Western Blue Flag

Iris
Iris missouriensis forms a rhizomatous clump and can exist in large colonies. Its range extends from BC to Baja California and east to Minnesota.

The beautiful purple flower is actually composed of three sepals, three petals and three petal-like styles. Also called Wild Iris and Missouri Iris, the leaves, stems and roots are poisonous if ingested. However, some native Americans used the mashed root as a pain reliever when applied to toothaches.

Easy to Miss

It’s easy to miss the subtle beauty around me. On any given day I can get wrapped up in my to-do list and forget to take the time to simply look around me. On photo hikes I can get wrapped up in looking for that “once in a lifetime” shot and not see the brush strokes of wind, rain, drought, freezing, thawing, living and dying painting a story right there, waiting to be read.

SpanishPt04_scaleJune_Sky02SpanishPt06_scale

Real Food

I didn’t actually know there’s such a thing as a “real food” movement. It’s just a term I use for homegrown food or food I know is free of processing. You know, food where the ingredient label isn’t 100 items long.

I don’t consider myself a homesteader, but living on a ranch, it just seems natural to grow as much of our own food as possible. There’s a certain satisfaction I feel when I bypass the meat, dairy, and egg sections of the grocery store.

We are growing lamb and beef for our own freezer and supplement that with wild game (elk, deer). We get eggs from a neighbor, and hope to have a garden in 2014 (I’m partial to growing small fruit: berries and such).

Our latest addition to the barn is a milk cow. I’ve been having a blast making yogurt, mozzarella, and butter. Still looking for that perfect spreadable cheese recipe. Even though I consider myself somewhat in touch with the skills necessary for a self-sufficient lifestyle, I’m amazed at how easy it is to make these items and why we haven’t been doing it all along. You can make all of these from store bought dairy. Stick to organic whole milk/cream and you have a very wholesome product.

For my yogurt, I used a recipe found at A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Butter. You gotta love that title, huh? The recipe worked without a hitch. The author, Sofya, makes a good point that American store bought yogurt usually contains thickeners, so don’t be worried if your homemade version is a little thinner than what you are used to. And it is perfectly OK if the whey separates from the yogurt a little.  Just stir it back in, add some fresh or frozen fruit, a little honey, and eat. Wow.

mozzarella

Mozzarella cheese before stretching, fresh out of the pot.

I used a mozzarella recipe found at The Pioneer Woman blog. Again it worked great, but I didn’t really like the microwave heating so I  just put the cheese back into hot whey instead of the microwave while stretching. Viola, mozzarella!

There are hundreds of recipes for homemade dairy products out there on the web. At first I was put off by the “don’t use grocery store rennet,” “don’t use lemon juice to acidify” crowd who buy cultures from specialty stores. I’ll probably try those specialty items sooner or later, but it’s good to just jump in there and give it a try with what you can easily find.

Hey, I’m a hundred miles from any Walmart, let alone a specialty food store. I gotta use what I have on hand. Isn’t that the spirit of the original homesteaders?

Hostile to Large Carnivores

Bad Grizzly

Good Grizzly

I won’t go into a long (boring) post about my lack of blogging. A move, new job, new home, kids in a new school are the reasons.

I thought I’d jump back into blogging with something controversial. There’s always plenty of fodder when it comes to wildlife management in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (GYE). The controversy of the day is that the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), issued a report de-emphasizing the Yellowstone grizzly population’s dependence on whitebark pine nuts as a food source.

A little back ground might be helpful to understand why this is making headlines.

The IGBC is made up of various wildlife biologists as stated on their web page including “representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Geological Survey and representatives of the state wildlife agencies of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming. In the interest of international coordination and cooperation, the Canadian Wildlife Service is also represented.”  The IGBC “was formed in 1983 to help ensure recovery of viable grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the lower 48 states through interagency coordination of policy, planning, management, and research.”

In 2007 the Grizzly bear population in the GYE met the requirements for removing the species from the endangered species list, and was, in fact, delisted. However, in 2009 Judge Don Molloy of the Ninth Federal District Court “vacated” the delisting, meaning, the griz was back on the endangered species list.

The main concern listed by Judge Molloy was the lack of scientific evidence of the effect of decreased whitebark pine (WBP) nuts on future bear numbers. (Parts of the GYE have experienced significant declines in whitebark pine due to beetle infestation.) So, here we are four years later and the IGBC has issued its finding regarding the grizzly bears’ dependence on the whitebark pine nut as it relates to the stability of the population in the GYE. Their findings: “whitebark pine decline has had no profound negative effects on grizzly bears at the individual or population level.”

