Reporting for Field Work!
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
It is hard to believe that just over two months ago I first arrived in Grand Teton National Park to kick off my first field season for my master’s thesis work. In June, I got to see the Teton range in all its majesty for the first time without snow on the ground. The impossibly blue sky backdrop gave each rugged peak a grander-than-life feel. As I rolled past the boundary sign for Grand Teton National Park, I snapped a quick selfie with the park entrance sign which reminded me yet again of how lucky I was to be approved for field work this year despite a global pandemic.
Just past the park entrance, a herd of bison around 100 strong lazed under the intense Wyoming sun among the multicolored sagebrush communities that seemingly covered every inch of land that wasn’t road or mountain. I couldn’t help but think that the vegetation reminded me a little bit of a Monet- soft, speed-blurred pops of white, pink, purple and soothing sage green surprised me as most of the sagebrush communities I had seen were of the grey-brown sort of palette. I immediately grew excited at the notion that these were now “my communities” and it was my obligation to learn the Latin botanical names of each species as if they were old friends. Plant identification has long been one of my preferred things to do with my time, so I was glad to take on the challenge.
As I passed the Gros Ventre River (named for the A'aninin or White Clay people who called this land home before it was taken by settlers), which was also the namesake of my campground, it began to truly sink in that I would be living in a National Park for two months as an official researcher. Typically, researchers from the University of Wyoming have access to the beautiful lake-side AMK Research Station, but due to COVID, the station had understandingly been closed for the season. Instead, my home would be a small but cozy retro camper with an outdoor portable hygiene station thanks to funding from the AMK Research Station, the Wyoming Native Plant Society, and the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. Without the support of these agencies and the National Park Service, I would not have been able to complete this field season.
My new camp home sat in the employee loop of the campground, surrounded by the sweetest smelling wild rose bushes and shaded by narrowleaf cottonwood trees filled with birdsong. "Now this is real camp life", I thought to myself as I unpacked, "no refrigerator and a propane stove with only 5 gallon jug for grey water collection". It occurred to me that these arrangements would have the bittersweet effect of proving both challenging and to be the makings of great future stories. I was not wrong about either assumption.
The field season that followed was full of breathtaking views, sun-bleached hats, exhaustingly-long hours, exciting plant encounters, wildlife sightings, data entry, leaf and seed collections and an undying passion for preserving the unique and valuable sagebrush steppe. Though the summer flew by unexpectedly fast, so much was accomplished by everyone involved with this amazing project and I feel so much gratitude both for the chance to complete this work despite the presence of a global pandemic as well as the fact that I got to work in a literal postcard scene every day.
My work with the University of Wyoming and the National Park Service Science and Resource Management branch is all about improving the success and climate resilience of a large scale sagebrush steppe restoration project (read more by clicking on Research in the menu bar). Grand Teton has been restoring an iconic area of the park known as Antelope Flats/Kelly Hayfields piece by piece over the last decade. The ultimate goal is to return 4,500 acres of land to diverse and healthy sagebrush habitat which was converted by Mormon settlers to pasture grasses in the late 1800s/early 1900s! This region is critical food and brood habitat for many species that are star features in the park, including pronghorn, elk, and the threatened greater sage grouse. I have often thought about what it would be like to return these sites 20 or 30 years from now to see how the sagebrush communities have recovered and how astounding and humbling it will be to know that I had the privilege to be a small piece of this incredible effort. Some of the Grand Teton staff already can look back on a decade of tireless dedication to see how their own hands have worked to reshape the land. What an amazing reminder that humans have immense power to impact the environment and that it is absolutely possible to use this power to do good.
Working on this project with Grand Teton National Park is a literal dream come true for many reasons. Since the beginning of my scientific career it has been important to me to better integrate our scientific understanding of ecology and botany with efforts to conserve and restore native plants on the ground. The sagebrush steppe ecosystem is one of the largest in the western US and is simultaneously one of the most threatened, as 50% of its original range has already been converted or degraded. I am so thankful to be working directly with an amazing, dedicated team of ecologists, botanists, and land managers who are fighting hard to bring back a large piece of this critical habitat in one of America’s most loved National Parks. I hope that you stay with us and follow along this journey to hear more stories about sagebrush, ecology, cool plants, the human-environment connection, and life in the field.
Cheers! – Häslein (aka FBK, aka Sienna)