Things have only picked up here in the Gunnison valley since the last post. Summer is in full swing, which means fieldwork is in full swing too! I’ve been handed over to help with a few different crews, but here I will just highlight my favorite ones. For the first half of the post, let me introduce you to the Almont Triangle.
Field of arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata).
This little patch of land is situated between Almont and Crested Butte, CO. There are lovely trails to hike in the area with an abundance of wildflowers along your way. However, this piece of land is also an important patch of wintering habitat for big game. The biologists on this forest are concerned with one particular invader that could create a real mess in the area if left ignored – Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). If you are familiar with any of the invasive vegetation and fire issues of the intermountain West in North America, you may have heard of this troublesome plant. You may have also heard of the group of grasses called the bromes, considering there are a few more species in this genus that are also invasive in other regions in the U.S. (i.e., Japanese brome and smooth brome). I could write an entire rant on this blog on cheatgrass alone, but for the sake of space and time, I will highlight the basics. Cheatgrass is native to Eurasia and arrived to the United States in approximately 1889 – 1894. It is an extremely successful weed that has done particularly well in sage-brush steppe habitat. Sage-brush steppe is a picturesque, prominent semi-desert habitat in the American West that crosses approximately 13 states. The sage-brush steppe is facing a number of threats, one of those being the cheatgrass invasion.
The classic droop of cheatgrass (Photocredit: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies).
What’s so bad about cheatgrass? If left to establish, plots with cheatgrass can eventually be reduced to a monoculture with nothing but cheatgrass covering hills and valleys that were once diverse in both flora and fauna. Cheatgrass is a winter annual, which means by the time the heat of the summer hits, the grass has already completed its germination cycle. What you have left is dry and brittle fuel that is waiting to be consumed by wildfire. My assignment in this regard for the Gunnison ranger district is to search for and map any cheatgrass in the Almont Triangle and write a short report on the area mapped with suggestions in the end for possible treatment options.
While I scout around for cheatgrass, I will also be collecting native forb seed for a national project the Forest Service participates in for sage-brush steppe restoration! That part is really fun.
The process of a hairy vase (Clematis hirsutissima) opening up and going to seed in the Almont Triangle. One of the species I collected for seed.
My favorite flower in the West. Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata).
Another portion of my fieldwork lately has been dedicated to fen monitoring. This project is a collaboration between the Gunnison national forest and the Forest Service research station up in Fort Collins. The Gunnison national forest (or the GMUG) is looking to understand if the protocol they use for protecting fens and wetlands from various timber management strategies are adequate or if changes need to be made. Currently, fens are given a 100 ft buffer around timber treatments, but sometimes things change. For instance, some fens are different in size than what is listed in the GIS layer, some are no longer fens, and some were simply not mapped to begin with. This will be a multi-year project and I am so excited to be here in the beginning of it all! Currently, we are visiting fens that have previously been mapped by the Forest and also finding new ones in order to find the ideal experimental sites for this project.
Haven’t heard of a fen before? That’s okay, you’re not the only one! Fens are groundwater dependent ecosystems with at least 30-40 inches of peat (this is a very short description, there’s so much more to it!). Since we are in the high alpines of southwest Colorado, it is more common to see at least 30 inches of peat. Fen habitats serve a number of ecosystem services such as groundwater retention and carbon storage. The GMUG is interested in knowing exactly where all of their fens are located in order to move forward. The national average for fen cover in national forests is 2%, and currently the GMUG has approximately 0.6% fen cover. So as you can see, we are really in need here of mapping these hidden gems!
Clam Fen, the bright green patch that starts on the far left and extends across the photo, encircled by sage-brush in Taylor Park.
That’s all of my updates so far. Enjoy these incredible photos I took of the fen project these past few weeks.
Agency: Bureau of Land Management
Program: Conservation and Outdoor Recreation Program (COR)
Location: Alaska Office of Law Enforcement