Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ecological Systems: Foothills Shrubland

example of foothills shrubland

Foothill shrublands in Colorado are found in the Rocky Mountain foothills, ridges, canyons and lower mountain slopes, and on outcrops, mesas, and canyon slopes of the eastern plains. In general, these are mixed shrublands of areas where oak is absent, most common in the northern Colorado Front Range and drier foothills and prairie hills. Elevations are between 4,900-9,500 ft. Scattered trees may be present, but the vegetation is dominated by a variety of shrubs such as mountain mahogany, antelope bitterbrush, skunkbush sumac, or currant species. The dominant shrub species are generally well adapted to poor soils, dry sites, and disturbance by fire. Fire suppression may have allowed an invasion of trees into some of these shrublands, but in many cases sites are too dry for tree growth.

These shrublands are used by bird species including rufous-sided and green-tailed towhees, MacGillvray's warbler, and broad-tailed hummingbird. A number of small mammal species are common in this habitat, including the rock squirrel, deer mouse, northern rock mouse, Mexican woodrat, and gray fox. There are few rare species exclusively associated with foothills shrublands, although they may be important for some insect and bird species. Rare species in adjacent habitats that may be found in these shrublands include the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, Larimer aletes, and rare butterflies.

Spermophilus variegatus
A rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) doing its best to blend in.

These shrublands cover less than 400,000 acres in Colorado. Our occurrences are generally in good condition, but underrepresented in protected areas. Most of these shrublands are on privately owned lands, although some large occurrences have been protected on city or county open spaces. Threats to this system include fragmentation by roads and development. These disturbances provide an unnatural fire break as well as a conduit for weed invasion.

Overall biodiversity, threat, and protection status scores for foothills shrubland in Colorado.

A "windrose" graph depicting foothills shrubland status for individual scoring factors.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Happy Holidays from CNHP

From our family to yours, we hope you have a peaceful and happy holiday season.

pretty snow covered mountain scene
Red Mountain, photo by Peggy Lyon

The blog will be back in business in January, see you then!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Air It out

By Erick Carlson, CNHP Wetland Ecologist and Mapper

As ecologists, we are always searching for a new perspective, an angle that sheds light on the complexities of ecosystems. Sometimes that involves nose to the ground rummaging, tree climbing, spelunking, or in my case, flying. A wholly unnatural pursuit (especially for me), flying really emphasizes the connectedness of landscapes, mosaics of vegetation patterns, and the undeniable effect human use has had on the surface of the land.

I was in the thick of assessing the accuracy of remote wetland classification and map production on two projects along the Front Range. It’s a big area with less public access than I needed to really get a grip on all the wetland types in the area. While I had visited some areas on the ground, I needed a more efficient method to visit many types of wetlands, without trespassing. So - I got to go FLYING! This was made possible through the LightHawk organization that coordinates flight time with pilots willing to donate their skills and planes to groups that would benefit from a little aerial perspective. Our wonderful pilot David gave myself, Joanna Lemly (Wetland Ecologist at CNHP), and a member of the Save the Poudre Coalition Board a tour of the Poudre and South Platte River corridors east of the Foothills. 

Here we are loading into the plane, a squish-ably comfy 4 seater. 

Lift off! This little plane is the ”jeep” of aircraft, taking off and landing in something like 200 ft. of runway, or if there is no runway, anything flattish. Below are some nice man-made “wetlands” at a golf course as we climbed to our cruising altitude of 500-1000 ft.

We headed east scouring the land below us as our pilot kept the plane steady and slightly tilted to the right so I could examine the wetland features while Joanna snapped hundreds of pictures like these from the back seat. 

The ride was smoother than expected, but the further east we traveled the more the Colorado wind decided it wanted to join the party. While it was not overly turbulent, it was enough to impair my ability to concentrate. We made an unscheduled stop in Brush, CO for a pit stop and to get our “land legs” back under us. While this was a nice break, I soon realized I was past the point of no return. Ten minutes back in the air and..…well..…let's just say I revisited previous meals. The next hour and a half flight back was less fun than the hour out, but David pulled us up to 1000+ feet which smoothed out the ride a bit. 

