Sunday night we gather and load all of our camping stuff into the front compartment of the aluminum trailer: gas stove, folding tables, pots and pans, paper and plastic dinnerware, axe, 2 sets of box panniers, 4 sets of pannier bags, 4 coolers, folding chairs, tarps, tipis, sleeping bags, cots, hobbles, lash ropes, grain, and dog food. First thing Monday morning we load our clothes, drinks, and food, and not just spam and canned beans food… but lamb chops, burgers, potatoes, burritos, bacon, and eggs. We like to feed our crew good, and obviously can't miss out on a lamb feast while working in sheep country! We catch and saddle 10 horses, two of which are the 2-year-olds heading on their first pack trip. My uncle Donnie, mom, and I load up in the two loaded down pickups and head for our beloved mountains.
At the Hobble Creek trail head, we meet up with soil scientist, Tom, our range specialist, Aaron, his son, Wade, and our good friends, Tricia and her daughter Sara. We begin packing the seven pack horses with everyone’s stuff. It is surprisingly uneventful, we usually have at least one wreck with the fresh colts.
We make our two hour climb up Lake Mountain with only one pack readjustment. Once at camp, we unload and set up everything, then lead the horses down to water before hobbling and staking them out for the night. We cook dinner in the fire while waiting for Tom, Aaron, and Wade to get in from monitoring, which we will join them to help the next two days.
Monitoring is assessing the plants, what types and how much of each type, in a given area and why those specific plant species are there based on precipitation, elevation, aspect, slope, and soil type. To collect this data, we combine three methods: line-point intercept, production sampling, and ocular analysis. Line-point intercept consists of dropping a rod every foot along two 100 ft tapes stretched in different directions from a center point. At each point, Aaron (who is a plant master!) calls out the plant(s), or lack of, that the rod hits on its way down. My mom records each plant(s) scientific name's abbreviation, ex: LIFI, BAMA, PODO, etc. for each point. Along with recording which plant species are present and how abundantly, with this method we take pictures in four directions from the center point, two of which capture the tapes, and pictures of closer ups of the plants at the 10, 50, and 90 ft marks along both belts.
The "production team", Tricia, Wade, Sara, and I, place a metal circle at 5 different points along the two tapes, and cut and weigh all the plants within that circle. We weigh each species of plant separately, and by the end of our 2-days-straight of monitoring, I don't have to send Sara with a plant sample to ask Aaron what it is! For the ocular analysis, Aaron records every single plant species within a 36ft diameter of the center point. He includes the height and occurrence percentage of each plant. Not only do we have to record the plants present, but also the rock, bare ground, and gopher activity percentages for the plot as well. While we are working on collecting data above ground, Tom is digging a pit to study what's below the plants. He observes the soil at different levels down the pit, keys out the specific color, and saturates it with water to see the different properties. By doing this, he can tell what soil type is present.
Although we occasionally put in a new site, we most often visit sites that have been monitored in previous years. By returning to the same sites every 5-10ish years, we can observe how the area is doing over time. We have monitoring sites scattered across each of our 8 allotments on the forest. An allotment is simply the allotted area that each herd of sheep can be on. Each year we spend time in a certain area of a different allotment. This year was spent on the Lake Mountain allotment, and we were able to look at 5 sites on Lake Mountain the first day, and 3 sites on Mt. Isabel the next day. It was a 2.5 hour ride from camp to get to Mt. Isabel, so we didn't have as much time for working. It takes close to two hours to collect all the information at each site. Some of the sites have pictures dating back to the 1950s; my grandpa, Truman, put in a huge amount of sites throughout his years; and my mom and I have even added a few to the list. Not to mention the countless hours that Aaron and his kids spend out on the range all summer, along with many of the range specialists and their colleagues in our district and others before him.
It is always a great time getting to spend a week in the mountains, working horseback, with such an amazing group of people. A lot of work is done, many stories and laughs are shared, and we all learn some along the way. We would be nothing without the land we run our sheep on, so it is crucial to care for it as much as we care for the animals. We enjoy working closely with our federal agencies to ensure good management of the land and animals so that this beautiful country may provide for us for many years to come.