside Frontier Days, my position here is based around revising Bureau of Land Management (BLM) documents that assess the effects of government action on threatened and endangered (T & E) species and establish conservation measures to protect them. The documents, called programmatic biological assessments (BAs), exist for every species occurring in Wyoming that is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). BAs can be more than 50 pages long, could cover just one field office in the state or all ten of them, can go years without being updated, and rely mostly on intergovernmental communication and consultation, rather than published scientific literature. So, revising them is a pretty big job. I spent a while wading through the bureaucracy and maze of documents and policies that pertain to the species I’m working on, trying to acquaint myself with a world and a set of language that are very different from the academic research I’m familiar with. The profusion of acronyms, which you might already have noticed, doesn’t make things any easier– knowing an NSO from an HMA from an ACEC from a DPC (and so on and so forth) is critical in working on these documents. But I’m getting the hang of it, asking questions, and figuring out how this system works. Hopefully soon you’ll see updated programmatic biological assessments for Yermo xanthocephalus (desert yellowhead), Spiranthes diluvialis (Ute ladies’-tresses), and Gaura neomexicana ssp. coloradensis (Colorado butterfly plant).
Threatened and Endangered plants of Wyoming poster, in my cubicle for inspiration. And because plants are pretty.

Threatened and Endangered plants of Wyoming poster, in my cubicle for inspiration. And because plants are pretty.

But thankfully I haven’t spent all of my time poring over government documents. Over the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to help out with surveys for that last species, Colorado butterfly plant. Butterfly plant is a threatened species that occurs in riparian areas, and in Wyoming, only occurs near Cheyenne. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been conducting the surveys. A survey basically consists of driving out to a known butterfly plant habitat in the morning, walking with the other surveyors–from one to five people total–in a line to extend horizontally from the side of a creek through suitable habitat for the plant, and calling out how many plants we find as we walk along the creek while someone takes GPS points. Some surveys, each of us have only seen a few plants: maybe one or two at a time, and spaced far apart. But on other surveys, there have been too many to count: we’ve had to just make estimates of the number of plants in a huge cluster. And at one survey location, we saw a mutated specimen of the plant with a much wider stem– think rhubarb instead of a daisy– and an enormous inflorescence with dozens of flowers at the tip, instead of just a few.
normal, non-mutated butterfly plant

normal, non-mutated butterfly plant

mutant butterfly plant

mutant butterfly plant

And we’ve found some other fun critters on the surveys, too. One of the surveyors nearly stepped on a snipe nest (Gallinago sp.), and on another morning, after seeing several areas where antelope had bedded down in the tall grass, another surveyor startled a fawn who jumped out from just a few feet in front of her and bounded in the opposite direction.
snipe eggs

snipe eggs

I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to do a mix of field work and office work in my position– it makes you appreciate both aspects of the job so much more. I look forward to spending more time in the field on visits to a few of the field offices in the coming months, and I’m excited to continue to learn more about these endangered plant species and the work we can do to protect them.
Here’s a Frontier Days rodeo picture for the road. Cheers from Cheyenne!
Bull riding at Cheyenne Frontier Days. They played "You Shook Me All Night Long" while this section started; also note that the bull is airborne here.

Bull riding at Cheyenne Frontier Days. They played “You Shook Me All Night Long” while the event started. Also note that the bull is airborne.

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