Arctic Dreams

Hanging out in camp after a day of work. I swear we didn’t quit early, its just always light up there in the summer! This was probably 10 pm.

This last hitch out was a month of on and off time in the Arctic. It’s a harsh place. Definitely not where humans are meant to thrive. This is understood by some quick Googling to figure out that, while the Arctic is about 10% of the Earth’s landmass, only 0.005 percent of humans live there, or about 4,000,000 people. I have a deep respect for anyone who lives there after experiencing firsthand how ruthless it is. Mosquitoes, wet ground, snow on August 6. No trees for shelter. Tough.

It was great to spend time up there, however. Jacob DeKraii, a former CLM intern in Alaska who currently works for the BLM through a contract, and myself spent a few days searching for non-native plants north of the Brooks Range. Very few invasives have proved hardy enough to make a reproductive living up here, but last year someone spotted some Hawksbeard (Crepis tectorum) in a BLM owned gravel pit up here. A team had gone out a treat it, and we were back to see if any remained. We found one lonely plant, along with two stems of non-native Timothy Grass (Phleum prantense). That’s about the best case scenario for a multiple day non-native plant search! However, it did make for some rather mundane and anti-climactic walking about.

Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. Out of the mountains on the other side is the North Slope, a barren, flat expanse of tundra that stretches all the way to the Arctic Ocean

A boardwalk at Toolik Field Station. They have installed boardwalks like this all around the area so that researchers don’t unknowingly affect the ecology of this place.

We took a trip up to the Toolik Field Station, which is the primary Arctic research facility in the U.S. Scientists from across the globe use this place to further P.h.D.’s, monitor permafrost, and measure climate change. The Arctic is warming 2-3x faster than the rest of the world. Huge amounts of methane are frozen in permafrost, but this permafrost is melting. The methane-permafrost feedback loop is among the least understood and most daunting of climate challenges. So that’s why Toolik is popular. We hung out in the sauna while it was snowing outside (again, August 6) and jumped in the bitter cold Toolik Lake. I’ve never heard such academic language in a sauna full of naked people. It was quite entertaining.

The view near our campsite in the Brooks Range

Just another awesome Alaskan expanse.

For the next few weeks we collected seeds with the University of Alaska Anchorage botanist, Justin Fulkerson, and his herbarium assistant. Suki Wilder, the only other CLM intern in Alaska, helped on one of the hitches. That was great because I haven’t gotten to work with other CLM interns this summer.She was based in Glennallen, nearly 4 hours away from Anchorage.

Suki Wilder, the other Alaska CLM intern, and I collecting wild blueberries for SOS. We did some extracurricular picking afterwards for personal use…

I found that I could get deep into the zen of seed picking. Hours would go by and I wouldn’t notice. Just fill the pillowcase. Fill the pillowcase. For the most part the weather was good. That’s huge!

The Story of the Caribou and the Lichen

998 Tango Papa!

A giant blender vibrates the entire world. We approach it and let it whisk us into the air across this giant, sloppy tundra. A tundra where, in some places is so flat and so wild, that the rivers bend and loop upon themselves enough that they seem to go nowhere. Former oxbow lakes appear as slightly greener, U-shaped depressions hanging on to the river like forgotten appendages. Occasionally a pingo will appear on the horizon. This is an ice dome up to hundreds of feet tall that has heaved itself out of the tundra throughout the years, and sits on the tundra as a perfect lump of short plants. Just a foot beneath those plants is pure ice. This landscape never turns fully green. The tussocks (Eriophorum vaginatum, or cotton grass) that form it are plants decades old who build upon their former selves. Rising up to two feet above the mucky flats, these tufted tussock plants have dozens of dead leaves from previous years for every live leaf of this year. In places, this single plant can make up an astonishing amount of the total biomass. Therefore, it never gets truly green here in the arctic tundra, because even in the height of the growing season, most of the biomass is still dead. These landscape level features are so easy to see from a helicopter!

Views over the tundra from the chopper. The brown area is all cottongrass tussocks.

A caribou. This was in Denali National Park because there aren’t any where we were in the summer.