It is expected this will prompt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to once again review the Yellowstone grizzly bear population as endangered.

Not surprisingly, the rhetoric is at work in the headlines. I thought it interesting (if not entertaining) to compare the headlines on a few organizations’ sites. Can you spot those for and against delisting?

“Agency Reports At Meeting Present Unanimously Good News About Yellowstone Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Recovery Bozeman”- IGBC

“Despite Mounting Threats, Feds Announce Decision to Strip Endangered Species Protections for Yellowstone Grizzlies ” -Center for Biodiversity

Rush to Remove Federal Protections Could Threaten Grizzly Bear Recovery” -Natural Resources Defense Council

I was rather smuggly happy to see a local paper calmly stating “Grizzly delisting may happen in 2014″

I especially enjoyed Louisa Willcox’s (Center for Biodiversity) statement that “The push to drop protection is being driven by states hostile to large carnivores.” Living in Wyoming, I guess that would include me. I didn’t know I was hostile to large carnivores. That would make me hostile to (almost) every one I know.

The IGBC’s report doesn’t do anything about the Grizzly bear’s endangered species status. It only possibly instigates a review by the USFWS, which could then write a new rule, which would likely include continued management guidelines. This process, if unimpeded, would likely take 6 months or more.

Growing Roots

pine on limestone rock wall

If you have spent much time among rock outcrops, badlands, or the Rocky Mountains, you’ve probably seen trees and shrubs sprouting from what looks like solid rock.

It all starts with that little seed swelling with water and germinating in a little loose rock, or a minute crack. The plant takes root with incredible force, growing and swelling and placing amazing force into the microscopic cracks of the host rock. Aided by thawing and freezing, the cracks increase in size and the process continues.

shrub seedling rock wall

Turn Off the Lights, Save Water

Living in Wyoming we are always aware of the scarcity of water. The majority of Wyoming receives less than 15″ of precipitation annually.  Water, even more so, potable water, is becoming a global problem. We hear a lot about reducing water usage by using low flow shower heads and commodes, turning the tap off when possible, watering the yard in the cool hours of the day, and planting low water use plants for landscaping. These are all good ideas and I try to do them all, and teach my kids to do the same.

We also talk about reducing energy usage by getting fuel efficient cars, turning off the lights, and getting energy efficient appliances, but I don’t think I realized that by doing these things I am also reducing water usage.

There’s a great over view of how energy production uses vast amounts of water in a video entitled Water: Lifeblood of Energy, viewable online. Basically all of our electrical generation uses steam, and water plays a major role in refining oil. Here’s a few facts gleaned from the show:

  • American energy production uses as much water as American agriculture
  • Steam is used to generate 90% of our energy
  • It takes 3-6 gallons of water to make a gallon of gasoline
  • It takes a gallon of water to make one kilowatt hour of electricity (about how much an average sized air conditioner uses in one hour)
  • It takes 4 gallons of water to produce ethanol and that’s not including the water to produce corn on irrigated farmlands
  • Americans use more water running lights and appliances than running the tap
  • Even solar thermal power requires steam generators. It’s one of the largest consumers of water per kilowatt in the energy industry

On a side note, it’s often wondered why Wyoming exports so much oil and refines so little within the state. Lack of large sources of water for refiners has been a critical factor. (Larson, T.A. 1984. Wyoming A History. pgs 163-166)

 

Wyoming Sage Grouse Conservation and Land Use

In 2010,  the U.S. Fish and Wildlife decided the greater sage grouse would be kept in consideration for placing on the endangered species list. They say the listing is “warranted,” but there are too many other endangered species needing attention at this time.

“Based on a  12-month status review pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish  & Wildlife Service determined that the listing of the species was warranted  but precluded by higher priorities.”1

“As a  result, the greater sage-grouse will be placed on the list of species that are  candidates for Endangered Species Act Protection. The Service will review the  status of the species annually, as it does with all candidate species, and will  propose the species for protection when funding and workload priorities for other listing actions allow” 2

Recently, a report was released outlining conservation strategies for the greater sage grouse.  There is a special consideration for the greater sage grouse of Wyoming in a draft umbrella conservation agreement called the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA).

