I am a Biological Resource Monitor working for ACE and the BLM. I received a dual degree of Wildlife Biology and Environmental Biology, with honors from Keystone College. When I first started my position in 2022 I was not sure of what exactly to expect. I knew that I would be working on desert restoration projects, and biological monitoring, but this was the first year my exact position had existed. My boss who manages all of the restoration interns as well as the OHV grants, was excited to bring me on board and support me as I developed this position. I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the ecosystem, learn more about how land management agencies work, and the restoration process. I was excited about gaining monitoring experience. What I have gotten out of this position is so much more than I expected! I have learned to read the landscape and look for signs of damage (illegal roads called incursions) and craft a plan of future restoration work. I developed monitoring protocols and a field season workload of monitoring threatened, endangered, and sensitive plants and animals affected by OHV usage. I have gotten to work with raptor, bird, bat, and mohave ground squirrel biologists and assist them on their research and monitoring. I have learned to know what animal lives in a burrow just by the shape of the hole. I have honed my skills of identifying birds by sound and sight, and so much more! This position has allowed me to hone many important skills necessary for both wildlife biology and ecology professionals.

       I have really enjoyed my plant monitoring, which mostly takes place in the spring. There are roads throughout some of the most remote places in the desert, and records of historical plant populations have taken me on breathtaking hikes (sometimes literally when it entails hiking up a mountain) with stunning views. I never get tired of marveling over how vast the desert is. There is something special in the way the mountains are covered in sparse shrubs allowing you to see the naked mountain you can’t see in a forest. It’s amazing to see something so vast and large being shaped by erosion and water action, including fast acting desert flash floods, and see the way it slowly crumbles from the edges in, over millions of years. Every time I successfully confirm the presence of a rare plant(s) at a historical population location, it is such an exciting, satisfying feeling. It gives me hope to see plants blooming in one of the harshest places to live, and continuing to bloom in spite of all the changes humans have caused to their environment.
        One of my other favorite parts of this position has been all of the amazing biologists I have gotten to work with. Every time I go out in the field with someone, I end up learning from them. People have their own specialized knowledge sets and their own tricks for doing things. Even if it is just one day, 8 or 10 hours of field work with someone lends itself to a special kind of bond and I feel like I get to know them on a deeper level than if I had just met them in an office. Biologists at the end of their career (or middle) who have decades of knowledge are always excited to share their experience with someone just starting and eager to learn. If I could offer advice to someone in my position, or one similar to it, I would sa. y don’t be afraid to ask a million questions. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know things. Do some of your own research, and then ask other’s advice on your plan of attack on your problem. Everyone started out not knowing everything, even if they are an intimidating encyclopedia of knowledge now.
        I think my biggest impact in my position has been the monitoring protocols I created. Part of these protocols includes listing the plant community where I surveyed for a historical population. Although this list is imperfect, and not exhaustive, I would often be listing 20 species or more per site (keep in mind this is desert diversity and not on the same scale as tropical ecosystems). This protocol has already been crucial for my local BLM office. Unfortunately, there was a human caused fire this summer in one of the canyons in the Sierras that tore up through the riparian area and up the canyon sides. It could have been so much worse. Luckily some large fire crews happened to be driving by returning home from another fire, and were able to help suppress the blazes. This canyon fire was extremely saddening, especially because it is a highly important ecological area home to many wildlife species like the endangered desert tortoise and even some endangered, rare plants. The BLM Wildlife Biologist immediately launched a BAER program and began to plan for the recovery of the area. I had conducted many surveys in that canyon specifically as well as neighboring canyons. I put together a list of about 100 plant species, with lists specifically for upland and riparian habitat, which the biologist said was invaluable information. She is using my plant list to inform seed collection supplies for future seeding efforts in the canyon. That was a really proud moment for me, to be able to feel that my work helped contribute to the recovery plan, and also take something off the plate of the WB who juggles so much.
