Time to Move on

I moved to Baker City, OR at the end of April to begin my tenure as the Recreation Intern for the Bureau of Land Management’s Baker City field office.  As I made the final drive into Baker, passing through lush green canyons along the I-84 corridor before dropping down into the Baker Valley with the snowcapped Elkhorn Mountains serving as a backdrop, I couldn’t help but immediately fall in love with the place.  After spending the previous couple of months walking dogs on the gray, drizzly sidewalks of Chicago, the new job and new setting were a much needed tonic.  I was ready for anything this place would throw at me.

Or so I thought.  From driving on winding one-lane dirt roads cut into steep canyon sides, to spending days trying to perfect (or just accomplish) backing up a trailer, to the arid climate, difficulties steadily stacked on top of each other.  By the middle of July, I felt like I didn’t even have the energy to lift a dust-caked hand to wipe the sweat from my forehead.  Seeing as I spent most of my time driving and updating signboards, I was surprised by my creeping lethargy.  Most of my previous jobs had involved much more physical exertion, so why was all this driving wearing me out? (Upon reflection, it was probably some combination of sleeping on a couch for the first couple of months and spending almost every weekend camping/road tripping).

My job often felt like an extended Dodge Ram commercial.

As the season progressed, and as we passed the insanity that was the lead up to the Solar Eclipse, the season became easier.  I settled into a more consistent routine and got my much needed rest, allowing me to better appreciate my surroundings.  I began to study the landscape as I drove (since I drove over 10,000 miles this summer, I did a lot of studying), which turned that monotonous task into one of my favorite parts of my day.  Early morning mists rose from the agricultural fields, the dried grasses around them dyed a pale gray-pink by the rising sun; the Grande Ronde River snaking through the countryside, creating a winding oasis; the sagebrush adding subtle greens to the rolling brown hills.  Surrounded by so much beauty on a daily basis, it was hard not to love those solo drives.

Myself and my supervisor Kevin Hoskins at the end of a successful river patrol.

The Grande Ronde River in its autumnal splendor.

Now those drives come to an end.  The season is over, and it is time for me to move on to my next job, this time in Colorado.  I’ll make one last long drive to get there, and I’ll be sure to pay attention to the landscape as I go by.

Michael Messina
Recreation Intern
Bureau of Land Management – Baker City Field Office

Alaska

All the leaves have fallen, as the snow returns to the mountaintops; my time here in Alaska has come to a close. It has been a pact summer of traveling, staying in the remote wilderness, native villages, and cabins all over Alaska. One does not truly get a sense of the seemingly endless amounts of wilderness until you are up here and in it. Alaska stands alone. I still struggle trying to conceptualize how all of this land can be managed in an appropriate and efficient manner. I guess, one aspect I have learned is that Alaska is allowed to be wild, in the sense that there is so much public land it is hard to evaluate and monitor every piece year after year. For many places, it requires extensive planning and resources to travel to monitor a spot for an extended period. Often times it includes taking planes, helicopters, boats, snow-machines, or ATVs to reach these areas. Consequently, with such low population density, fire regimes have been preserved, there are fewer invasive species (as of now), and human disturbance is minimal. This allows nature to hold on to its wild unique qualities and ecosystem dynamics, which has been lost in most places around the world.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time spent exploring and learning numerous ecosystems Alaska has to offer. Through this internship, I have been able to stretch my knowledge outside of just trees, too a multitude of plants, lichens, and mosses. Alaska has also provided some of the juiciest, delectable blue berries I have ever tasted, as well as a plethora of new berries to try including one of my favorites, the cloudberry. It has presented a ton of new opportunities to challenge myself, over come obstacles, and connect with some great people. Alaska has me constantly turning my head to look at the next mountain peak, constantly looking out the window for the next glimpse of wildlife, and constantly asking questions about the unique environmental attributes. I have cherished every moment serving as a conservation and land management intern up here, down to the last mosquito. Until next time Alaska.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

November

As November approaches and my crew enters into month eight with the BLM in Grants Pass our field work is also coming to a close. We have weathered many conditions, survived dehydration, exhaustion, and sometimes repetitive mindnumbing tasks in the outdoors. We have spent countless hours in the car listening to music, podcasts, finding the best coffee shops to fuel our energy, nearly getting stuck navigating BLM “roads,” and figuring out how to turn our big red truck (clifford) around on such roads. We have learned many new plants, and forgotten some of them. We have gotten to know each other through the many hours we spend together, learning our lunch preferences, our guilty snacks, artist preferences, podcast opinions, significant other troubles, and of course we have figured out our goals, hopes and dreams. We have bonded over poison oak rashes, naps in the sun, office day boredom, and the frustrations of our Junos. We still have a few more weeks tying up loose ends and entering data, but I am grateful for the many months we spent outdoors exploring and learning.