According to the announcement in the Federal Register, “The intent of the umbrella CCAA is to use voluntary, proactive conservation measures to reduce or remove threats to the greater sage-grouse, thereby potentially reducing the need to list the species. (Even though the initial press release is not stated this way-wyominglife) The draft umbrella CCAA covers an area of approximately 17 million acres of privately owned lands within the range of the greater sage-grouse in Wyoming.”3

In this voluntary agreement, private land owners are given options on how to improve sage grouse habitat with the goal of increasing numbers within the historical range of Wyoming sage grouse. The difficulty in achieving this is that sage grouse are deemed a  “landscape-scale” species, meaning they utilize different habitats seasonally as well as developmentally. (Juvenile sage grouse diets differ from adult male diets, etc.) Sage grouse move across various habitat types within the sage brush prairie. Wyoming contains some of the largest tracts of sage brush steppe, so we have a good chance of impacting this species’ numbers positively.

So, What is the Problem?

Some of the specific threats to the Greater Sage Grouse listed in the CCAA are:

    • habitat fragmentation
    • monocultures of non-natives
    • non-native invasive plant species
    • wildland fire can remove long-lived species such as sagebrush
    • sagebrush management
    • livestock, humans, and vehicle activity can physically disturb birds
    • application of insecticides can remove insects important to sage-grouse
    • concentrated or overabundant wildlife populations can harm plant communities
    • concentration of livestock may impact vegetation and soil structure

Obviously some of these threats are more easily managed than others. Some, like wildfires, are pretty much out of our control, although we may choose to ‘fight’ fires, or not. If you are unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding Wyoming’s Greater Sage Grouse conservation, I have relisted the mentioned threats and placed in parentheses common land use practices that could cause said threats. The conflict becomes apparent.

      • habitat fragmentation (oil and gas drilling, roads, housing developments)
      • monocultures of non-natives (farming)
      • non-native invasive plant species (a side effect of roads, farming, housing, animal movement, drilling …. )
      • wildland fire can remove long-lived species such as sagebrush
      • sagebrush management (ie removal with pesticides/mechanical/controlled burns in order to increase grasses for grazing or to reduce fire potential. A common practice for the last 5 or 6 decades)
      • livestock, humans, and vehicle activity can physically disturb birds (No comment necessary. People live here.)
      • application of insecticides can remove insects important to sage-grouse (Farming, although insecticides are not used at the levels common to the crops in the eastern part of the US. Towns spraying for mosquitos.)
      • concentrated or overabundant wildlife populations can harm plant communities (Big game management. Big game migration corridors.)
      • concentration of livestock may impact vegetation and soil structure (Ranching, one of the major industries in Wyoming)

1  http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/pressrel/2013/03252013_COT.html

http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/sagegrouse/

3 http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/sagegrouse/78FR9066.pdfhttp://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/sagegrouse/78FR9066.pdf

Wyoming on the Edge of Ogallala Aquifer

The headlines read Aquifer study could lead to water use restrictions in Laramie County  It’s hard to believe we could be draining such a large water resource as the Ogallala Aquifer.

From Iowa State: The Ogallala Aquifer underlies approximately 225,000 square miles in the Great Plains region, particularly in the High Plains of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska. The depth of the aquifer from the surface of the land, its rate [sic] of natural thickness, vary from region to region. The aquifer has long been a major source of water for agricultural, municipal, and industrial development.

Use of the aquifer began at the turn of the century, and since World War II reliance on it has steadily increased. The withdrawal of this groundwater has now greatly surpassed the aquifer’s rate of natural recharge. Some places overlying the aquifer have already exhausted their underground supply as a source of irrigation. Other parts have more favorable saturated thicknesses and recharge rates, and so are less vulnerable.

Ogallala Aquifer Location MapNatural recharge to the Ogallala happens mostly by rain and snow fall percolating through the soil back into the aquifer. Playa lakes are recognized as another primary source of recharge.

Laramie County, home to Wyoming’s capital, Cheyenne, sits on the western edge of the aquifer. It’s quite possible well water restrictions could be in the future for this area of Wyoming. The town itself gets water from nearby reservoirs, so water restrictions affecting the Ogallala will mostly impact area farmers. The local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is coordinating a unique, and fairly drastic, effort to slow the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer: helping farmers give up water wells over a period of years and phase out dependence on irrigated crops.