We were out there to collect AIM data on caribou and reindeer rangelands. Reindeer are simply domestic caribou. During winter, herds of these animals migrate to the Seward peninsula to forage on lichen atop windblown ridges. You know life is rough when your winter grounds get to -40F (or C, it’s the same at this temperature) and you can only eat nutrient scarce lichen on exposed areas with huge windchill. Yikes. This lichen, being a lacking and slow-growing commodity, can make caribou populations quite volatile. When a lot of lichen is exposed, herd numbers grow, and when it becomes overgrazed, they shrink. The BLM formerly let up to 80,000 reindeer use the Peninsula, which created a profitable reindeer meat industry in the 30’s and 40’s. However, scientists determined that reindeer were negatively impacting wild caribou herds by eating their food. Since this industry was competing with the largest caribou herd in North America, tensions flared. The BLM decided to increase restrictions on reindeer grazing permits. Currently there are very few reindeer in this part of Alaska. It’s sort of hard to imagine the BLM taking this sort of drastic action to stamp out local industry, given their multiple-use ethic. Until, that is, I realized they were dealing with Indians instead of white folks. I am aware I don’t have all of the information, but I just can’t imagine the BLM actively managing for conservation 60+ years ago at the expense of white cattle grazers in the lower 48. It would be great if that was the case, but I realize the BLM has a more missions than just conservation.

Here’s 20 species of lichen I collected on one of our days in the field. I got pretty good at identifying these creepy little creatures.

Anyways, we collected AIM data, along with supplementary data, to monitor caribou rangeland health on the peninsula. Parts of this project are new, whereas some permanent transects date back to 1980. The objective is to determine how the lichen resources are used.

Each year the caribou grow a new set of antlers. In the winter, they typically shed them on ridges where they forage for lichen.

We definitely saw use of lichen by caribou, and in some places they had ‘cratered’ the ground. This is where they eat the lichen all the way down and begin to dig up the ground beneath. And you might be wondering, as I did, how can lichen support big game? Well, this lichen isn’t like lower 48 lichen. This lichen forms mats up to a foot thick and can cover huge areas of ground, so in places there is a lot of it.

A view from the helicopter on our ride back to Nome, the regional metropolitan area of 3500 people.

This project was great. I got to spend quite a bit of time with my supervisor and the lead botanist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, along with lots of other fun folks. I’ve never been so removed from the rest of the world. It’s pretty tranquil out there.

And of course a salmon picture. This was taken just outside the BLM facility in Nome, Alaska. The pink salmon were swimming in huge numbers while I was there.


July 2018

As a kid, I always dreamed of being “an explorer”. I read stories of Lewis and Clark and pretended to traverse uncharted territory with my brother. We navigated through forests and deserts and built “birds’ nests” out of beanbags and countertops. I never thought this dream job would become a reality. Twenty years later, I inventory springs in forests and search for hidden water in deserts. I climb through rock formations and discover rosehips and wild raspberries where water seeps between the rocks. I hike along springs with vegetation up to my waist and jump back in alarm as a snake passes in front of me. I walk past a cottonwood and discover a family of owls nested in its branches.

In July, my co-intern and I began a spring inventory project that will span several field seasons. We will traverse forests and mountains and deserts to inventory nearly 400 springs and seeps in the Casper Field Office boundary. Using the Arc Collector app, we will plot the location and create a polygon to map the extent of each riparian area. Additionally, we will document riparian plant diversity and water quality data from each site.

As we begin this process, our mistakes become our biggest learning opportunities. We’ve learned that mapped two tracks don’t necessarily exist, backcountry navigation is a tedious and time-consuming process, and a lot can change in twenty years. The importance of planning and organization has become increasingly evident. Most of the riparian areas we’re visiting were inventoried nearly twenty years ago. Twenty years for vegetation to grow. Twenty years for springs to dry up. Twenty years ago, when there were no handheld GPS units. No exact coordinates. This creates a lot of challenges for our work, as well as a lot of opportunities for growth and problem solving. Finding the most efficient method is as much a part of the job as the actual spring inventory process.

Twenty years ago, I pretended to be an explorer. Around the same time many of these springs and seeps were inventoried for the first time. Now I scramble through rocks and trees. I traverse forests and mountains and deserts. I cross streams and listen to owls give warning calls as I walk by their homes. I pick a raspberry and savor the reality of my childhood adventures.


Wild rose and wild raspberry bushes at West Rock Spring.

Rangeland Health

June 2018

One of the key objectives of the Casper Field Office is to manage sustainable livestock grazing on public rangelands. Rangeland health surveys provide an important way to monitor these areas and provide feedback to lessees about why certain aspects of rangeland health are passing or failing.

