Behold: A Frozen Rare Plant

Wyoming’s desert yellowhead (Yermo xanthocephalus) is the rarest of Wyoming’s four listed threatened plants.

It seems odd that any monitoring can really be done in a foot of snow, but not every state can be geographically located to have sunshine 360 days a year. While other states would likely call it quits the minute the precip charts start to stir (looking at you California), leave it to Wyoming to put on the gaiters and saddle up (yee-haw). And so, with a foot of snow on the ground, off we went into the badlands of Wyoming to monitor cheatgrass at one of the county’s only documented Yermo sites.

What in the world is Yermo? Nobody knew until 1990, when Robert Dorn, Wyoming’s very own resident plant expert, discovered the first population. When Dorn first came across the plant in spring he suspected it might be a new species of milkweed based on its leathery leaves and waxy yellow buds. When he returned to collect it in June he was surprised to find that the plant was actually a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae or Compositae) and not a milkweed at all! He noticed that the floral bracts were quite unusual in being bright yellow rather than green and leafy as in 99% of all other composites. Dorn realized that he had not only a new species, but also a new and undescribed genus. The plant was given the the name Yermo xanthocephalus by Dorn in 1991; yermo meaning “desert” in Spanish, and xanthocephalus translating as “yellow head”.*

Still, desert yellowhead remains known only from Dorn’s original population, despite extensive searching for suitable habitat. It was listed as threatened by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act in 2002.Today it is known as the rarest of Wyoming’s four listed endangered plants, being known in Fremont County, WY and nowhere else.

So you might understand why, even with a foot of snow on the ground, I was pretty excited to head out and uncover this thing. We hiked about a mile in and as we approached, I realized that I wasn’t dressed for the occasion. As we got closer our target area, at the foot of a large butte, my feet and ankles slowly began to freeze and I had vague visions of my mentor hauling me out, my embarrassment surpassed only by the disappointment of not getting to see the plant. But thoughts of my frozen limbs disappeared when I heard her excited shout. How she could find and recognize this remarkably rare plant in all the snow was beyond me, but I wasted no time asking questions and rushed over to behold the plant for myself.

Approaching the Yermo population

What I saw was akin to a frozen plant skeleton. Completely unspectacular and unremarkable in any way to the untrained eye. Partially buried in the snow, the plant had one to five stems up to 1 foot tall. Its leaves were alternate and slightly oval to lance shaped about 1 1/2 to 10 inches long, and often folded at the midvein. I learned that the plant grows new shoots each year from an overwintering taproot and usually begins flowering in late June and continues to flower over the entire growing season. Its unique among Wyoming composites in having bright yellow floral bracts that resemble a series of fleshy bananas, although it all looked dead and brown when we saw it.

Not much to look in the winter, but this little guy is actually doing pretty well here!

No one knows how long desert yellowhead can live. Long term studies have shown that population numbers fluctuate from year to year. We visited this population to monitor cheatgrass observed nearby. Although no cheatgrass was found among the plants, we did find some nearby. This could be worrying because cheatgrass is invasive and if established, could outcompete this delicate population. Management decisions today could easily influence this threatened species.

Its easy to see how this little plant could easily get overlooked and why some might question large efforts to remove and control invasive grasses in areas where no cattle grazing exists, however the BLM recognizes that plant conservation and protection is essential to sustain the ecological, economic, and aesthetic values of our public lands. For this effort, the Wyoming BLM is preparing a desert yellowhead conservation strategy in coordination with local, state, and other federal agencies.

No Yermo up on top, just amazing views!

Now that my season is wrapping up, I’m looking forward to the next adventure. In two weeks I’ll be leaving for Sacramento, where I’ll be working with the Bureau of Reclamation on water use policy. It’ll be important to remember all the pieces in the puzzle. From the many sagebrush all the way to the lone Yermo.

Gwen Robson, Lander BLM

* Bureau of Land Management. “Wyoming’s Threatened and Endangered Plant Species: Desert Yellowhead”. U.S. Department of the Interior.


Bittersweet Goodbye to Idaho

For the past five months, I have been interning at the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in eastern Idaho. The focus of my botany internship was a region-wide seed collection project. Brittni, the other CBG intern, and I conducted field surveys and seed collecting/processing of native plant species that were beneficial for pollinators and sage-grouse. We are based out of the Caribou-Targhee NF Forest Supervisor’s Office (SO) in Idaho Falls, ID and work on the CTNF, Bridger-Teton National Forest, southern portion of the Sawtooth National Forest, and northern Uinta-Wasatch-Cache NF.

We made 30+ collections of Erigeron speciosus seeds across the Caribou-Targhee NF, Bridger-Teton NF, Sawtooth NF, and Uinta-Wastach-Cache NF.