         I think climate change, or perhaps better referred to as global change, is impossible not to think about in any nature based career. The changes present and hovering over the desert are always present in my mind. I think about how the introduction of invasive grasses like cheatgrass and red brome have introduced fire into the desert, which is an unnatural disturbance regime that is deadly for native plants and animals. I think about water usage and the potential for a water table to sink so low, not even the lengthy taproots of perennials like creosote can reach it. I think about an irregular precipitation cycle, how plants that depended on El Niño to happen every few years for increased growth and seedling recruitment, like the famous Joshua tree, may have to go ten years or more without these high rainfall events. Climate change and the effects of humans on the natural environment is something that has been present in my mind since I was a child. There is something strange and unsettling about growing up feeling like the Earth you love and care for could be lost, and I know I am not unique in feeling this way. These problems are so much larger than one person can solve. It is so important to latch onto the good you can do.

        The best way to step out of the global dread of climate change is to focus on local efforts. I attended a really impactful Wet Meadow and Riparian Restoration Training in Gunnison, Colorado in 2022. This BLM office was using indigenous land management techniques which tribes had used on the landscape for thousands of years prior to Euro-American settlement. Now, this BLM office is adopting this invaluable indigenous knowledge to restore damage caused over 100 years prior, wagon and cattle trails carving out valley bottoms creating gullies that dropped out the water table and caused the loss of wet meadows. By using rock dams, a relatively simple construction, to redirect water to spread out across the valley bottom once again, they are able to restore the wet meadows to the sagebrush landscape. These meadows are a priceless resource to the vast majority of wildlife in the ecosystem which depend on the wetland at some point of their life cycle, including the Sage Grouse, who need meadows for highly nutritious forage or ‘green groceries.’
        There are so many ways to do good as we learn how to manage and conserve land in a changing world. I am at just the start of my career and there are so many things I still want to learn and try. I don’t feel a rush to figure it all out, and I expect each job will teach me something important, even if it isn’t what I want to do my entire career. The thought of the unknown future can be both terrifying and exciting! There are so many passionate, knowledgeable people working in this field, I have hope for all the good we can do in the face of adversity.
         My advice for someone in a similar role as me is to learn as much as you can. Leap at every training opportunity you can. Network with people in the area and go into the field with many different professionals, everyone has something they can teach you. Get to know the people around you and don’t be afraid to make friends, even if you know it is just a temporary job. I love the idea that I have friends all over the country, and I hope to grow that web of connections with every job I take.
BONUS: Book or Audio Recommendations for the field and work!
      It is hard to pick just one book so I will offer you three. First, Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman. She unveils the complexity of bird life from foraging, language, parenting, courtship, and more. This book will completely change the way you view birds and is written in an engaging way, it will even hook those who aren’t biologists. This ties into my second recommendation.
      Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal. This is one of those books I recommend to everyone. I was first introduced to Frans de Waal by my professor Dr. Robert Cook with the book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (A mouthful of a title). Both novels are fantastic. If you are deciding between one, read Mama’s Last Hug. This novel dives into the complex emotional lives animals have, and not just the species you automatically think of, the animals that look most like us, and into examples throughout the animal kingdom. Emotions help other animals just like they do for us, they increase their survival rates and allow them to thrive. He argues eloquently how human ego and our idea that we must be the supreme species and different in every way, has gotten in the way of our ability to really understand and appreciate all the other amazing animals we live on this planet with.
       My final book recommendation is Women in the Field by Marcia Bonta. One of my BLM coworkers, Marty, gave me this book and I loved it. It goes through the history of early women naturalists in the United States, and the women who supported all the famous names we think of today, like Audubon, whose contributions often go unmentioned in the pages of history. Women naturalists preserved because they felt an inescapable vocation to the natural world. Even as they were excluded, put down, and laughed out of naturalist jobs, they continued to push forward and have offered invaluable contributions to science.
        During my long drives on field days I like to alternate between listening to political podcasts and music. It is difficult to pick a favorite song to recommend, I have 90 mood specific playlists, a very normal amount I think. Recently, I have been loving Hozier’s new album Unreal and Unearth, listening to it a very normal amount of times. I especially love his new songs Who We Are and Through me (The Flood).
      Zoe Stephens
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