For the Lassics lupine, wilderness is a mixed blessing

The Wilderness Act has complicated efforts to protect the rare California wildflower.

 

Dave Imper and three other scientists hike past old-growth pines toward the summit of Mount Lassic in California’s Coast Range. The peak – a dry island of green serpentine soil and sparse vegetation in the mid-July heat – holds a botanical treasure, a fragile plant called the Lassics lupine. One of California’s rarest flowers, it lives behind bars.

At the top, Imper, a retired Fish and Wildlife Service botanist and rare plant advocate, kneels next to a wire cage shaped like an oversized top hat. Beneath it, a lupine is blooming, its rich pink-and-white flowers in vibrant contrast to the rocky ground.

“This is just a holding pattern,” Imper says, pointing out 20 more flowers in cages nearby. There are approximately 350 Lassics lupines left on the planet, found only here and on nearby Red Lassic. The plants face threats from encroaching forests to severe drought, but the cages protect them from the most imminent danger: rodents.

Caged Lassics lupines on Mount Lassic in California.
Courtesy Dave Imper

The Lassics team hypothesizes that fire suppression has caused the plant’s present woes. The natural fire regime, they say, would normally burn back encroaching vegetation that creates new habitat for rodents, giving them easier access to the scrumptious lupine seeds. The flowers, which evolved on wide-open barrens, aren’t made for that kind of predatory pressure. “Smokey the Bear (screwed) us,” says Imper.

Caging the lupines, the scientists warn, isn’t enough; they want to cut back or burn the invading chaparral and trees, too. But Congress designated Mount Lassic a federal wilderness in 2006, and Forest Service officials say the 1964 Wilderness Act makes such intervention difficult, although it doesn’t prohibit it outright. “The imprint of man’s work (shall be) substantially unnoticeable,” the law states, and its protective regulatory hurdles have hampered rapid action to save the lupine.

In this case, ironically, wilderness may hinder wildflower conservation. “We have this (designation) that was meant to save and preserve,” says Dan Dill, the Forest Service district ranger who administers Mount Lassic, “but it has quite possibly put a species in jeopardy at the same time.”

Kary Schlick traps small mammals. Seed-eating rodents are the main threat to the rare plant.
Courtesy Dave Imper

In 2003, scientists realized that chipmunks and deer mice were eating nearly all of the lupine’s annual seed output. In response, Imper and his colleagues at Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service began caging the wildflowers almost immediately. Within seven years, the population nearly tripled.

Then, at the end of summer 2012, officials at Six Rivers National Forest ordered the team to remove the cages. Forest Service botanist Lisa Hoover, who helps oversee the project, explained that the site was located in designated wilderness, and top agency brass believed the cages made the mountain look “trammeled by man.” Normally, the researchers stored the unwieldy equipment onsite during winter; now, they didn’t know if they’d be allowed to use it in the future.

After meetings between the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife, the team was allowed to resume caging the following summer. Imper, however, has lobbied for years for more aggressive action. In 2012, for instance, he delivered a 171-page report to agency officials urging the felling, burning or girdling of conifers and chaparral in lupine habitat. But his recommendations fell flat. In the Forest Service, he says, “there has been outright opposition to doing any restoration.”

The lack of action is due to administrative obstacles, not agency opposition, says Hoover. The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of their actions, so the Forest Service must do rigorous reviews before removing vegetation, especially in wilderness areas. That requires input from specialists as well as extra work and money, and is subject to public comment. Given its limited resources, the agency has not initiated the NEPA process.

Critics like Imper, though, believe the agency has mismanaged the crisis. Improving habitat can be consistent with wilderness values, says Ryan Henson, policy director at the California Wilderness Coalition, citing other successful restoration efforts within protected areas. His group is working on legislation that would, among other things, direct the Forest Service to pursue robust lupine management without delay.

And then there’s the Endangered Species Act. This fall, Imper hopes to petition for an emergency listing. The brutal drought killed most of the lupines on the south-facing slopes this summer and cut the overall population in half, so it’s increasingly urgent that trees be removed from the wetter north side. A listing would offer stronger legal cover for such actions.

In mid-August, a wildfire marched through the wilderness. Imper and his colleagues waited anxiously to see if the flowers would survive. Finally, in early September, a researcher hiked in. The southern part of Mount Lassic, and much of its chaparral, was charred. The crucial northern slope, however, experienced only low-intensity fire, which killed a few flowers and some trees, but likely left the big pines intact. The fire might reduce rodent density, but the flowers still face drought, heat and invading forest, with no relief in sight. “The plants are being squeezed in every direction,” Imper says, “and there’s no place left to go.”