So why were we flying over the plains in December to look at wetlands? The timing just worked out that way, but actually yielded a few unforeseen benefits and a few surprises. First, although I use aerial photographs to map the wetlands in the first place, these are all taken looking straight down. By flying around we were able to get the 3D version of the landscape and use the oblique (slightly from the side) perspective to really get some good information about scale and topography. Secondly, without leaves on the trees (cottonwoods mostly) the understory becomes visible.

 This is important for deciding how wet an area is by how vigorous the vegetation growth is. The biggest surprise was, while December is a pretty low water time for river systems in Colorado, there was some extensive flooding in certain fields. It seemed like an odd time to be irrigating, so we are wondering what is happening here. 

While the flight time of three hours round trip was nothing extraordinary, I needed the full day and night to recover. I guess people get used to it, but I was having some difficulty. But the trip was a huge success as I was able to narrate about the wetlands to the passengers, discuss with Joanna (while in the air) troublesome patterns and specific features, and utilize the 386 pictures taken to further the accuracy of the areas I had been mapping. Joanna was gracious enough to not take a picture of me after the ride, lest viewers think I was a dancer in Michael Jackson’s Thriller. 

A big thank you goes out to our pilot David for his time, effort, and supply of ziplock bags, Lighthawk for their organization and what they do for the sciences, Joanna for her tolerance and strong stomach, and our STPC board member Greg for his company and questions.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

National Wetlands Monitoring & Assessment Presentation

CNHP Wetland Ecologist Joanna Lemly just returned from North Carolina, where she presented to EPA’s National Wetlands Monitoring and Assessment Work Group at their recent workshop in Raleigh. Joanna talked about CNHP’s growing partnership with the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Wetland Wildlife Conservation Program, which intends to use CNHP’s wetland condition assessment data to prioritize funding for wetland restoration projects.

While at the workshop, Joanna also participated in a day-long training of the field protocols for the upcoming 2011 National Wetland Condition Assessment. Joanna was one of the trainers of the vegetation protocols, which she has helped refine as co-chair of EPA’s technical review panel last May. The nearly 100 participants of the training were in good spirits and very interested in the protocols, despite near-freezing temperatures that day!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pueblo Chemical Depot post-grazing habitat monitoring

By Max Canestorp, PCD Natural Resources Manager
and Renée Rondeau, CNHP Ecologist

For many years Pueblo Chemical Depot hosted a grazing program on the eastern and southwestern portions of the installation. The livestock owner the depot worked with lived in another state, but was allowed to graze his cattle on PCD property on an outlease basis. However, there was little oversight of the program, and far more cows were allowed on PCD than what the grazing prescriptions called for. Then, in the mid-1990s, ecological surveys were conducted on the depot and it was determined that the leased areas were significantly overgrazed, to the point that vegetative communities had changed. Consequently, in 1998, the grazing program was suspended and the cattle were removed from depot properties. During Team Pueblo meetings a decision was made by cooperators (PCD, the Local Reuse Authority, and local citizens) to initiate a post-grazing habitat monitoring study that would determine how the vegetative communities might recover with the cessation of grazing. There have been many such studies in several different vegetative types in western states, but the depot project was enhanced by including grasshopper and small mammal populations in the study to determine grazing effects on those biological communities as well.

The post-grazing study was set up with plots established in both grazed and ungrazed areas within the four primary natural vegetative communities found on the installation: shortgrass prairie, greasewood scrub, sandsage, and riparian woodland. Data on the plants, grasshoppers, and small mammals were collected from the plots for five years. Then, in accordance with the project's design, after a five-year hiatus the plots were visited again for a long-term assessment of the vegetative communities.

In the initial 5-year portion of the study, it was found that 36 common grasshopper species were found in equal numbers in both grazed and ungrazed vegetative communities. However, 16 uncommon species were absent or in low numbers at ungrazed plots while common in grazed sites. A total of 52 grasshopper species were recorded during this portion of the study!

The small mammal group found that although there were certain species' preferences for vegetative types (e.g., deer mice preferred greasewood habitats and kangaroo rats preferred sandsage habitats), there were no apparent differences in small mammal populations between grazed and ungrazed vegetative communities. This could be because the timeline for small mammal response to grazing is short on these systems, or simply because no differences existed.

