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A Recovery Plan Begins to Flower
Photo Credit: Matt Braun/FWS
by Matt Braun
The landscape on China Hill is dry and rocky, reminiscent of an artist’s rendition of some far-away, desolate planet. One wonders what could ever grow in such rough terrain. But junipers and other scraggy shrubs soon catch the eye and remind you that you are indeed in the arid upper reaches of northern California.
Something magical happens here in the spring. Beginning in March, a drab hillside east of the town of Yreka pops to life with the emergence of bright pink flowers. The contrast to the surrounding landscape is vivid. It looks as if someone pinned dozens of corsages to the understated hillside.
Sharp-eyed locals who know where to look can catch a glimpse of this colorful show as they zoom through town along Interstate 5. On the other hand, some are astonished to learn about this "secret" flower. "I have been here for over 20 years," said one Yreka native who accompanied a team of Service biologists to China Hill. "I never knew this flower existed."
The plant in question is the extremely rare Phlox hirsuita, otherwise known as Yreka phlox. This endangered wildflower grows in small clusters no more than six inches (15 centimeters) high. Its blooms gradually change from bright pink to white, all shades equally eye-catching against the brownish geology of the region.
Dave Johnson, Tim Burnett, and Nadine Kanim, biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Yreka office, have been collecting data on the phlox since March 2008. This effort formally kicked off the implementation phase for the species’ recovery plan. It includes developing a monitoring system that will enable biologists to determine if the species is declining.
Photo Credit: Matt Braun/FWS
The biggest threat to the Yreka phlox has been urban development within the species’ limited range. Because there are only five known colonies, all in the vicinity of Yreka, events such as fire, drought, and disease are also of great concern.
The data that Kanim, Johnson, and Burnett are collecting are central to the recovery plan. If the Service can show the plant has not declined after 10 years, and if other colonies have been secured, the plant can be reclassified as threatened, or possibly even removed from the endangered species list.
Kanim is hopeful that recovery can be achieved. "There is a lot of support in the community to recover Yreka phlox, from the local timber company, to the city and county governments, to citizens," she says. "The recovery team has identified the threats to the species, and our local partners have already made a lot of progress to protect the plant from various hazards."
Kanim notes that the Yreka phlox recovery effort is a good example of how the federal government is working with local communities to preserve a unique and precious resource.
"One of the main goals of the recovery plan is to enhance awareness of this species and to eventually involve the public in actual recovery efforts. This is a significant component of the recovery plan, and we are looking forward to getting out in the community and working with local citizens."
A key partner in the phlox recovery effort is the city of Yreka, which has purchased – or obtained through donations – nearly 75 percent of the land on China Hill. City planners hope that one day they can provide full sanctuary for the phlox. Their goal is to turn China Hill into a public park, complete with an interpretative center that will tell the story of how one small community came together to save a pretty pink flower from extinction.
Matt Braun, a public affairs specialist in the Service’s Yreka office, can be reached at email@example.com or 530-842-5763.
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