Rescuing an Endangered Plant

By Beacon Staff

Peter Lesica squatted on the shore of Wild Horse Island sinking two-gallon plastic jugs into Flathead Lake to fill with water. For the day, the botanist played “pack mule” – trudging five times from the lake up a ridge while lugging a pack loaded with 30 pounds of water. “It’s not terribly romantic,” he quipped.

His work to reintroduce an endangered plant species may or may not prove successful, but he’s attempting to reverse the decline of an inconspicuous Palouse Prairie flower – Spalding’s catchfly. The Wild Horse Island project is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan to develop protocols for recovery of the species. “Ethically, it would be a shame for humans to drive another species to extinction,” reasoned Lesica.

Accompanied by meadowlarks singing and fresh June rain scenting the air with pine, Lesica and his three-person crew hiked up to the planting site on a dry grassy ridge. They hauled boxes filled with 100 four-inch pots – each cradling a tiny seedling.

Spalding’s catchfly, or silene, is far from a showy wildflower like beargrass or paintbrush. The plant produces small white flowers on stalks growing up to two feet high. Known for its longevity, the perennial herb derives its name from sticky leaves and petals that catch flies. Because of a taproot that burrows three feet down into soil to suck up water, it blooms in late summer heat after most other flowers have withered.

Catchfly once grew on Wild Horse Island in the 1970s. But it has since disappeared. Its primary pollinator is a native bee that may be struggling with its own survival.

Once, its Palouse Prairie grassland habitat was much more prolific in pockets across Flathead Valley, but as development ensued, prairies have shrunk to the National Bison Range, Lone Pine State Park and Wild Horse Island. They harbor large yellow arrowleaf balsamroots interspersed with rough fescue – perfect habitats for the catchfly, but now devoid of the biodiversity of its presence.

To check for any signs of the catchfly, Lesica visited the Wild Horse Island site annually. “I know this is good habitat,” he said, referring to the ridge’s cooler slopes. “It used to be here.” That’s why the island was chosen as the first place in Montana to experiment with re-growing catchfly.

Five years of preparation led up to the planting. The seeds cannot be purchased in nurseries, so Lesica collected hundreds of the miniature seeds by hand during July and August from private land in Washington state.

He contracted with Terry Divoky, owner of Windflower Native Plant Nursery in West Glacier, to grow the starts. Through trial and error, Divoky experimented with putting seeds with soil in her refrigerator. Her first success came when 1,200 seeds germinated and again when she reared 300 into rosettes for planting. “I’ve been growing these for five years in anticipation of this,” Divoky said as she unloaded pots from boxes, half with the plants growing in compost, the other half potting soil.

To establish protocols for restoration, Lesica set up a scientific arrangement. Rather than plant the rosettes in a haphazard pattern along the ridge, he strung a 50-meter tape along the slope. Each seedling was planted 50 centimeters apart, alternating three grown in soil followed by three in compost.

Divoky and her assistant wallowed in the dirt digging holes adjacent to tough root-bound grass clumps while Lesica hauled water from the lake. “This is beautiful rich soil,” noted Divoky, as she inadvertently smudged her face. “But you just wonder how many will survive with all the competition. You can see why these seedlings will have a hell of a time.”

Dousing each planted seedling with water from a Camelbak, the pair also inserted colored nails in the ground next to each rosette. The colors correspond to how many times an island homeowner will water each plant this summer – yellow for twice, red for four times, and blue for none.

As far as Lesica knows, this is the only time that catchfly has been transplanted into the wild with nursery-grown stock. However, he admitted, “They may all croak in a few years.” He also noted that the Idaho Highway Department is working on a similar project for road-building mitigation.

Mother Nature may have her own plans, too. The day after the seedlings were planted, the Flathead received rare June snows. Since then, Lesica has checked on the plants a couple of times. About four died. He speculates that deer, the most likely culprits, unearthed some and the others died from poor root systems. “Many were starting to dry up,” he said, hoping that was just part of their natural dormancy.

This next summer, Lesica and Divoky will plant 100 more of the endangered plants a bit further upslope. Half will be 15-month-old plants.

Lesica pointed out that most of what we eat and most of our medicines come directly or indirectly from plants. “Right now, there is no know ‘use’ for Silene spaldingii,” he said, “but, as every good mechanic knows, you save all the parts even if you don’t know where they came from or where they go at the moment.”