Regarding vegetation, we found that after 12 years without grazing there is more grass and less bare ground in 2010 than in 1998; however, some species are slow to respond, e.g., needle-and-thread grass is just now starting to show signs of coming back into the areas where it was previously grazed out. It was also found that if blue grama grass, the quintessential shortgrass prairie species, has been significantly reduced through overgrazing or other harmful influences, it may be very difficult to recover or restore. Incidental findings include the significant increase of shrubs after the 2002 drought, indicating that an increase in droughts could possibly change the grassland into more of a shrubland, impacting the animal community. Other fun facts: do you know that cow fecal pats are still present on the prairie after 12 years of no grazing?

How does the post-grazing habitat monitoring study benefit PCD and the shortgrass prairie ecosystem? Determining the effects of grazing, and especially overgrazing, can help in interpreting past influencing factors in shortgrass prairie systems. It can help us learn how to restore overgrazed lands. And finally, it can help us determine grazing prescriptions by monitoring vegetative communities. Pueblo Chemical Depot may someday resume a grazing program. However, greater attention will be given to monitoring livestock numbers and grazing impacts on vegetative communities.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Ecological Systems: Juniper Woodland and Savanna

Juniper woodlands and savannas in Colorado include the Inter-Mountain Basins Juniper Savanna, found in northwestern Colorado, and the Southern Rocky Mountain Juniper Woodland and Savanna, occurring in the southeastern portion of the state.

An example of Inter-Mountain Basins Juniper Savanna.

Southern Rocky Mountain Juniper Woodland and Savanna.

Together, these two types account for about 558,000 acres in Colorado. Pinyon trees are typically not present in these open juniper woodlands because sites are outside the ecological or geographic range of pinyon pine. The juniper savannas of northwestern Colorado are dominated by Utah juniper, while those in southeastern Colorado are characterized by one-seed juniper and Rocky Mountain juniper. Northwestern Colorado stands occur on lower mountain slopes and plateaus, often on dry, rocky areas, at elevations ranging from 4,900 to 7,550 feet. In the canyons and tablelands of the southern Great Plains this system forms extensive cover at some distance from the mountain front, at elevations from 4,100 to 6,200 feet.

These woodlands are used by a variety of birds, small mammals, and reptiles. The juniper titmouse, at the edge of its range in Colorado, nests in tree cavities, while the collared lizard makes use of the rocky terrain under the junipers. The rare long-nosed leopard lizard may occasionally be found in either juniper or pinyon-juniper woodlands in western Colorado, while the New Mexico thread snake is occasionally found in these woodlands in southeastern Colorado. One of our state's rarest bird species, the gray vireo, is known from these woodlands in southeast Colorado.

Over 75% of Colorado's juniper woodlands are on privately owned lands, especially in southeastern Colorado. The remainder are generally located on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, or on Colorado State Land Board holdings. Consequently, this ecological system is generally under protected in Colorado, although its extent and condition have been little impacted by human activities.
Overall biodiversity, threat, and protection status scores for juniper in Colorado.

A "windrose" graph depicting juniper status for individual scoring factors.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving from CNHP

To all our USA readers - have a safe and happy Thanksgiving holiday. To everyone else, have a great Thursday! :)

Wild turkey with word balloon: What's a turkey go to do to get a G1 Ranking around here?
A little Natural Heritage Network humor there.

(Those of us here at CNHP who are vegetarian are rooting for the turkey. But pumpkins had better watch out.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

CNHP supplies spatial analysis training to sister program

We were visited last week by Andrea Hazelton, Botanist for the Navajo Natural Heritage Program, who came up to Colorado to receive training in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) spatial analysis techniques by CNHP Landscape Ecologist Michelle Fink.

The Navajo Natural Heritage Program (NNHP) is working in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and CNHP to develop a Conservation Action Plan for the San Juan Basin, an area that covers the four-corners where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet. The Navajo Nation is the largest landowner of the San Juan Basin area.

Andrea spent an intensive four days with Michelle learning various techniques to model ecological integrity at the landscape scale, while gaining a healthy appreciation of all the things that can go wrong with GIS software (Michelle's Law: the tighter the timeline, the more things will go wrong).

The Navajo Nation (light pink) in relation to the San Juan Basin (blue outline).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wetland info for kids

CNHP ecologist Allison Shaw spent the summer looking at wetlands in Teller County. While she was there, she developed a nice little presentation about wetlands for a local children's camp. This brief lesson is a good introduction to the topic for school-age children. Check it out here (3 MB PDF).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

CNHP in the November/December issue of the National Wetlands Newsletter

For the past two years, CNHP Wetland Ecologist Joanna Lemly has been working with colleagues from the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, Colorado Department of Transportation, and CSU Researcher Brad Johnson on a project to improve wetland mitigation by incorporating more watershed-scale information into the decision making process. A description of their work was recently published in the Environmental Law Institute's National Wetland Newsletter.