In June, we completed rangeland health inventory on six allotments — Marton, Snowshoe Creek, Casper Canal, Banner Mountain, Hess Draw, and Steamboat Lake. As a hydrology technician, my role was to inventory Soil Surface Function (SSF) and analyze signs of erosion at rangeland health sites. I set up a 10ft x 10ft soil plot and collected samples at 4 inches, 12 inches, and 20 inches. In addition, I checked both the soil plot and nearby drainages for signs of erosion, including surface movement, flow paths, rills, gullies, and pedestals. Soil samples were analyzed in the lab and used to calculate the percentage of sand, silt, and clay in each area. These percentages will be compared to pre-existing soil data and used to further analyze grazing patterns at each rangeland health site.

Working with the Casper BLM for a second summer, I have become much more aware of the big picture reasoning behind Rangeland Health inventory and the methods of choosing rangeland health sites. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the diversity of the places in which we work. One week, we may be working in a flat, arid, overgrazed pasture. The next, we’re surrounded by mountains and trees and cool granite rock formations. A day later, we’re wandering a sandy, beach-like area littered with mini dunes and rocks that have been naturally polished by windblown sediment. Each site has its gems: aromatic pine forests, rocks of every color, a young rattlesnake coiling and rattling at a distance (key words, “at a distance”). I look forward to the rest of the season and everything Casper, WY has to offer.

Here are some of the places we worked:

Steamboat Lake Allotment

Snowshoe Creek Allotment

Marton Allotment

Hess Draw Allotment

Casper Canal Allotment

Banner Mountain Allotment


Pollination, Seed Collection, and Education – Oh My!

1 September – 30 September

September was another busy month for seed collection. However, I was able to find some time to do more than scour the desert for a small, purple aster (Machaeranthera canescens) and stuff its seeds into a manila envelope before the wind snatched them up. When I was not collecting seeds, I could still be found out in the field.

Just another day in the desert. It was cool and rainy on this day, which made for one special treat.

I think these cacti are adorable – except for when they stick to my boots and poke me in the bum as I squat down to collect seeds! Yowch! Unfortunately, that’s happened on more than one occasion…

Earlier in the month, I spent some time  in the Caribou-Targhee’s Curlew National Grassland for a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) monitoring project. The Curlew is a harsh, hot environment that has been trying to recover from the Dust Bowl. Yet a stream still manages to make its way through the desert. Along a portion of this stream is a population of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). This area is a prime monarch caterpillar habitat, as there are thousands of milkweed plants around and milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat. I have been out to this area multiple times with others from the office and the community to conduct monarch monitoring. The monarch butterfly holds a special place in my heart because I spent two years of my undergraduate degree researching the migratory population of monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains. I have enjoyed working on a project that I have a decent level of background knowledge on, especially after spending so much time trying to familiarize myself with the new projects of my internship. I also enjoy any opportunity to run around with a butterfly net. And, after hearing numerous adults laugh and shout with joy over each butterfly they caught or caterpillar they discovered, it is clear many others also enjoy chasing butterflies through a field.

Monarch (D. plexippus) caterpillar munching away on some  showy milkweed (A. speciosa).

If I wasn’t chasing butterflies or collecting seeds, I could be found working on environmental education projects. Throughout the month of September, I spent a couple of days a week at the Upper Mesa Falls visitor center northeast of Ashton, ID. Fourth grade school groups came out here to learn about the geology, hydrology, and history of the area, in addition to the program Every Kid in a Park. I led the students on plant walks and it was great to be around their enthusiasm and eager questions. I also think the Every Kid in a Park program is an awesome opportunity – every fourth grader in the nation gets a pass that allows them free entry to our national parks and monuments! The other education project I worked on has been a pollinator display for local libraries. The Idaho Falls USFS office has partnered with Pocatello’s Idaho Fish and Game office for this project. We recently completed setting up a display about native bees at the Marshall Public Library and it has been rewarding to see the whole project come together.

Upper Mesa Falls produces a rainbow every sunny morning and every clear night on a full moon! The Falls make for one incredible classroom.

If you find yourself at the Marshall Public Library in Pocatello, ID, please stop by and learn a bit about bees native to North America!

As Summer moves out and Autumn moves in, the field season has begun to wind down. It will be interesting to see what else I will be working on as my internship continues into November, but I am hoping I will get to spend quite a few more days out in the field.

