Words from a Botany Intern in Sagebrush Country

Last summer, Britney Zell perhaps got more than she bargained for while interning for the Chicago Botanic Garden. This internship took her to Nevada’s sagebrush country to work on restoration projects where she experienced frozen hands and faces and pants slick with mud. “They just make for a little extra group bonding,” Zell said. Through the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Conservation and Land Management program she and four other early career professionals from all over the country travelled to Carson City, Nevada to collect native seeds, survey and map rare species, and plant sagebrush seedlings. Here are a few of Zell’s thoughts and experiences.

How did you become interested in botany?

I grew up in San Diego, California and went to college in Prescott, Arizona. I discovered the magic of natural history in the deserts and mountains of the intermountain west, and I have always loved those landscapes. This lead to me entering the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Conservation and Land Management internship program, which is geared towards early-career scientists who are hoping to get involved in conservation work with a federal agency.

Zell and her fellow interns brave sagebrush country in November to plant sagebrush seedlings in an area that had recently burned.

Zell and her fellow interns brave sagebrush country in November to plant sagebrush seedlings in an area that had recently burned.

How did you get involved with sagebrush conservation?

When the internship program brought us to Nevada, the Carson City-based Bureau of Land Management’s wildlife biologist, Katrina Krause, organized a large-scale sagebrush planting effort in an attempt to provide habitat for a nearby sage grouse population. In the past few years, several wildfires had swept through the area, burning much of the vegetation and leaving little cover.

What was sagebrush planting like?

We met up with a great team of biologists, firefighters, and professionals from other agencies and field offices. To get to the site, we took a long drive on some pretty washed-out roads. The intern team had been to the area to survey for rare plants earlier in the year, and some of the landscape had burned since our last visit. When we reached the planting site, we laid out a grid using meter tapes and pin flags, so we would know exactly where to plant each seedling. One group dug the holes while another planted the seedlings, and we made quick progress!

What was the most challenging and what was the most fun parts of this work?

The most challenging part was definitely the weather! We did the planting on a windy, rainy mid-November day and after a few hours, our hands and faces were frozen and our pants were slick with mud. Those kind of situations are what you sign up for when you’re working in field biology, and they just make for a little extra group bonding!

The best part was getting to work on such an interdisciplinary project. In the botany field, we always know our work is important to other organisms in the ecosystem, but it’s usually not this concrete. With this project, we were literally creating the habitat structure for sage-grouse. It was also fun to work with such a large group – in just a few hours, we planted hundreds and hundreds of seedlings!

How would you describe the sagebrush sea to someone who has never experienced it?

Being in sagebrush country is definitely a unique experience, and “sea” an apt metaphor. Sagebrush landscapes can seem endless, comprising vast basins and mountains across the West. There is something mesmerizing about the windswept fields of monotonous gray shrubs, but there is actually much more diversity than you would expect at first glance.

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What are your thoughts on sagebrush habitats and their conservation?

I think sagebrush habitats are highly undervalued. Arid landscapes in general are often dismissed in favor of places like the tropics, but a focus on species richness ignores the unique adaptations that are required to live in harsher landscapes. I find the plants and animals that can survive in the drought, wind, and extreme temperatures of sagebrush habitats to be fascinating!

The conservation of these ecosystems is incredibly important. They are at risk due to invasive plants like cheatgrass, high severity wildfires, and encroachment of other vegetation types. Preserving the native plant species is a necessary aim in itself, but the vegetation also serves as habitat to a diverse complement of wildlife species and the economic viability of the people living and working there.

As part of the 2018 People of the Sage: Fire & Invasives series, this article is telling the stories of the people combating the twin threats of wildfire and invasive species by showcasing their work in sagebrush country using innovative, successful conservation practices that are both proactive and reactive. To see more posts from this series search for #SagebrushCountry and #fireANDinvasives on social media.

Hannah Nikonow