2018 Summer Field Study

Looking South from our first sample site on June 12th

Over the past 3 months, I was part of a field crew that did a rangeland-health assessment of the Pioneers-Craters landscape. The objective of this assessment was to develop a quantitative landscape-scale picture of the region’s diverse plant communities, focusing on vegetation composition and structure. This work was designed to span a variety of land types, uses, management legacies, and ownership boundaries to achieve a broad perspective of the land’s condition. The data we collected will be valuable for informing future management decisions and collaborative efforts between stakeholders in the Pioneers-Craters landscape, so we can continue moving toward fulfilling the goals of the Pioneers Alliance.

This was the first time that an assessment of this type and scale was conducted in the Pioneers-Craters landscape, and I was excited to be part of the effort! Drawing a perimeter around the sample area on a map results in a triangular shape stretching from near Arco on the NE to Quigley pass on the NW, with Highway 20 East of Carey forming the Southern point of the triangle. Last spring my field partner, Zac, created a map that we used to navigate to our randomly-located sample sites. The map was loaded onto an Ipad equipped with GPS so that we could see ourselves on the map as we moved around the landscape. This made getting to the sites straightforward and intuitive. Each site was sampled using a protocol developed by The Jornada Institute and The Nature Conservancy. This protocol is used nationwide by the BLM in their Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring (AIM) program. Thus, our data can be compared with data state- and nation-wide.

The methods we used were Line Point Intercept (LPI), canopy height, canopy-gap, and a qualitative assessment of Greater Sage-grouse habitat. This combination of methods produces a set of indicators that can be used to estimate plant species richness, cover, amount of bare soil, and plant community structure. Each sample was composed of three 50-meter (165’) transects extending out from a center point at bearings of 0, 120, and 240 degrees. LPI data was recorded every meter for a total of 150 observations per site. Canopy height was recorded every five meters for a total of 15 observations, and gaps in canopy cover >20cm were recorded on each transect. These data allow for extrapolation that will represent the landscape at a coarse resolution. We also evaluated each site using the NRCS Greater Sage-grouse habitat data sheet including a list of all plant species observed. Plant identification was generally performed to genus, so as not to underrepresent diversity while still indicating different functional groups on a relatively fine scale.

Zac and I established a set of scaled photo points at each site including associated GPS coordinates. This will allow for return to, and comparison of, these sites in subsequent seasons. This will prove to be uniquely interesting for the 10 sites that burned shortly after we sampled them in the Sharps fire of 2018. Two months ago, we didn’t anticipate a wildfire scorching through these beautiful hills, but now that a fire has happened, we’ll be able to quantify how different plant communities respond. Having quantitative ecological data of the communities that existed in burn areas right before the fire can provide us with insight as to which areas are likely to benefit the most from additional management and restoration efforts in the future. We’ve been back to each of the 10 burned sites, and re-created the set of photo points to document burn severity and distribution, which will also prove useful in evaluating plant regeneration in years to come.

Tanner setting up on a slope near Fish Creek

By focusing our data collection efforts solely on plant community composition and structure the two of us were able to cover a large area in one summer. Combining this extensive vegetation data with existing remote sensing data can provide a tool for land managers to use in conjunction with long-standing knowledge held by those that work and live on this land. Combined with valuable pastoral knowledge from various land users, we hope this assessment will help identify areas with the greatest potential for additional management, those currently in excellent condition, and those that might be best suited to future monitoring efforts. Combining various types of knowledge from differing sources is an integral part of achieving the Pioneers Alliance’s goal of conserving and enhancing the natural and cultural values of the area.

It has been a great privilege to spend the last three months immersed in the wild foothills of the Pioneer Mountains and the rolling rangelands North of Craters of the Moon. In addition to a dizzying variety of plants, Zac and I saw cranes, geese, herons, raptors, larks, songbirds of all shapes and sizes, four snake species, frogs, toads, lizards, elk, deer, antelope, coyote, cottontails, jackrabbits, various rodents, fish, and even a moose. We crossed paths with solitary shepherds leading their dogs and horses, healthy cows, fluffy sheep, and hard-working ranchers. To be involved with the human, domestic, and wild critters that help constitute the Pioneers-Craters ecosystem on this majestic working landscape is an honor I’m truly grateful for.

As we move into a new era of land management marked by changing values, markets, climate, and an ever-increasing base of knowledge both scientific and experiential, it is our greatest task and greatest strength to collaborate with each other in the exciting and challenging field of stewarding our greatest resource: the land on which we all depend. The Pioneers Alliance has the potential to be a remarkable organization made up of people from diverse backgrounds and interests working together toward the noble cause of responsible stewardship of a beautiful, productive, and inherently valuable landscape. I’m proud of the work Zac and I did this summer, and I hope to be involved with this organization in the future.

Thank you to Zac Traylor, my intrepid field partner; Bob Unnasch, our science-sage and supervisor; and Tess O’Sullivan, introduced to us months ago as “The Queen of the Pioneers”. You all helped make my summer immensely educational, rewarding, and fun!

-Tanner Marshall

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About Us

The Pioneers Alliance is a cooperative effort by ranchers, local residents, conservationists and public lands managers to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural values of the Pioneer Mountains and Craters of the Moon landscape of south-central Idaho.