Lay of the Land

September 9, 2016

Tucked away in the Reese River Valley surrounded by Nevada's Toiyabe National Forest, sits the Shoshone reservation Yomba, a tiny community supported mostly by ranching and farming. Many residents here also practice traditional gathering--collecting berries, roots, plants and nuts for medicinal and culinary uses--though years of drought have strained snow packs, leaving the high desert dryer, and crops of pine nuts and berries smaller.

Severe weather patterns--possibly the result of wider climate change--have produced lighter winters with longer periods of drought followed by short bursts of moisture that quench the thirst of the plants and animals struggling to stretch their water reserves for longer and longer. On top of the drought concerns, the BLM is planning to lease parcels of land in the Reese River Valley and neighboring Smokey Valley for fracking and oil exploration. The Yomba tribe has voiced opposition to these sales, with water shortages listed as one of their main concerns. The massive amount of water fracking requires, they say, would drastically impact the quality of life for tribal members and the land they live on since the water that currently exists is barely (and sometimes not) enough to support the plants they traditionally gather and the animals they hunt, as well as the established farms.

I spent a few days with Shoshone members Jay, his mother, Melanie, and his grandmother, Darlene, who know the area and it's natural inhabitants intimately. We ventured out to explore the effects lack of water and warmer temperatures are having on the plants and, concurrently, the animals and people that rely on them.

View of the Reese River Valley in Central Nevada, where the Yomba Shoshone Reservation is located.

View of the Reese River Valley where the Yomba Shoshone Reservation is located.

The creek near Darlene's home used to fill the entire gully. For the first time in nearly five years, a wet spring replenished some of the plants that were plentiful here, though the rejuvenation was short lived as a hot summer provided little moisture. When the water does come, the plants seem to grow back OK, Jay says, though it's the animals that suffer more when the plants recede during drought.

The rainy spring helped the creek reach a water level Jay hasn't seen in years, sending the waterline as high as where the taller plants in the left-hand corner of the frame are. But even when the river was at normal or high levels, it wasn't as bountiful as some might think. When he was a kid, Jay says, "White people would drive in with their speed boats and ask us where the river was. We'd say, 'this is it!'"

Jay walks through a field near his grandmother's home. He says that this is the first summer in about five years where the grass has been this tall, citing its growth as a remnant of the spring rain. This field, he says, used to be full of irises, but he hasn't seen any grow here for a long time.

Jay was also on the hunt for sage hen. We didn't find any, though.

Buddy tags along on many of our outings, though he tends to scare the sage hen.

Darlene feeds the horses.

Jay gathers elderberries in the Big Creek area north-east of the reservation.

Though elderberries are supposed to be ready to harvest in the late summer and early fall, many patches of berries on the Big Creek trees remain green in late August. "The plants are confused," Melanie says, referring to the warm winters, early springs and temperature fluctuations in the area.

Further evidence of plant "confusion" shows in the presences of elderberry blossoms, which are usually only around in the spring. Darlene, Melanie and Jay say they have never seen elderberry blossoms this late in the summer.

Darlene finds bunches of ripe elderberries among the green patches.

Pine-cone-less Pinyon trees in the Big Creek area.

Many of the pine cones that could be harvested for their nuts prematurely brown and shrivel up due to dry weather and extreme heat.

Darlene removes pine cone pitch from her hands by rubbing dirt on them.

Darlene tells Jay that there is an area near Ophir that has "funny pine cones." We head up there to check it out.

The pine cones here are ravaged by insects, which have been able to burrow in and eat the nuts because the protective pitch that normally seals the pine cone has melted off in the heat.

A dead Pinyon pine lies uprooted near Ophir. The drought has gotten so bad that commercial pine nut picking has been banned this year. "That's good news for us," Jay says, since it gives the trees some time to recover. But "it would have been better if it had happened a few years ago." Commercial pickers, he says, clear the trees of all the cones, leaving none for the birds.

Jay examines a Juniper bush.

Sparse choke cherries grow on the side of the road near Ophir. These were the only choke cherries we found around the Reese River Valley. Melanie had to drive 185 miles east to Ely to look for more.

Melanie surveys a Pinyon pine near Carol Summit.

Healthy pine cones cluster near the top of the taller Pinyon pines.

Melanie examines the pitch of a pine cone before taking a crystallized drop and placing it under her tongue. It's a refreshing treat during the hot day.

Jay knocks off pine cones that are too high to reach. One nearly beans me.

The day's harvest at Carol Summit. Later, the cones will be roasted underground at Darlene's home and the nuts pried out for snacking.

Mountain sheep blend into the landscape at Eastgate.

Healthy elderberries are ready for harvest near Carol Summit. Elderberries have a number of digestive health benefits. "They keep you regular," Jay says.

Darlene holds some of the day's gatherings. Jay will later process the elderberries into jam.

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