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Conserving Christ's Paintbrush on Idaho's Mt. Harrison
by Meggan Laxalt Mackey
Photo Credit: Tom Alvarez, 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.
The plant has now been removed from the federal List of Candidate Species due to remarkable conservation efforts through a strong partnership between the Service's Idaho Fish and Wildlife Office and the U.S. Forest Service's (USFS) Sawtooth National Forest, and other partners.
Sawtooth National Forest demonstrated a strong commitment to the plant's conservation by establishing a Botanical Special Interest Area atop Mt. Harrison. Fencing to prevent livestock trampling, strategic placement of boulders near plants prevent off-road vehicle damage, and annual monitoring have also helped improve the species' status
An extremely aggressive perennial grass, smooth brome (Bromus inermis), posed a significant threat to Christ's paintbrush. Invading healthy paintbrush habitat, the non-native threatened to choke out healthy paintbrush plants. An eradication program developed by the Service and USFS has greatly reduced smooth brome without harming the paintbrush population.
Photo credit: Tom Alvarez, USFWS
In 2008, an innovative partnership was established with Red Butte Garden, a non-profit botanical center affiliated with the University of Utah. Botanists collected paintbrush seeds from Mt. Harrison with hopes to grow healthy seedlings for future plantings. Committed volunteers have engaged in a replanting effort, using seed from the seed collecting effort and castilleja seed. The new plants were strategically placed in bare spots that were once occupied by the invasive smooth brome. Seedling propagation work continues with the goal of improved seedling survivorship and planting success.
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. It is all working the way it should when partnerships and solid science support the original intent of the Endangered Species Act. Nonnative plants are decreasing. Christ's paintbrush plant numbers are increasing. Recreationists and livestock operators are changing their ways of use. The public is learning more about habitat enhancement and plant conservation, and why they should care.
Meggan Laxalt Mackey, an External Affairs Officer in the Service's Idaho Fish and Wildlife Office, can be reached at email@example.com or208-378-5796.
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