The full newsletter is available to subscribers, but a copy of the portion of the November/December newsletter featuring Joanna's work is available here.

To demonstrate how to use watershed-scale information within the mitigation process, one key step has been to create high quality wetland maps for areas with a high density of wetland impacts. The project team chose the northern Front Range corridor, stretching from north Denver to south Fort Collins, as their demonstration area. This area includes the Big Thompson and St. Vrain drainages from the foothill to their confluence with the South Platte River. CNHP Wetland Mapping Technician Zack Reams spent the summer creating those new wetland maps which will be submitted to the US Fish and Wildlife Service's National Wetland Inventory Program for inclusion in the National Wetland Mapper.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ecological Systems: Aspen Forests

This widespread ecological system occurs throughout much of the western U.S. and north into Canada, although it is more common in the montane and subalpine zones of the southern and central Rocky Mountains. Aspen forests cover more than three and a half million acres in Colorado, including one patch of over half a million acres blanketing the edges of the White River Plateau and Flat Tops. Many people don't realize that aspen trees form clumps of clones by suckering from underground root systems. Often what appears to be a stand of many trees is actually only one individual tree with many stems. This survival strategy makes aspen well-suited to re-sprouting after large-scale disturbances such as the forest fires that can be so common in some Colorado summers.

Rarity in Aspen Forests

Aspen forests are one of our most species-rich ecosystems. Most of the species that call aspen forests home are relatively abundant and not of significant conservation concern. Rarer species of this system include: purple martin, northern goshawk, Cassin's finch, olive-sided flycatcher, flammulated owl, and dwarf shrew.


Overall, aspen forests in Colorado are in good condition and moderately well conserved. Much of Colorado's aspen forest is owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service. This system is not as well represented in the nation's Wilderness system as the alpine and spruce-fir ecological systems. Primary human activities in this ecological system include cattle and sheep grazing, recreation, and hunting. Some aspen stands are cut for pulp mills (for the making of composite boards such as plywood). Threats to the aspen forests ecological system are comparatively low. However, in some areas of the state, sudden die-offs of aspen stands have been observed. The cause(s) of this die-off are unclear and research is on-going. Currently, sudden aspen death is not widely distributed across the state, but there is potential for this condition to pose a more significant threat to our aspen forests in the future.

Overall biodiversity, threat, and protection status scores for aspen in Colorado.

A "windrose" graph depicting aspen status for individual scoring factors.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Job Opportunity: Center for Collaborative Conservation Associate Director

Our friends at the Center for Collaborative Conservation (CCC) are looking to hire an Associate Director. The CCC works with a wide range of stakeholders to promote learning and collaborative action on pressing conservation and livelihood issues in the western US and in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Associate Director will work collaboratively to lead, co-lead and manage CCC programs through education, research and engagement.

The deadline to apply for this position is December 15, 2010.

CNHP staff are participating on the Search Committee for this position, so we have posted the full announcement on our Employment and Volunteering page. The online application for this position is available here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

CNHP Participates in EPA Regional Wetland Workshop in Bozeman, MT

Overview of O'Dell Creek Ranch in Montana's Madison River Valley, site of the daylong field trip associated with the EPA Workshop. Photo by J. Minter, EPA.

Three CNHP Ecologists - Denise Culver, Joanna Lemly, and Laurie Gilligan – recently attended a weeklong EPA-supported meeting in Bozeman, Montana, aimed at strengthening wetland programs around EPA Region 8. The meeting, called the EPA Region 8 Wetland Program Capacity Building Workshop, was hosted by the Montana Wetland Council and Montana Watercourse. Representative from all six states in EPA Region 8 were present (Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, North Dakota and South Dakota), as well as several tribal representatives.

Landowner Jeff Lazlo describes the restoration efforts underway at O'Dell Creek Ranch. Photo by J. Minter, EPA.