Cheers to more adventures!


USFS Idaho Falls, ID

Goodbye Reno..For Now

I am going to say the cliche statement — I can’t believe how quickly my time in Reno came and went! In a couple of weeks I will be driving back east to Colorado, and I am happy to say that I will miss this area. I learned a saying here, “Reno: so close to hell, you can see Sparks”(If you don’t know, Sparks is a town right next to Reno). I use this saying with no negative intent towards Reno; it is a crazy place full of great people. I have made a lot of friends in this town, and it feels good to know that Reno is a place I can call home. To the west lies the Sierras where I caught frogs and fish, and to the east lies myriad Nevadan mountain ranges where I collected native seed.

Here is what I have been up to in my final month here: I spent a few days in September helping to monitor a wetland restoration project near Sonora Pass. I walked around as the “biologist on site” looking for any Yosemite Toads that may be displaced by the construction. In order to restore the meadow to make it a more wet site, the road crew removed the top layer of sod in and surrounding the unwanted ravine, filled in the area with dirt to make it more level, and then returned the top layer of sod. This will allow next year’s water to flow more slowly and into a larger area of the meadow, rather than directly into the nearby river.

USFS road crew at work on a wet meadow restoration project

This month, I have also been helping out on the University of Nevada Reno (UNR) campus. I worked with a current grad student (who is a botanical genius); together we transplanted some native plants into her pollinator garden on campus. We also worked on designing a dry creek bed where she will soon transplant more native plants. Our final project together was planting two beds of native plants at the USFS station in Sparks. These beds will qualify as an official pollinator garden for the Forest Service. We used about 15 different species of flowering plants that will bloom at different times over the course of the summer. I hope they survive the winter and flourish next spring!


A pollinator garden at UNR made up of native, arid/desert plants

This honey bee was happy to find this evening primrose open for business in early October!

Dry creek bed on UNR campus

Watering the newly transplanted native plants into their new home at the USFS office

Overall, I think that my most important gains from this season were the friendships and professional relationships that I formed. I met a lot of different people working for different government agencies, all of whom are trying to advocate for native plants and wildlife conservation. I have learned a lot from them all, and I hope that I am able to continue their work wherever I end up.

Signing off,

Zoë Moffett

US Forest Service, Sparks NV

Ending in Casper, yet Continuing On

My experience as a Forestry Intern has been incredible. Its foundation was field based learning and on-the-ground experiences that quickly brought me up to speed with all things related to forest management. I now have countless fond memories of warm days spent in the Bighorn Mountains, the ever present rustle of aspen leaves in the fall, and even some days spend snowshoeing through timber stands and falling snow. My work was not only full of knowledge and learning, but also satisfying and enjoyable.

I had the ability to apply what I learned and was able to work directly with my mentor to ensure healthy forest development and to manage forest product sales. She taught me an incredible range of forest management techniques and practices, as well as guided me through their application. There was a healthy balance between working directly with my mentor and working independently, so that we could continue to tackle our ever-growing work load. We worked out of two field offices, and there was a lot of ground for us to cover in the Casper and Buffalo Field Offices, and an even greater number of tasks to complete each day. I worked to set-up and monitor public firewood sales as well as establish areas for contracted timber harvests. I helped establish new access routes and walked timber stands with contractors who will ultimately harvest and sell the timber. Due to the multiple uses of public lands under the Bureau of Land Management, I have collaborated with wildlife biologists, hydrologists, range specialists, archeologists, recreation specialists, and geologists to ensure forestry actions do not adversely affect the public lands as a whole.

This opportunity has allowed me to see all aspects of forestry, instead of merely focusing on one. My time as an intern has been an invaluable step in the development of my professional career. When I officially had the position, I have to admit, I did not know much about forestry. Over the past five months, however, I have grown and developed as a forester, and now have the confidence and skills to orchestrate forest management practices. When walking through a forest now, I think more about the stand health and density, age-class distribution, and possible access routes, with the mindset of a forester instead of just enjoying the scenery. I’ve developed a critical eye for forestry, thanks to the guidance from my mentor.

While my time in Casper has drawn to a close, the friends, experiences, and knowledge I have gained will continue with me wherever I venture next. Thank you Chicago Botanic Gardens for presenting this opportunity, and thanks to Cindy for taking me under her guidance and sharing her years of experience with me throughout my internship.

