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Rare Northern California wildflower designated endangered

Rare Northern California wildflower designated endangered

Lassics lupine, a small wildflower that grows in only two areas of Northern California will be listed under the Endangered Species Act last Thursday. Those who’ve studied the flower say this listing is well needed and the species needs action to save it from extinction.

“It’s so darn beautiful,” said Dave Imper, a retired botanist and lead author of the ESA petition.

Imper estimates there are generally less than 1,000 that live on the remote mountains on the border of eastern Humboldt County and Trinity County. A press release from the US Fish and Wildlife service says the agency is designating around 512 acres of habitat in the Six Rivers National Forest as critical habitat for the flower.

Previous managers of Six Rivers National Forest weren’t on board with conservation efforts to protect the flower, said Imper, what he says was the major issue in the last decade.

“In one case, they actually worked against us from doing some of the management that we thought was needed,” he said.

Now, he said the newer forest supervisor more engaged with efforts to protect the species and hopes the designation will bring the flower up on the priority list for the U.S. Forest Service. Lupine Lassics has previously been listed as endangered by the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, but the plants live on federal land. The largest population of the plant grows in a steep mountain environment in a designated wilderness zone.

“It’s important to have as many interested parties involved,” added Imper.

Conservation efforts have involved studies and placing cages around the tiny plants to protect the seeds from mice. Imper said two Cal Poly Humboldt analyses found the species would trend towards extinction without these efforts. The rodents are a big problem — as trees and shrubs grow in, more mammals get into the area and eat the seeds, which does not spread the plant.

Catastrophic wildfire and less moisture due to drought because of climate change are other threats to the species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service release.

“Because it has such a narrowly defined range, any habitat loss represents a serious threat,” said Vicky Ryan, assistant field supervisor of the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office in a prepared statement.

One site for the flower is about 40 feet by 40 feet — the other is spread over a couple of acres, said Imper. Three types of native bees pollinate the flowers.

“The reality is, we can’t cage out small mammals forever, it’s just too labor intensive, too expensive,” said Imper.

The plants are at the top of the mountains, and with climate change driving their habitat farther up, causing droughts and limiting the snowpack that the higher elevation plants need for water, Imper believes the best bet to save the flower is finding new areas to establish seeds. He said the seeds can’t be spread by birds or mammals, and a Cal Poly Humboldt grad student is currently studying potential new sites for the plant.

“The story is definitely not over on this, it’s not a guaranteed thing that even listing will save it. There are serious problems,” said Imper. (Contributed/Courtesy of Dave Imper) 

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The flower especially saw dire straits when a fire burned through the habitat around 2015, coupled with two years of drought. Imper said it was down to less than a hundred plants at this point. This was when the petition was originally written, with the Center for Biological Diversity, Sydney Craothers, and the California Native Plant Society. The society’s North Coast chapter has worked to conserve the species for 20 years.

A big germination event followed this fire, bringing the population back to an above average number. They don’t know for sure why it happened, but Imper said it is a “great hope,” for the flower, bringing the population up to 1,500 individuals.

Tom Nelson, Eureka resident and curator of the herbarium of Humboldt State for many years, first discovered the Lassics lupine in 1983.

Sage Alexander can be reached at 707-441-0504