To anyone who farms with irrigation this is a drastic step. The results of giving up  the ability to pump water from deep wells could mean a range of adjustments including improving irrigation efficiency in an attempt to use less total water or fewer wells, planting fewer acres, switching to dryland crops,  changing the production process of the farm to a different commodity, or the most cutting; quitting the business all together.

Dryland farming on the high plains is full of risk. Some years a crop can be realized, but other years, when the rain does not come at the right time, crops shrivel up in the ground, or even refuse to sprout at all. In order to assist farmers in making these adjustments, financial help and technical advice are given through the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), administered by the NRCS. Participation in the AWEP is completely voluntary. With the help of AWEP, some farmers have already begun to make changes in order to conserve water.

 

Image from: High Plains Water District     http://www.hpwd.com/aquifers/ogallala-aquifer

Medicine Lodge: Etchings of the Past

medicine lodge wyoming

Sandstone bluff containing petroglyphs and pictographs at Medicine Lodge

The obvious feature along Medicine Lodge Creek is the 750 foot long sandstone bluff containing a fascinating display of petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are images carved into the stone with a sharp object. Pictographs are painted onto the surface. I imagine the bluff has caught the attention of both Native Americans and European settlers for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that an organized archeological study of the area was undertaken.

In 1969 then Wyoming State Archeologist, George Frison, began a methodical dig and inventory of the site. It was discovered that the site has been occupied continuously for over 10,000 years. The layers of relics and artifacts discovered have given us modern visitors to Medicine Lodge a look into how Paleoindians, and more recently the Native American Crow tribe, have lived, including what they ate, the tools they used, and some insight into how they moved across this landscape through the seasons.

The site is now a Wyoming State Archeological Site. It is located  alongside Medicine Lodge Creek; a beautiful mountain stream brimming with brown trout. Located at the western foot of the Bighorn Mountains, this is prime winter range for elk and deer. Its five vegetation zones and perennial water source provide habitat for a diverse population of wildlife. Along with the larger ungulates, birds, rabbits, marmots, beaver, weasels, badgers, porcupines, muskrats, fox, coyote, bob cats and mountain lions are common residents, making Medicine Lodge one of the best wildlife viewing areas in Wyoming.  (Click on images to see larger version).

pictograph medicine lodge wyoming

Pictographs in red paint. You can clearly see a horned animal (bison?) on the far right. Click on image to view larger.
Petroplyph Medicine Lodge

Petroglyph carved into the sandstone bluff.

wyoming rock art

Petroglyph with some later blackish paint? Or maybe it has just weathered to make the upper area darker. You can see the person is holding an arrow.

Mountain Snowpack Critical for Stream Flows

Well, we’ve had a few wet snows in the last two weeks here in Wyoming. Due to the warm weather in the first half of April (at least here in Central Wyoming), the soil at lower elevations is able to absorb much of the moisture from these snows, which is a welcome occurrence.

Mountain snowpack provides stream flow water well into the summer months, and recharges springs and seeps.

Mountain snowpack feeds streams well into the summer months, and recharges springs and seeps.

I recently heard someone comment that if they heard one more person take the optimistic attitude to the inconvenience of a foot of snow on the streets, sidewalks, and driveways using the cheery “Well, we need the moisture,” they were going to scream. But the truth is, we DO need the moisture. Convenient or not, spring snows are integral to the water cycle in the Central Rockies. Without them, we are likely to have a very short “spring green” of the lower rangelands.

These last few snow storms have resulted in the Lower Platte River basin now measuring just under 90 percent of the long term snowpack average. The Upper Platte is now reported to be at 92 percent. The northwestern Yellowstone, Snake and Madison-Gallatin are now approaching 100 percent of “normal.” (Data as of 4/18/2013 from WRDS website)

Even though my livelihood doesn’t currently depend on abundant snowpack in the spring, I still watch the data with anticipation because I know the ramifications affect so many lives. Even though my intellect tells me drought cycles have been occurring in the Western Plains for thousands of years, I still find it distressing when the prairie is “burned up” by the end of May.

There have been times in our life when our livelihood DID depend on snowpack, and thus the availability of irrigation water, and it’s more than a little stressful to watch the stream flows drop drastically in June,  knowing you need to irrigate crops until September in order to have a decent harvest.

Dry years mean anything dependent on vegetation suffers, whether it’s domestic livestock or wildlife. So as I trudge through the three foot drifts to get to the 4H pigs, or shovel yet another path, or clean another muddy floor, I will smile and say “We need the moisture,” and I’ll mean it.