WESPEN Online Order Form print this page
US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

ARCATA FWO: A Tale of Lassics Lupine

Region 8, July 11, 2013
Lassics lupine.
Lassics lupine. - Photo Credit: n/a
Lassics lupine (left) is home on serpentine barrens in the Lassic Mountains. The encroaching pine forest is seen in the background.
Lassics lupine (left) is home on serpentine barrens in the Lassic Mountains. The encroaching pine forest is seen in the background. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Liisa Schmoele

Once upon a time, there was a plant that was only found in one place in the whole world. Sound familiar? This is a story about Lassics lupine (Lupinus constancei), a species that some believe is the most endangered plant in the state of California. Although not listed under the Endangered Species Act, a group of concerned biologists are doing their best to ensure this small legume persists into the future.

Lassics lupine is endemic to two of the Lassics peaks of the Six Rivers National Forest in Humboldt and Trinity counties in California: Mount Lassic (also called Signal Peak) and Red Lassic. This plant has adapted to the incredibly harsh environment found on these mountains. One of a suite of unique plants that can survive on serpentine soils (highly mineralized soils toxic to most plants, and derived from oceanic crust emplaced on continental crust), this lupine is found at elevations between 5,000 and 6,000 feet on gravel barrens with very sparse vegetation. Or at least, they used to. Encroachment of the forest from the north and chaparral from the west, presumably due to fire suppression, is slowly reducing the lupine’s habitat. At the same time, the more trees and shrubs there are, the more habitat near lupine plants that becomes available for small mammals that would not otherwise be able to survive out in the open. And therein lies the main threat to Lassics lupine: seed predation by small mammals, likely exacerbated by tree and shrub encroachment.

Biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office (Dave Imper and Gary Falxa), U.S. Forest Service (Lisa Hoover and others), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Scott Osborn), and California Native Plant Society (Sydney Carothers) have been chipping away at the factors threatening the lupine. They worked with the Forest Service to close off-highway and all-terrain vehicle roads and re-route the hiking trail leading to the top of Mount Lassic, work made easier by the fact that all habitat occurs on public land and most individuals occur in a Wilderness Area.

The group began a lupine demography study in 2001 and started protecting individuals with hand-crafted chicken wire cages in 2003, when they noticed a very high rate of seed loss. It is estimated that there are fewer than 400 reproductive individuals of this species. Although most are left uncaged, a recent study showed that without the cages, the lupine would likely be extinct in 50 years. A small mammal live-trapping study began in 2005 and has given biologists a better picture of what the seed-munching enemy looks like, and of course, they’re charismatic chipmunks and deer mice. The Service and Forest Service have drafted a strategy to conserve the lupine, calling for the reintroduction of disturbance and monitoring the response of lupines and its seed predators.

This year’s trapping season just ended, and for now, Lassics lupine is hanging on. Hopefully the knowledge gained from these various studies will be used to preserve this distinctive piece of our North Coast natural history.

Liisa Schmoele is a biologist in Endangered Species at the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office in Arcata, California.

 

Contact Info: Liisa Schmoele, (707) 822-7201, liisa_schmoele@fws.gov