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Conserving Christ's Paintbrush on Idaho's Mt. Harrison
by Meggan Laxalt Mackey
Photo Credit: Gina Glenne, USFWS
Stand atop Mt. Harrison on a late summer day, and as the wind howls, the incredible 360-degree view of southern Idaho valleys and mountain ranges will take your breath away.
The snowpack has melted away, and a riot of color carpets Mt. Harrison's slopes—blue, purple, and pink flowers rise from the mountaintop, punctuated by a show-stopping, bright yellow-orange paintbrush. This unusual plant, Christ's paintbrush (Castilleja christii), has begun its annual bloom, arising from the damp earth in full splendor.
Not long ago, though, Christ's paintbrush was in trouble. Non-native invasive plant species, off-highway vehicle use, trespass livestock, and recreation activities caused the species, which is confined to a small 200-acre (81-hectare) area on Mt. Harrison, to decline. By 1980, its habitat became so degraded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) added the plant to the list of candidate species for Endangered Species Act protection.
A Candidate Conservation Agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has dramatically reversed the fortunes of this plant. The USFS has demonstrated a strong commitment to the plant's conservation by establishing a Botanical Special Interest Area within Sawtooth National Forest. Fencing to prevent livestock trampling, strategic placement of boulders near plants prevent off-road vehicle damage, and monitoring have also helped improve the species' status.
An eradication program reduced the invasion of an aggressive perennial grass, smooth brome (Bromus inermis). In 2008, an innovative partnership was formed with Red Butte Garden, a non-profit botanical center affiliated with the University of Utah. Botanists collected paintbrush seeds for ex situ, or off site, storage, propagation, and reintroduction of the species into protected areas. Over 1,300 plants from the seed collecting effort were planted in bare spots that resulted from the smooth brome removal.
These restoration efforts will also benefit another vulnerable species – the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) – by improving the quality of its summer brood-rearing habitat.
To further public education about Christ's paintbrush and its spectacular habitat, the Service and the USFS created an interpretive area on Mt. Harrison. The public is learning more about habitat enhancement and plant conservation. Plant numbers are increasing as a result, and recreationists and livestock operators have modified some land use patterns.
"This outreach campaign resulted in reduced impact to the plant, but also a vested interest in its conservation," says Kim Pierson, District Ranger at USFS. "Off-road closures have also been met with positive opinion because a better-educated public truly wants to preserve our natural heritage."
Today, visitors to the area can stand amidst a field of showy yellow Christ's paintbrush because years of collaborative partnerships have resulted saving this wondrous plant.
Meggan Laxalt Mackey, an External Affairs Officer in the Service's Idaho Fish and Wildlife Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or208-378-5796.
Editor's note: Christ's paintbrush was recently removed from candidate status, thanks to efforts made by USFS and other conservation partners, which have ameliorated most of the previously known threats the species. There is a long-term commitment by USFS, through a 2005 Candidate Conservation Agreement and 2012 Memorandum of Agreement with the Service, to continue to implement conservation actions for this species. Learn More.
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