Shout out to clifford, our big red truck monarch cocoon found when collecting asclepias fascicularis

Fall work days

Farewell CLM

Wow, I cannot believe this internship is over! It feels like the season went by in a heartbeat, yet it also seems like I have doing this job for an eternity. The season is changing, fall is coming, and I am feeling very ready to move on to other things. I am really grateful that this internship has brought me the enchanted land of New Mexico, which is truly a hidden gem. Coming from the California coast to the high desert, I was initially in shock of the different landscape, air, and how magnificent the sky is out here. Learning a whole new plant community has also been a treat, and experiencing the summer monsoons, the heat of the desert, the aspen leaves turning, lightning and wind storms waking me up in the middle of the night, spending more time outside then inside, learning the plant communities throughout the state, being able to spend my time monitoring and trying to protect rare plants and help cultivate a native seed supply for restoration, and overall focusing the past 5 months of conservation in various landscapes and scales has been such an amazing opportunity.

I was expecting to just be doing SOS all season, and once I arrived to the New Mexico State Office I found out that I would be primarily focusing on rare plant monitoring throughout the state. I was a little surprised at first because my expectations were shifted, but I was excited for this new learning opportunity. I wasn’t expecting as much camping as I had this season, but it became such a routine in my schedule, within a few weeks of my internship I was more comfortable sleeping in my tent then in my own room. Being able to sleep under the stars, wake up with the sun, and completely interact and engage with the outside world was really grounding and special to me. I think this internship has allowed me to sink roots in New Mexico and help build confidence within myself, as I spent a majority of the past 5 months virtually alone in my thoughts.

I was able to have ownership over so much of the work that I did in this internship, which was really sweet. Navigating to a site, determining if it is suitable to monitor, then setting up the proper transect area depending on the plant distribution, and collecting data on each plant with data sheets that me and my co-worker created ourselves, and then later entering this data that will be used to examine and analyze these populations. It is pretty amazing that I was a part of the first year that the BLM in New Mexico is doing a widespread demographic trend monitoring project of the rare plants in the state, especially since I had no prior rare plant monitoring experience! It is also so important to have a baseline understanding of these plants so decision makers and land managers can make informed choices when they are confronted with interacting with these species. And over time, this baseline understanding can lead to a greater knowledge of how the plants shift and respond to disturbances, development, herbivory, and everything in between. It is really sweet that I helped start this project that will be going on for the next 10 years!

I really enjoyed creating a poster for the Native Plant Society Conference, I liked being able to communicate the work that I have been doing for the past 5 months to a wider audience. It was also rewarding being able to share my experience and answer people’s questions about the work. I think it is so important bridge the gap between science and the greater community, using outreach, social media (such as this blog..!), attending conferences and conventions, hosting volunteer events, and so on. All this research and time spent on examining these systems aren’t worth anything if no one has access to it!

There is a very specific energy in the desert, the seemingly sparse appearance of life creates space for your own reflection and appreciation of beauty. You just have to be open to it and pay attention to the little things. The way yucca grows so forcefully out of basalt, how the incredibly vibrant and rare Eriogonium gypsophilum thrives on the mooncrust gypsum, how the sage smells so sweet and strong after a monsoon rain, the sweet relief of seeking shelter under a juniper or pinon pine when the sun is excruciating, are just some of the countless wonders I have been so lucky to experience. My primary thoughts behind this internship, besides getting the transects done in time, making sure I observed the right plant height, tag number, and number of seeds, was trying to give as much love and special attention to all these plants that are threatened by a world focused on development and growth of the economy, by a changing climate, and by hungry critters seeking nourishment. I hope I was able to do that, bring more than just sound science to these struggling species, but form some sort of connection in hopes that will survive.

Rare Plants in New Mexico, a Rhyme

 

Rare Plants of New Mexico

I am on a mission, a wild plant hunt

To find the rarest, most special flora of the runt

The struggling plant species throughout the state

The munched, tired, living on specific substrate

Many grow near roads, trails, oil and gas

Where their little stems don’t stand a chance

Townsendia, the sweet little desert daisy

Thrives on gypsum soil and trails that go crazy

Astragalus, the yummy little pea

Grows in PJ shrublands with glee

Eriogonum, the vibrant buckwheat

Bright yellow flowers lookin so sweet

On gypsum soil is where it is found

And oil and gas is always around

Bracks cactus, the tiniest little thing

Easy to miss, until you feel it’s sting

All these plants are important and sweet

Bringing diversity only they can meet

Tagging, surveying, monitoring a’plenty

This work is tedious but the rewards are many

Helping understand population, habitat, and needs

In order to conserve and protect these plants and their seeds!