Both Denise and Joanna gave presentations during the meeting. Denise highlighted the many wetland-focused county surveys that EPA grants have supported over more than 15 years. She also discussed her current EPA-funded project, Tools for Colorado Wetlands, through which CNHP will be producing a field guide to Colorado's wetland plants and several online wetland resources. Joanna's talk focused on CNHP's partnership with the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Wetland Wildlife Conservation Program. It is through this partnership and a project called Statewide Strategies for Colorado Wetlands that CNHP began its wetland mapping efforts, as well as the Rio Grande Headwaters pilot basinwide wetland condition assessment.

Heritage Program Wetland Ecologists in action. From left to right, CNHP's Joanna Lemly, MTNHP's Cat McIntyre, CNHP's Laurie Gilligan, MTNHP's Karen Newlon, and CNHP's Denise Culver. Photo by J. Minter, EPA.

In addition to presenting on CNHP's wetland projects, Joanna co-led a daylong field trip and workshop with Montana Natural Heritage Program (MTNHP)'s Cat McIntyre. The field trip covered rapid and intensive field protocols used by both CNHP and MTNHP in wetland condition assessment projects. Joanna focused on vegetation sampling protocols while Cat demonstrated techniques for sampling and describing hydric soils. They also introduced participants to concepts important to setting up a random sample survey design and some basic information about EPA's upcoming National Wetland Condition Assessment.

Joanna explains laying out a vegetation plot (left), while Cat demonstrates digging a soil pit (right). Photo by J. Minter, EPA.

The field trip took place at O’Dell Creek Ranch, an impressive wetland restoration site in Montana's Madison River Valley. More than 25 wetland professionals from around the region participated. The sun shined all day long and field trip participants were thrilled to be out on such a beautiful day with their feet wet and the sedges glowing yellow with the coming fall. All agreed it was a terrific day.

Cat explains rapid assessment protocols to field trip participants. Photo by J. Minter, EPA.

All photos courtesy of Jill Minter, Wetlands Program, EPA Region 8.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reducing the Environmental Footprint of Natural Gas Development Workshop in Vernal, UT

CNHP botanists Bernadette Kuhn and Peggy Lyon participated in a recent workshop titled "Opportunities and Obstacles to Reducing the Environmental Footprint of Natural Gas Development in the Uintah Basin." Seventeen globally imperiled plant species occur within areas undergoing heavy oil and gas development in Colorado (Colorado Rare Plant Conservation Initiative). With this in mind, we were interested in hearing about recent innovations that might minimize impacts to rare plants.

Lesquerella congesta
Lesquerella congesta (Dudley Bluffs bladderpod), about the size of a half dollar, is restricted to Green River Shale.  This formation contains the largest oil shale deposits in the world.

The workshop was held in Vernal, Utah, a town whose economy is largely based on oil and gas development. In 2010, the Vernal BLM office, just west of the Colorado state line, received requests for 528 Applications for Permits to Drill (APD) in Uintah County alone (Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining). This year drilling operations have begun at 378 new wells. Next door, in Rio Blanco County, CO, 658 APDs have been approved this year, with 98 permits still pending (Colorado Oil and Gas Commission). This area of the country, which includes northeastern Utah, northwest Colorado, and southwest Wyoming, has recently been experiencing a boom in oil and gas development.

Here are a few highlights from the workshop:

Utah State University professor Douglas Jackson-Smith shared results from his sociological study in the Uintah Basin. Jackson-Smith interviewed stakeholders involved in the permitting process, and presented excerpts from these interviews. Those excerpts illustrated the frustrations behind the permitting process that are felt by all stakeholders.

The Environmentally Friendly Drilling Program was introduced by Texas A&M researcher David Burnett. The program tests and develops technologies that reduce the footprint (area of environmental impact) of oil and gas activities. They host a "Disappearing Roads Competition" for university students every year, with the winner taking home $10,000. Several other speakers from the industry touted innovations that reduced water use, cut down on traffic to drilling sites, and reduced the need for new road construction.

Penstemon fremontii glabrescens and pipeline
A rare plant, Penstemon fremontii var. glabrescens (Fremont's beardtongue), sports small blue flowers in the foreground. The population is bisected by the pipeline in the center of the photo. This photo was taken in the Piceance Basin (Rio Blanco County, CO) on June 9, 2010.

Duane Zavadil from the Bill Barrett Corporation spoke about a new approach to compliance with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations that the company piloted in the Nine Mile Canyon area of Utah. The Denver-based company reached agreements with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance on a drilling plan. The resulting pact was then signed by the BLM. The initial proposal called for 538 well pads. The final plan includes 120 pads.