I was especially drawn to this job for the opportunities to explore these incredible National Forests. Besides our primary duties associated with the seed collection project, we surveyed and tagged monarch butterflies on the Curlew National Grassland; assisted with the coordination of volunteer seed collection and restoration events; surveyed rare plants; and assisted with botany and pollinator educational and conservation projects. We also got to work with the other specialists on the Forest: we helped the range specialist with Sage-Grouse Habitat Assessment plots; accompanied the soil scientist to inspect fuel treatment burn piles and  timber harvests; toured a Paleo-Indian archeological dig with the archeologists; participate in stream restoration projects with the hydrologists and fish biologist; and transplant sedges, plant sagebrush, and broadcast seed various restoration projects with many of the experts above.

Collecting point transect data for Sage-Grouse Habitat Assessment plots on the Caribou-Targhee NF.

Rose Lehman, our supervisor and the CTNF botanist, insisted on giving us the fullest experience and exposure to every facet of the FS through our internship. For example, my interests lay more in forestry and forest restoration, so she sent Brittni and I to forest restoration conference in Utah for two days. We also participated in the Idaho Climate Summit, meetings discussing rare plants for the Salmon-Challis NF, meetings for the soil inventory of the CTNF with the NRCS, and many other opportunities that enhanced our internship.

Castilleja sp. and Pedicularis groenlandica found while giving a Native Plant Walk to members of the Teton Land Trust and Master Naturalists.

Through this internship I have grown tremendously, both professionally and personally. I have gained experience and knowledge in a wide variety of topics relating to natural resources. My botany skills are far superior to when I started; I am more comfortable using dichotomous keys and am no longer “grass blind.” I am not afraid to ask questions, and more importantly, am not embarrassed for not knowing things. The latter was a difficult lesson for me to learn. For about a month and a half I was constantly frustrated with myself for not instantly learning every plant on the Forest; I had forgotten how difficult it was to work in a new ecosystem because all my previous experience was focused in one ecotype. I also have gained an increased confidence in my abilities and knowledge, and am less afraid to voice them. I have to remind myself that I do have important, relevant, and useful insight. Lastly, I have learned to be realistic about a situation: to set achievable goals and be realistic about the limitations (this is especially important in the context of working with the Forest Service where they operate as a multiple-use agency with many stakeholders and under various regulations).

Wildfire smoke creating a hazy sunset on the Bridger-Teton NF.

Lastly, I would like to thank both Rose and CBG for being so incredibly flexible and encouraging of me taking time to travel to Oregon and Freiburg, Germany to give presentations on research I did as an undergraduate. The conferences focused on forest regeneration and forestry in general, and were invaluable experience for me as a young scientist.

An abundance of wildflowers, including, Castilleja sp., Agastache urticifolia, Geranium viscosissimum, Delphinium sp., Erigeron speciosus, and many more.

It is very bittersweet to leave the CTNF, I am going to miss Brittni and Rose and all the amazing people I got to work with, and I will especially miss the beautiful forests and rangeland of eastern Idaho.

On one of our final days of fieldwork took us on a hike through gorgeous fall foliage.

Farewell Boise

Its been a great 10 months working in beautiful Idaho as an aspiring botanist (native seed intern)! Five of those months were spent camping out  in Idahos national forests, scouting for plant populations and collecting seeds! One of my favorite parts about this job was getting to explore the diverse habitats of Idaho and learning new plant species!! We made a total of 70 seed collections from 5 different species (Douglas’ dustymaiden (Chaenactis douglasii), nettleleaf giant hyssop (Agastache urticifolia), silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata), showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus) and hoary tansyaster (Machaeranthera canescens).These species were chosen for their benefit to sage grouse chicks and pollinators. In addition, these plants have wide distributions throughout the Intermountain Region, growing in a variety of habitats from low elevation desert scrub to subalpine dry meadows. Not only did I get to find the populations, monitor them and collect them, but as I wrap up my internship, I also am participating in cleaning the seed at a nursery and placing the collections in cold storage. I also got to use my GIS skills, making maps of the populations and use our data to model distributions. It’s been an amazing experience, I will miss Boise and the plants!!

Collecting Erigeron speciosus seed in the Sawtooth National Forest!


View from one of our populations in the Salmon-Challis National Forest

My favorite forest (Payette National Forest), this particual area near Hazard Lake was covered in carpets of wild flowers!!

Clarkia sp.












Corallorhiza maculata

Pedicularis sp.


Sac Valley Grand Finale

I left home 6 months ago with a definite uncertainty of what was to come. As a recent graduate, it seemed like the world was beckoning for me to come calling. I had just finished up a degree, which had my entire focus up to its completion, and the opportunities all looked quite enticing. Ultimately, I chose to leave my home and embrace what California had to offer with open, albeit anxious arms. I knew I was in for hard work in a challenging and unfamiliar environment, especially arriving amidst one of the Central Valley’s many summer heat waves. I knew that I was going to be without the family that has been such a crucial aspect of my upbringing. I also knew that I was going to be living in what some people consider to be the middle of nowhere.