Field Season in New Mexico, a Rhyme

Sage, pinon, juniper galore

Learning these plants is never a bore

Heterotheca makes me smile and sneeze,

Yellow aster growing along roads with ease

Sphaeralcea, the most beautiful orange flower

Got the bees pollinating, growin’ in power

Sporobolous, Elymus, Bothriochloa, me o’ my

Graminoids with an abundance like pie

Can’t forget the good ol’ Bouteloua

Gracilis, curtipendula, and eriopoda,

Their seeds ripen and ready only in the fall

The phenology of these plants is such a ball

Seasons change, monsoons come and go

I love being able to see the shift so slow

Fallugia, the puffy seed heads so fun to collect

It is meditative focusing my energy on this subject

Of conservation, restoration, harvesting plant power

To make this world more green, native, and wild by the hour!

Using petal-powered fun to collect Heterotheca villosa

Chasing Fall

Fall in Wyoming is beautiful, for its entire two weeks of existence. We’ve been lucky to have some warm days to spend in the field, soaking up as much Vitamin D as possible before winter sets in! While the snow slowly creeps down the mountain towards us with every passing storm, we’ve had the opportunity to go out with just about every department in the field office to complete last minute projects and learn more about each person’s role in land management. Highlights include: assisting the land survey teams, completing trail maintenance with recreation, visiting on-sites with the wildlife biologists, and talking to hunters about our public lands. Every day is something new, and it keeps things exciting, even as field season winds to a close.

 

Middle Fork Powder River Canyon

Snow on the Bighorns

Red Canyon near Kaycee, WY

One of the last sunny, beautiful field days!

From Observation to Prediction: Modeling Species Distributions in the Mojave Desert

As I’ve written before, my original internship period, which focused on developing priority species lists for restoration sites in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, has been extended into the fall in order to work on the next phase of this project. In this extension period, I have dramatically switched gears: from a mode of observation of how species in the low desert of southern Nevada and California operate to one of prediction. What is the scope of distribution for these species? What environmental variables impose limits on the breadth of their occurrence? And how can we make this information as accessible and useful to land managers as possible?

 

From the list of priority restoration species for the Mojave Desert, my Principal Investigators and I chose 50 species with which to take the next step: creating species distribution models (SDMs) to be incorporated into an adaptive management tool for BLM land managers. This tool would further expedite the restoration process by allowing BLM agents to create “seed menus” for recently disturbed sites. The idea is that land managers would be able to input coordinates for the site in need of restoration into this tool, and up will pop not just one, but a whole suite of plant species suited tailored for the restoration needs of that location, as well as viable seed source locations and information on ecosystem services (specifically for desert tortoise and pollinators) that those plants provide.

 

My main task in this endeavor has been to gather and vett species occurrence data to use as presence points in our models. My main sources for this information have been unpublished data sets from vegetation surveys taken across the Mojave and herbarium records from public databases such as the California Consortium of Herbaria and the Southwestern Environmental Information Network (SEINet). After a few weeks of gathering a robust number of points and giving them a thorough cleaning, we are ready to actually make some SDMs!

Ephedra nevadensis, one of the species for which we are producing distribution models for our Seed Menus project.

 

Our process involves three algorithms: 1) a General Additive Model (GAM), a crossbreed between General Linear Models and Additive Models, 2) Random Forest, which is basically a decision tree on steroids, and 3) MaxEnt, the famed maximum entropy algorithm. We first produce an equal number of pseudoabsences (randomly generated points from likely habitat) to go with our presence points. True absence data are rare in vegetation data, so generation of these pseudoabsences is necessary to provide a comparison to presence data. To reduce bias in the data, we thin the presence points to one per grid cell (size of grid cells) and weight ones that are highly isolated from any neighbors. A further bias test we do is cross-validation, in which different models are tested with 75 randomly selected points for a preliminary analysis of goodness-of-fit. After that, we go through each algorithm and formulate response curves of our points to different environmental variables – this helps us determine which variables best explain variance in the data. We then choose a few preliminary models of the best-fitting response curves, and take the mean of these models for each algorithm. After going through all three, we take our top model choices for each algorithm, and take what is known as an ensemble mean. Once this is done, we conduct a last evaluation of performance using the Boyce Index and mask any impervious surfaces in our layers. And voila! We have a robust distribution map for one of our species.

Models of sample data produced with GAM, Random Forest, and MaxEnt algorithms, as well as an ensemble model (the mean of the previous three outputs).

