Ranch Crew 2018: An Immersive Experience in Rangeland Ecology and Management — Lexi Smith

June 2018 was Ranch Crew month for several students (including myself), Ucross members, and collaborating partners from ranch managers to plant ecologists. Ranch Crew is not necessarily what it sounds like. It is so much more than that. Ranch Crew is a two-week immersive experience in rangeland ecology, management, and last but not least…culture! Since 2017, this field practicum has taken place each summer in the beautiful western state of Wyoming. It’s divided into two parts: one week of “mini-courses” on various aspects of rangeland ecology and management, and then another week of rapid assessment surveying or sampling a working ranch. The schedule for Ranch Crew 2018 looked something like this:

June 3 (Sheridan) – Arrive in Sheridan, Wyoming and eat dinner at John Heyneman’s house
June 4 (Sheridan) – Introduction to rangeland plants with Brian Mealor and Tyler Jones
June 5 (Sheridan) – Project discussion and NRCS conservation planning with Andrew Cassiday
June 6 (Sheridan) – Weed ecology and management in Wyoming with Brian Mealor
June 7 (Sheridan) – Grazing, financial planning, and fire management with Trey, Tris and John
June 8 (Sheridan) – Fieldwork preparation, and time for fun/relaxation (e.g., Tris’s concert)
June 9 (Grizzly Outfitters/Padlock Ranch) – Travel to Grizzly Outfitters, and field assessment
June 10 (Grizzly Outfitters/Padlock Ranch) – Field assessment/sampling
June 11 (Grizzly Outfitters/Padlock Ranch) – Field assessment/sampling
June 12 (Grizzly Outfitters/Padlock Ranch) – Field assessment/sampling
June 13 (Grizzly Outfitters/Padlock Ranch) – Field assessment/sampling
June 14 (Grizzly Outfitters/Padlock Ranch) – Field assessment/sampling
June 15 (Grizzly Outfitters/Padlock Ranch) – Field assessment/sampling
June 16 (Grizzly Outfitters/Padlock Ranch) – Field assessment/sampling, and report planning
June 17 (Disperse) – Travel

The ranch crew of 2018 pose for a picture at one of our weedy learning sites.

There is certainly enough material from each part of the Ranch Crew experience to write an entire article about, but I chose to discuss plant identification for this blog post. Plant identification was one of the first parts of the Ranch Crew curriculum, and extremely important for anyone interested in rangeland ecology or management. We also got to visit two beautiful sites in the process, which definitely made it more memorable. While in the field, we collected plant specimens that were difficult for most of us to identify – most of us being everyone except the plant expert himself, Brian Mealor. Then we brought the specimens back to the Sheridan Research and Extension Center to unravel the mystery of dichotomous keys…

The “Yalies” (Yale F&ES students) working intensely to identify a forb specimen!

With some not so subtle hints from Brian Mealor and Tyler Jones, we slowly worked our way through the identification of two forb species. And I am proud to say, the “Yalies” (Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies students) won the contest for correct identification of one of them! Although we have yet to receive our promised ice cream reward from Brian Mealor…Ice cream aside, plant identification day was a wonderful experience that truly opened my eyes to the diversity of Wyoming rangeland ecosystems, and helped prepared me for the next week of rapid assessment on the Padlock Ranch. So, thank you to Brian Mealor and Tyler Jones for all your help and good spirits throughout the plant identification learning process!

Beautiful view from one of our plant identification and collection sites near Sheridan, Wyoming.