What came next was one of the most rewarding learning experiences I have ever been engaged in. Even beyond college. Every day was truly something new. New problems to solve and trouble to shoot. Frustrating at times. On the whole, it was an experience in very hands-on management that sometimes meant long hours of hard labor in a seemingly unrelenting heat.

There were many days I came home absolutely exhausted. Enough energy to fully rehydrate, cook a quick meal, and then retire to the comfort of a chair to clear my mind with the guitar that accompanied me on this cross-country expedition. Weekends of adventure were numerous. In a short period of time I managed to see the Pacific Coast in its summer glory, Big Sur in particular, Yosemite, the Desolation Wilderness, Lassen, and many other fantastic places. It’s not hard to see what Muir and many others since have been on about when it comes to this state’s beautiful places. I learned to adventure and make new friends through these adventures, something I was previously disinclined to do.

I learned what it means to have a job that you take, and are expected to take very seriously. This thanks to my mentor, who taught me to have confidence and trust in my abilities to figure out what needed to be done and when with minimal interference. I also learned just how incredible it is to manage wetlands and see the changes of such a system through the seasons. In summer the ponds are dry and don’t really resemble a pond at all. Of course, by looking at the vegetation you can see their purpose. Once flood-up starts you quickly learn that fresh water being pumped into these ponds really brings them to life. Cranes and egrets begin to poke around and then more geese and ducks as the ponds continue to fill to their planned levels. There are intricacies to every pond that I don’t think I even began to scratch the surface on understanding, but that are certainly observable given enough time and the eye to spot them. To me there is still nothing quite as rewarding as seeing ponds go from dry ground to wetlands with thousands of birds in them. It isn’t hard to feel like your work is appreciated by the birds in whatever way they might feel appreciation.

I don’t know if I truly understand all the ways in which I grew through this internship, or even all the ways in which I have changed or learned. I do know, however, just how inspired I feel to continue to go forth and engage in conservation as a full-time focus of my life. Who can say where it will take me, but I am certainly excited for the ride. There will always be my found memories of this time no matter where I end up and it will undoubtedly be a crucial step in the story that is yet to unfold.

With that, I am very grateful for this opportunity and all that are involved in making it possible for young folks like myself and so many others that are hoping to put their love and appreciation for the land and beings around us to good use. I am very appreciative for all the wonderful people I met, worked with, and was mentored by along the way. It’s reassuring to know that there are people working hard to set a precedent upon which those of us just recently entering the “real world” can build on and learn from.

Signing out—

Tyler Rose
CLM Intern
Cosumnes River Preserve
Galt, CA (Mother Lode Field Office–Folsom, CA)

Boll on Lookout

It is my last day here at the Bureau of Land Management. I owe a giant thank you to the entire office who welcomed me since day one. I wish everyone the best as we part ways and head on to other opportunities. To the district, to the people, to the landscape, thank you for all the experiences.

For those potential interns listening, take this opportunity. No matter how far from home this takes you, run with it and make the most of it. It is truly an internship that will give you the exposure and experiences you need to succeed in the natural resource career field. Make the most of this and discover/develop your passion.

This is Boll on Lookout signing off.

Take care.

Rare Species Monitoring

Hello all!!

So over the last 4 weeks I have been working on some rare species monitoring in the Ridgecrest Field Office. The Ridgecrest field office is commonly used for off highway vehicles and certain populations must be monitored for potential human interference. The other Ridgecrest SOS intern and I have been going out into the field and searching for these populations in places they have been spotted before.

Doing this has been a lot closer to what I actually see myself doing in the future. Having the ability to go out and make sure that these populations are safe and reproducing is close to what I see myself doing in the future.

Its been a lot of fun going out and searching for these

Life at the BLM BFO II

Here at the Buffalo Field Office the other Range interns and I have finally completed all our field work for the season, as well as all the paperwork that goes with that. With the joy of that in mind, we promptly threw a potluck party that weekend. The following Monday most (if not all) of the office went out to see the Solar Eclipse (us included). Since we were only a few hours away from the zone of totality, a fellow intern and I went down south with a friend we had made in Buffalo, near the small town Lost Cabin WY. We took BLM roads and parked on BLM land, using some of our acquired navigating skills to lead us.

It was a long but enjoyable day and we were all happy to get back in our beds at the end. 🙂

August was a packed month that brought a lot of new experiences in and out of the field. My partner and I have continued to monitor where cattle are grazing and check on the health of their favorite “ice cream feed” spots, the coveted riparian areas that dot the allotments. Doing these compliance checks has allowed me to gain more experience in using the GPS, try out different monitoring techniques and get out in some of the most remote areas of the field office to see some incredible views and creatures. Recently, while solo surveying a riparian area, I came across a group of about 150 wild horses and was able to admire them from a few hundred yards away while they snorted at me and slowly trickled out of the draw we were in.