This one-at-a-time approach takes quite a while, but it’s worth it to get sound results for each species. There are alternative modeling methods that are faster (such as Canonical Correspondence Analysis), but the results they produce are not as robust in terms of individual species. Our method aims to produce the most accurate and useful information possible for land managers in the Mojave Desert. With more disturbance happening in the Desert Southwest than ever before, it’s imperative that we have the tools to make sound, on-the-fly decisions. I’m excited to see this tool be put to use in the coming years; to get a better understanding of its strengths and limitations.

A Plethora of New Opportunities

Over the past month, I have had the opportunity to work on many new projects. The first being a hike through Sweetwater Canyon. This hike occurs every year when the Aspen and Willow leaves just start changing color. We were split into two teams; each team taking half of the canyon. The goals for the hike were to document changes in vegetation along the greenline, find, re-take, and GPS record location photos, and to find any stray cows that may have been missed. Though challenging, finding old photo locations was fun (we only had old photos to go off of) and rewarding. My team also looked for signs of Boreal Frogs in the canyon as we hiked and salamanders on some riparian areas outside the canyon where they had previously been recorded. Sadly, we didn’t find any.

After the canyon hike, we had a few days of not so pleasant weather. With that came a lot of office work. Office worked involved filing (which I enjoy a few good hours of filing), creating a master allotment file for the Wildlife people to use, and assisting with billing catch-up. Billing was an interesting task. We ended up having to redo a bunch of letters we had made because we were informed we did something wrong through no fault of our own. The person teaching us how to make the letters forgot to tell us about a portion so we ended up spending an extra day fixing our letters. This was no problem at all since the field was inaccessible.

Snow…. I was not expecting you so soon.

Once the weather cooperated, we made our way back out into the field in search of cattle! By this time, most cattle had left the allotments in which we worked. We did find a few stragglers but they made it home. In searching for any cattle that may have been forgotten, my partner and I noticed many more horses. We couldn’t tell if we had just never noticed them because of our fixation on cattle or if more had shown up. Seeing them in such large herds was beautiful.

We came across a huge herd of horse while searching for cattle.

Looking out across one of the pastures scanning for any left cattle.

Scanning for the ever elusive cattle. None were to be found!

Currently, we are finishing up some final measurements in our key riparian areas, making some new fences safe for Sage Grouse, and starting an Environmental Assessment (EA) so we can get more experience with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). I look forward to the last month of this internship and all of the continuing education and experience I shall gain.

Seed to Flower

The last three months of my internship has been focused on Seeds of Success and a plethora of other seed related activities!

My team was able to collect 43 species and had a great time scouting, keying plants, taking herbarium vouchers and processing the collections. The Medford, OR district BLM has been involved with the program since the founding of the program in 2010 and has one of the largest number of collections, currently at 1068! This posed some difficulty for us but also lead to opportunities to find unique collections such as a succulent and riparian species.

We were also able to work in two Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). French Flat and King Mountain and collected seeds of two federally listed species Hackelia bella (Greater showy stick seed) and Sidalcea hickmanii ssp. petraea (Neil Rock sidalcea – We hiked up to the only know endemic population!) One of the collections I really enjoyed was Xerophyllum tenax (Bear grass), here is the plant and one of my favorite pictures I took this summer.

Xerophyllum tenax at King Mountain Area of Critical Environmental Concern

Hackelia bella (Greater showy stick seed) collected from the Cascade Siskiyou Monument. Vouchers can be so beautiful!

Along with SOS, we participated in various other seed activities.  For a few days we filled seed orders for fire remediation and restoration projects. We would go into huge seeds coolers to search for the seed lot then weigh, mix and packaged seeds. We mixed orders up to 950 lbs in a kiddy pool! (Deschampsia cespitosa seeds are one of the softest materials I have ever felt!)

I also attended a Nature Conservancy restoration volunteer day at the Agate Desert preserve. In the spring they did a control burn across the property and have been spreading seed in vernal pool communities this fall. The day I helped we spread 19 lbs of federally-listed endangered Lomatium cooki (Cook’s desert parsley). I hope to stay around the area and see how this bare land blossoms in the coming year.

Federally-listed endangered Lomatium cooki (Cook’s desert parsley) at The Nature Conservancy’s Agate Desert Preserve.

I also had the chance to help out this week at the USFS J. Herbert Stone Nursery. The nursery is 311 acres, including 240 acres of native plant production! We helped package one-year old tress to be sent out around the Pacific Northwest and got a great tour of the facilities. Many of the seeds collected through the SOS program are grown out here for seed increase to be used in a variety of projects from restoration to fire remediation.

Another cycle is coming to an end, for me and the seeds. Cant wait to see how we blossom next season!

Pseudotsuga menziesii saplings at Stone Nursery

The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sienna M. Grants Pass, OR – BLM