The Intermountain Oil and Gas BMP Project is a new website hosted by the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado Law School. The website houses a free, searchable Best Management Practices (BMP) database. The database includes both mandatory and voluntary BMPs recommended for responsible resource management in the Intermountain West, including some written by the Colorado Rare Plant Conservation Initiative.

While innovations that reduce impacts to the landscape can help conserve rare plant populations, the impact of energy development on rare plants is not well understood and the effectiveness of many recommendations is unknown. Research and monitoring studies of rare plant populations are the only way to fill these knowledge gaps.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Field Work Realities

By Hannah Varani, CNHP Wetland Ecology Field Technician

For the past two summers, I’ve been working with CNHP Wetland Ecologist Joanna Lemly on a project known in our office as REMAP. Contrary to what you might think from the name, this is not one of our wetland mapping projects. It is a collaborative project between the Natural Heritage Programs of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming that is funded through EPA's Regional Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (hence, REMAP). The goals of the project are to 1) develop a standardized approach to assessing wetland condition across the Rocky Mountains and 2) establish baseline data of "un-impacted" wetlands or wetlands as they naturally occur in the absence of human impact. The Natural Heritage Programs and EPA will use this data to further refine field protocols for future wetland assessment projects. They will also use this data to compare with data gathered on "impacted" wetlands.

Now that's a fine first paragraph don't you think? So much information packed into each short(ish) sentence. It took me just a few minutes and some finger flexing to condense the work of so many people and countless hours into a handful of words. This parallels my experiences with the project. Let's take, for example, this past summer.

After many months of planning, my field partner, Kat Sever, and I were ready to start gathering field data in sites all over Colorado. On paper, our days looked like they would be similar to each other. They read like this: drive to a site, sample the site, camp, then drive to the next site, and repeat. In retrospect, you could say that this is a concise summarization of the reality. Yes, this is what we did… but to me, like the first paragraph, it feels so glossy. Let me elucidate the steps.

Driving to the site

First, this included packing the car. All summer, we drove a rented, white Ford explorer with Utah plates. We nick-named her "Starlene" and imagined her as a rhinestone cowgirl type: luxurious with working air conditioning but rough enough for the roads we were going to be accessing… barely. Half of the back space was already claimed by necessary field gear, books and maps. Over the course of the summer, Kat and I became adept at jigsawing all our food, camping gear, day packs, personal items, and any duplicate items necessary for the two weeks (or longer) we planned to be out. We had a system of organization that would completely deteriorate into complete bedlam by the second week nearly every time. Inevitably stopping along the way to pick up forgotten items in towns that had stores, we would begin the 2-8 hour drive to our site. Struggling with the map and directions typically only became a focused activity as we got closer to each spot. Have you ever noticed that while many dirt roads are signed, their signs often don't match the labels on your map? Have you ever noticed that there are roads where there is no business for a road to be and is that a pothole there in the middle of the road or just an early grave?!

Eventually, Starlene would get parked and Kat and I would either set up camp or get ready to continue on to the site. In most cases it turns out that "un-impacted" sites, like the ones we were looking for, tended to occur in hard to access areas (surprise!). But even miles into the backcountry, we would still find evidence that people had been there before us.

This meant that we had to backpack into the majority of them. It also meant most of them included some travel off trail. Picture burned areas with downed logs in every direction, picture rows of sheer cliffs directly in the path, picture the Rocky Mountains in all their steep steepness. Reaching our final destination meant sweating. Profusely. Picture blisters and back sprains.

This is us: after just a few miles we feel as if we've been beaten and are ready to stop but we’re just not quite there yet. By this point we had a mantra: "just a little further, a few more miles to go." The expression on our faces: pure enthusiasm.

Sampling the site

Inevitably we would arrive at the spot where we would gather the data. I think a picture is the only way to really capture the labor spent maneuvering around our 1/2 hectare sample sites.

Yeah, I'll need to forge a path through this to do what I signed up for.

This is what that looks like: nobody said it would be pretty.

It would be exaggerating to say that every site was covered in shrubbery like this one, some were much more open.

Regardless, by the end of the summer Kat and I were pleasantly surprised that neither of us had broken an ankle. But I came to the following conclusions: invisible sinkholes are a common hazard in wetland work, as are wet shoes and stinky feet (especially in small, enclosed, shared spaces such as tents).

Alpine thunder and hailstorms are kind of fun, but also definitely a hazard. Don’t forget the Rite in the Rain® paper.


Data collected, shoes soaked, we were now prepared to spend our "ample" free time camping (and pressing plants, and identifying anything we had the stamina for). What can I say about camping that hasn't been said before? Especially in backpacking situations, it seems that most of the time, you hurt, are stinky, getting rained on or burning in the blazing hot sun, and constantly being dined on by various types of bugs - on the neck, on the hands, on the cheeks and of course, on the forehead. Now think about eating meals after sampling soils and the appeal of eating with fingers and nails all ringed in black.

Think about identifying plants in the dark cozy confines of the tent that you share with your coworker because, let's face it, it takes a special woman to carry both a full sized shovel and her own tent into the backcountry.

This is me eating dinner sans utensils. I'm happy that the pot hadn't gotten knocked over that night, that I was eating, and that it wasn't "twig surprise".

So now that we'd driven, sampled, and camped, picture leaving: packing up, packing out and throwing our wet gear into the back of a closet on wheels, squeezing into that disaster area, and heading out. By this time, I'm annoyed at Kat, she is thinking about murder, and the toilet paper is lost somewhere in the jumble. When we stop in small towns along the way, wide-eyed children back away from us and adults rummage in their pockets for change. Great! Halfway done! Just a few more sites and then we'd head home to a break that was never long enough.

Then Repeat

The break would include laundry, shopping, data drop-off, showering, relaxing, not camping. It would include remembering the previous weeks, the grimacing and sweating, our skin discoloring for one reason or another. Could we, would we, do it all again the next week?


Thursday, October 21, 2010

2010 North Platte Wetland Assessment - A day in the life of the field crew, Part 2

In Part 1 on Tuesday, we introduced the field crew and described the efforts required just to get us to the worksite.

Down to Work

When we finally arrived at a target wetland, we took photos of a 0.5 hectare circle around the random (and virtual) GPS "point".

A selection of wetland site photos.

Then, we laid out a 20x50m vegetation plot to record detailed data about wetland plant species and soils. Admittedly, some of the landowners who graciously to let us survey the wetlands on their land thought it was strange to watch us play with dirt and jump-ropes (a.k.a. 100m measuring tapes).

Erick and Lauren "jumping-rope".

Jenny digging holes.

Nina playing with dirt.

Then we assumed the proper botanist position (hunched over, hats up) and identified plants.

Erick and Eric checking out the Salix (willow) species up close.

Erick and Laurie keying out an Alsinaceae.

The Locals

Now, while most landowners were more than kind, we have to admit that it can be a little intimidating surveying wetlands on another person's land. Sometimes we needed a leap of faith to go for it, like the time we passed this sign before joining a landowner for lunch. (We took the photo in case we didn't make it back out.)

Not only did we make it, but lunch was delicious.

People weren't the only denizens to mention. Wetlands are known for their fantastic wildlife habitat, and here are some common companions in the field:

Ok, so the one on the bottome right isn't an animal. It was the spring mud-monster that surprised us when we were least expecting it and ate our legs if we stepped down too quickly. Luckily, we usually had a teammate nearby, ready to pry us out. A sure sign of groundwater-fed habitat for the other-worldly.

Trekking poles – apparently a preferred marmot snack. Marmots are surprisingly sneaky.

The Atmosphere

Aside from keeping the peace with wildlife and mud monsters, the largest threat to completing the day's survey rested on the weather. And we saw a lot of it – but usually we tried to protect the camera and throw down the soil auger (a.k.a. lightening rod) by the time the earth shaking crack of thunder was directly on top of us. So here are a couple of pre- and post-storm shots. We have been told that the 2010 Colorado summer was a dry one, but that is pretty hard to believe from our vantage point.

Here they come.

Post-diluvian drying methods: in field...

 ...vs. in field house.

Wrapping Up

At the end of the day, we can't say it was all work and no play. Other uses for rubber boots and waders – exceptional fly-fishing in the North Platte River Basin.

Lauren and Nina taking advantage of the Big Creek Lakes after work.

When all is said and done and despite the odds of nature, we had a fantastic summer of hard work and we got some great wetland data in the process.