At the beginning of August, a friend came up from Colorado and we went on a spectacular backpacking trip to the Cirque of Towers in the Wind River Mountain Range. We quickly learned that most people took four or five days to do the route we were completing in three, but it was a great challenge and we came home sore but refreshed. A couple weeks later I went home for a weekend and it was so fun to see friends, family, and of course my dogs!

Since I didn’t start the internship until early June I still have about a month and a half to go and have just recently started the arduous task of applying to jobs all over the country. There is still plenty of field work to be done and the weather just recently changed from being in the high 80s or low 90s to all of the sudden being in the 40s when we wake up (not even mad about it). I am excited to get our first snowfall and see how our work may change as the weather gets a little less predictable. The cows have about a month before they are rounded up for the winter, a task that still blows my mind after seeing how spread out and surprisingly adept at hiding they are. In the mean time, I will be switching from iced to hot coffee and busting out the wool socks.

Winter Reflections and Warm Goodbyes

When people ask me how my internship has been, there is always a moment of fraught silence as I wrestle for a place to even begin.  How can you give a glib watercooler answer about an eternity of grass, silence so deep that only the gulls and ospreys dare break it?  To hours and hours pouring over hundreds of species of plants, becoming intimately aware of their endless variations?  The carefully nurtured, by now almost instinctive reflex to look for diagnostic characteristics in grasses and sedges that had you in tears six months ago?  

Over the course of the past few months I’ve learned that unexpected beauty can be found everywhere.  I didn’t anticipate finding much in the sense of wild spaces in the history laden, densely settled northeast coast, but New England continued to surprise in how resilient it’s natural areas continue to be, as well as how passionately the region’s residents will defend these spaces.  Five miles from a drag race track, in an old ATV area,  we found one of the most botanically biodiverse sites on our collection list.  A barren, at risk mudflat in one of our estuaries exploded into greenery and yielded more than fifteen collectable species.  In the the saltmarsh we took careful steps as native grasses sheltered nests of baby birds and mice, the only indication of their presence a quiet chirp or squeak that would startle us as we worked.  

Although at first I was intimidated by how many private landowners we had to work with, I soon found the people of New England to be not only accommodating, but also genuinely interested in the work we did.  Email inquirires would be answered with offers of maps, inventories and other potential locations.  Passerby would stop to ask us questions and suggest other parks they knew about when they found out what we were doing.  Even when apprehensive park visitors called the rangers on us while we were doing permitted work it was, in it’s own way, refreshing – people were invested in their local ecosystems.  They were proactive in learning about what was happening to them, what kind of work was being done, and in the event of a perceived threat, were willing to call authorities – never have I felt the bystander effect to be so lacking.  

To answer the question I began with, to any who might still be wondering – this internship has been a summer of change, of personal growth, frustration, victories, and quiet, meaningful, beautiful moments where I’m suddenly made all too aware of how very precious these places are, and how worthy they are of our care and support.  A sentiment that’s a bit heavy to carry back from the watercooler perhaps, but one I hope will refresh and satisfy nonetheless.  

Keep every cog

I’d wager that the average person who pays some attention to the news and has some light interest vested in the sciences is familiar with the Svalbard Global Seed Bank. Located, as its official website states, “deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole”, it is hardly tangibly accessible, as a physical site and even, I think, a concept.

“Oh yes, like Svalbard,” a person might say after they ask why I’m knee-deep in mud, picking seeds in a salt marsh and I reply “For seed banking purposes.” Yes, like Svalbard. But what is Svalbard? What does that mean to you?

I had never sat down to examine Svalbard as a complete concept. In fact, I didn’t think to until a New England MFA candidate documenting seed banks mentioned the “interplay of Science Fiction and Reality” as it pertains to my job. Science Fiction?

If you look at Svalbard slanted, not over a Jeopardy answer board or a glass of white wine at a botanical garden soiree, it’s staggering. Biologists across the globe are up there in the snow hoarding seeds like so many winter-fearing squirrels anticipating the hunger of the future. The very nature of seed banking anticipates disaster: the loss of a regional genebank at best, the loss of a habitable world at worst. And who is to say that a habitable world is a guarantee in our future? Will the seeds I collected today even have healthy soil to grow in tomorrow?

I  brought up my newfound grim outlook on our work with my mentor during a long drive back from a successful field excursion to Cape Cod, some twenty canvas bags of seed bouncing gently in the backseat. He was quick to dismiss that line of thinking, reminding me that it is the job of every conservationist not only to prepare for the worst, but also to anticipate the best. It was a long conversation with much back and forth, but here is what I took away: