Watersheds Messenger     Spring 2002     Vol. IX, No. 1     PDF ISSUE

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Biological Treasures of Mount Harrison Live on the Edge
By Miriam Austin

Like a sentry keeping watch over Idaho's Cassia County, Mount Harrison rises 9,265 feet over the communities of Albion, Burley and Declo. Part of the Albion Division of the Sawtooth National Forest, Mount Harrison habitats are administered by the Burley Ranger District.

The summit of Mount Harrison is Miriam Austin visited each year by thousands of recreationists, from wildflower and wildlife lovers to horseback and hang-gliding enthusiasts. This unique mountain range supports ecosystems ranging from sagebrush steppe to alpine meadows.

The Albion Division is home to snowshoe hares, sage grouse, northern goshawks and other sensitive wildlife. A small cirque lake below Mount Harrison supports the only known occurrence in Idaho of a tiny fairy shrimp. The cirque lake, geologic features and a portion of the summit's rare plant habitat are included in a Research Natural Area (RNA) proposed in 1982 and legally established by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in 1997. RNAs are intended to "be protected forever for long-term monitoring, research, education and conservation of biological diversity."

Mount Harrison is known for three rare plant species: Davis' wavewing, Shasta aster and Castilleja christii or Christ's Indian paintbrush. A fourth species, vivid green aster, was recently dropped by the Idaho Native Plant Society (INPS) as an invalid taxon.

Davis' wavewing is known only to Mount Harrison and adjacent Cache Peak and is considered by INPS to be a global priority 3 species. Shasta aster is a review species of possible conservation concern. Christ's Indian paintbrush has been a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) candidate species, a species for which there is sufficient information on biological vulnerability and threats to support listing proposals.

Collected by John Christ in 1950 and recognized as a new species in 1973, C. christii has a yellow- to coral-hued inflorescence. This rare paintbrush covers approximately 200 acres near the summit of Mount Harrison and is the only known population in the world.

C. christii was petitioned for listing in 1999 and again in 2001 by Westem Watersheds Project members Don and Linda Oman and Jim and Betty Prunty. The 2001 petition was filed due to continued grazing threats and failures of the USFS and FWS to carry out promised protective strategies. In a letter to the petitioners dated Jan. 3, 2000. FWS indicated it would work with the USFS to "identify and reduce threats to C. christii, including livestock grazing, off-road vehicle use and trampling." Unfortunately, neither FWS nor USFS have carried through with protective actions in regard to livestock grazing. The 1995 conservation strategy for C. christii indicated that "livestock grazing closure at the summit" would be continued. Yet livestock were found grazing within the C. christii and were reported to FWS numerous times in 1999. The agency and USFS agreed to keep livestock out of the C. christii in 2000 by use of temporary electric fences.

WWP members and others monitored the rare plant populations throughout the season. Cattle did not access the plants in 2000, and Sawtooth National Forest promised FWS that the summit would be permanently fenced prior to the 2001 grazing season. Despite vigorous public complaints by WWP members and the efforts of one USFS botanist, fencing was not adequately installed or maintained prior to turnout and livestock were observed within the RNA as well as in rare plant habitats and closed recreation portions of the summit throughout the 2001 grazing season.

When Forest Magazine traveled to Mount Harrison for a story on C. christii, livestock were again found and documented within the closed summit region.

It is apparent that the Sawtooth National Forest, FWS and livestock permittees refuse to take rare plant issues seriously.

While off-road impacts represent the human activity with the highest potential for immediate destruction of rare plants or their habitat, the insidious and cumulative impacts of livestock disturbance within the RNA and rare plant communities have been allowed to continue. Many livestock trails are now present within the RNA, the cirque lake has been repeatedly drained of water by livestock and filled with animal wastes, and C. christii and other rare plant species have been grazed and trampled.

In addition to off-road vehicle use and livestock grazing, the high elevation, rare-plant habitats are now being invaded by smooth brome and other seeded cultivars planted as rehab following the USFS-approved paving of the road to the summit through C. Christii habitat. (It is estimated that 20 or more acres of C. christii were lost during construction activities.) Subjection of the rare plant habitats to continued soil disturbance may well accelerate the spread of these non-native species.

Without increased public concern and action, the rare plant values of Mount Harrison will continue to decline in the face of recreational and livestock trampling, off-road vehicle impacts and exotic weed invasions. As these impacts continue to occur within C. christii habitat, we face the possibility of losing one of Idaho's - and indeed the world's - rare biological treasures.

Miriam Austin is a WWP field monitor and resource specialist.


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