For the week of May 5, 1999  thru May 11, 1999  

Sawtooth Forest biologists watching over rare plant species

Low-lying flowering plants like the Whitecloud Milkvetch are getting a little TLC


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

With the arrival of spring to central Idaho and the shedding of snows from south-facing slopes, the Sawtooth National Forest’s summer fauna—including several very rare species—are preparing to poke through last year’s dormant vegetation.

Among the plants that will soon blossom into their briefly green summer existence are four sensitive species that are being closely monitored due to low known population counts.

White Cloud Milkvetch, Stanley whitelow-grass, guardian buckwheat and Stanley thlaspi are all classified by Forest Service officials as sensitive. All four are found only in the Sawtooth National Forest, and three of them are found only in the Stanley Basin.

They are getting a lot of official tender loving care. In order to monitor and maintain the delicate populations of these low-lying, flowering plants, the Forest Service and the Conservation Data Center, a state agency in Boise, are working on conservation agreements that will help identify population locations and threats.

Deb Bumpus, SNRA threatened and endangered species biologist, explained that a conservation agreement includes a five-year action plan that involves protection, scientific research and an inventory of the plants. Under the agreements, habitat protection, land use limitations or recreation limitations are imposed. The limitations vary greatly depending on which species is being addressed.

"It helps us concentrate conservation efforts on areas that are identified as threats to those populations," Bumpus said.

Stanley whitelow grass and guardian buckwheat are currently protected and studied under conservation agreements. SNRA officials, in conjunction with members of the Conservation Data Center, are working on an agreement for the White Cloud milkvetch.

The populations of Stanley thlaspi are healthy, stable and do not require the assistance of a conservation agreement, despite the fact that there are only three known populations of the plants.

Bumpus said that hikers and backcountry travelers should be careful and observant when they recreate in these four species’ habitat.

"You might not even notice the plants because they are so small," she said. "Extreme caution needs to be taken when traveling in (their habitat)."

Disturbance to plants in alpine areas can take up to 50 years to recover, she said. Disturbance to these endemic species is primarily caused by grazing, road and trail use and off-road vehicle use.

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White Cloud milkvetch grows at the highest elevation of the four plants. This low-lying plant forms a mat on steep rocky slopes, and does best at elevations above 9,000 feet. It is found only in the White Cloud Mountains.

Boasting a purplish white bloom, which typically flowers in early to mid-August, milkvetch occurs in very shallow soils that, combined with the steep terrain it calls home, can cause plants’ roots to expose during spring runoff, killing the plants.

Off-trail foot and motorized traffic and sheep and cattle grazing are the milkvetch’s greatest hurdles to survival.

An easily viewable population of White Cloud milkvetch is above the Livingston Mine, on Railroad Ridge. That population is one of eight known.

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Stanley whitelow grass and Guardian buckwheat live only on sparsely vegetated, south faces of the Stanley Basin’s hills and ridges, between 6,000 and 6,500 feet. They are often found together and can work cooperatively to help each other survive.

The whitelow is a low-lying plant from the mustard family and wears yellow flowers during the first half of August. There are 12 known populations.

The previously mentioned threats—grazing, foot and motorized travel—can also harm populations of the whitelow grass, Bumpus said. In addition, roadside herbicides sometimes kill the plants. Herbicides are often sprayed along State Highway 75 to control encroaching weeds, and several whitelow grass populations lie within areas affected by the spray.

One population of the Stanley whitelow grass is within view of the highway. It is just south of Stanley, at Joe’s Gulch, near Nip-and-Tuck Creek.

Guardian buckwheat also forms a dense mat close to the ground, and it too has yellow flowers. The buckwheat’s flowers sprout from a stalk that rises one to one and a half inches above the matted plant and look similar to palm-palms, Bumpus said.

It has a thick root system that enables it to handle disturbances better than the other three endemic plants, but its seedlings have a difficult time becoming established when human-caused disturbances are near. This plant lives to at least 10 years of age.

There are eight known populations of guardian buckwheat, one of which can also be viewed at Joe’s Gulch alongside the whitelow grass.

Bumpus called the relationship between the Stanley whitelow grass and guardian buckwheat "very interesting." They don’t out-compete one another, she said.

The two species are found in the same locations because they depend on the same granite soils. A higher population of the buckwheat creates more stable soils in which the whitelow grass can become established, Bumpus said.

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Stanley thlaspi is the one sensitive, endemic species that has been found outside of the Stanley Basin; however, there are only three known populations, all within the borders of the Sawtooth National Forest. Stanley Creek, Job Creek and Easley Creek are the thlaspi’s summer homes.

The Easley Creek population is on the east side of Highway 75 on sandy, exposed slopes and is fairly easy to find, Bumpus said.

She called the thlaspi’s populations "very healthy" and said there is not a need for a conservation agreement for them at this point.

Like the whitlow grass, the thlaspi is from the mustard family. It has an off-white flower that rises two inches above the matted leaves of the plant. The flowers often bloom as early as late May and can last into July. Its populations are often interspersed with sage brush.

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In addition to hosting sensitive species, the Sawtooth Forest may be home to one endangered plant species.

Ute ladies’ tresses is an orchid that grows in boggy areas, but it is not yet confirmed to exist in the Sawtooth forests.

These plants were listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened in 1992, before they were thought to live here. In 1996, based on locations of confirmed populations in Twin Falls and in northern Oregon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service informed Sawtooth National Forest officials that the plants probably live locally.

Because they can remain dormant underground for up to eight years, however, searches have not confirmed their existence in the Sawtooth forests.

"We have identified habitat where it may be found," Bumpus said. "We will continue to survey for several more years."

The Ute ladies’ tresses has a small, orchid-like, white flower. Forest officials are watching for this plant in all wetland areas within the Sawtooth National Forest.

Sawtooth officials will also search for a new plant species this summer. Called moon wort, it is found at high elevations, is very small and looks like a fern.

Bumpus said that Ed Clebsch, a summer volunteer who is a retired plant ecology professor from the University of Tennessee, was hiking last year and found a population in the East Fork of the Salmon River drainage, near Crater Lake. Biologist Chris Frisbee will head up the efforts to find these plants this summer.

Previously, the moon wort was thought to live only as far west as eastern Wyoming.

"It was thought only to live in prairie lands, not at high elevations," Bumpus said.

"It’s really neat to find rare ones, but this is the only population in the state so far," she added. "We’re still finding species that haven’t been previously identified here. That’s really exciting."

 

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