Fitting a part into the whole: Learning the broader implications of my fieldwork

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a training: Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health (IIRH.) which helped situate the fieldwork I had been doing for months into a much larger context.

The purpose of this class is to learn how to assess the status of a given site relative to its potential. What this means is comparing a site to an ecological site assessment (ESA), or rather what that site at optimum potential looks like. For instance, before visiting a site, the ESA states that when operating at maximum potential the area that would have a variety of desert shrubs and be dominated by cool season grasses. Instead, when you go to assess the site, you note few mixed shrubs and an abundance of thriving invasives. Moreover, the area has become dominated by warm season grasses like Galleta grass when, in far healthier years, there was a majority of cool season grasses like Indian Rice. Besides this initial large species shift or “functional group change”, the site is also assessed along 16 other indicators which fall into three main categories: Soil and Site Stability, Hydrologic Function and Biotic Integrity. These factors are then given ratings and subsequently tallied to provide a numerical picture as to the overall health of the land.

These cumulative totals are used to help determine the amount of deviation from the sites potential. This conclusion then helps outline management guidelines. First, can the site be rehabilitated? Unfortunately, in some cases due to extreme mixes of outside factors such as drought or overgrazing- the top layer of soil or the A horizon is gone and thus the site can no longer be restored to previous speciation and potential. If, on the other hand, the answer is that the site can be rehabilitated then the current biological data will be considered in conjunction with management objectives and the original ESA. By using this multi-layered approach to understanding the optimal versus actual state of the land, Field Offices are able to build a more thorough and accurate long term management plan. Due to current extreme weather changing patterns, new understandings regarding management and increasingly imperative long term goals as soil health these long term plans are integral to continuing to ensure land health.

Personally, I found the IIRH training fundamental in situating my current work- a land intensification study using Assessment,Inventorying and Monitoring- in the larger picture of management. As a plant- oriented person, I often tend to focus on land health specifics as applicable to various species and the smaller zones in which they grow. While, that type of “spot treatment” is important– it is questionable if it is always applicable in the long term. An optimally functioning ecosystem is a complex web of interdependent factors where the health of one species is directly linked to the success of other organisms. By situating these ideas in a more, all encompassing approach to land management- it pushes field offices to work collaboratively as one must consider the impact of hydrology, rangeland management, soils and botany to fully and effectively the management of the land.


With only two weeks left of my internship and winter looming upon us, things have been slowing down in Rawlins. My co-intern and I have made twenty-one of our twenty-five collections, and now we are just waiting for our sagebrush species to go to seed. However, these last four collections might be tougher than we thought – I came back from a weekend trip of summiting Mt. Elbert to more snow in Rawlins! Since we’re only at 6,500 feet, I wasn’t expecting this much snow until later in the month…but I guess Wyoming wanted to make up for the fact that I’ve spent three snow-less winters in New Mexico and wanted to send me off with a white farewell.

Fog, and soon snow, settling on the mountains near the state line between Wyoming and Colorado

While we’ve been waiting for our sages to seed, we’ve been helping some departments around the office with projects – weed location with a specialist, raptor nest outreach with one of the wildlife biologists, and NEPA/ESA consultation with our mentors. Although this paperwork hasn’t been the most exciting aspect of our internship, I think it’s a really unique skill to be able to use later in life, because so few recent graduates have this experience and government positions value it highly. We’ve been going through permits and referencing maps for sensitive, threatened, and endangered species to allow, not allow, or allow with stipulations, activities that would occur on public land. We’ve also been accompanying some wildlife biologists on raptor nest projects, including searching for nests around wind projects, implementing new artificial nests, and visiting the elementary school to teach kids about nearby raptor nests and other wildlife.

Since we’d been doing a lot of tasks with the wildlife department, it was nice to get back into plants to help out the weed specialists. We went to two BLM campgrounds that are along a river to search for leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), musk thistle (Leucanthemum vulgare), spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), and oxeye daisy (Carduus nutans). These species, within the past ~10 years, had been routinely sprayed and we were out there to see if the spraying had proved effective. We walked areas that historically had one or more areas of the weeds to see if they were present or gone, and if they looked as if they were dying back from the treatment.

After my final weeks are up, I will be moving to Texas to work in horticulture at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. I am grateful for the experiences and lessons this internship and this town taught me, and will carry them with me on my next adventure.

Signing off,