Winds in the Wilderness

Posted on Saturday, August 24th, 2013

crewFSPW Volunteers and USFS Professionals have been conducting surveys to find rare plants in the Moose Lake, Blacktail Lake, and Lightening Peak area drainages.  Blacktail and Moose Lakes are located among the Moose Mountain drainages, at elevations around 6000 ft.  These subalpine ecosystems, which include quaking sphagnum moss bogs, are unique, and serve several ecological functions.  The unnamed alpine lake and wetlands near Lightening Peak did not contain floating bogs, although sphagnum moss and other wetland associates, including one of the USFS’s listed rare plants, were found.  Finding rare plants growing in and around these specialized communities can be challenging, and require good observational skills and attention to detail.

On August 17th, a team set out to Moose Lake with a keen eye and sense of adventure.  A short, easy hike 2 miles down the mosquitostrail brings you to Moose Lake.  As we entered into the basin, walled by steep rock cliffs on most sides, we were immediately greeted by hundreds of hungry mosquitoes.  Backpacks were immediately dislodged and their contents tossed about in frantic searchings for head netting and insect repellant.  Appropriately armed, we set out along the small foot path worn through the vegetation.  Our survey circumnavigated the lake.  Several rare species were discovered, including a wetland willowherb, cotton grass, and sedges.  We even came across an uncommon boreal toad.  The whitebark pine was scarce in this area, so most of our day focused on recording the presence and distribution of rare plants. (Jennifer arm w/mosquitoes)

On August 27th, a team set out to Blacktail Lake, this time better prepared for the entourage of mosquitoes who were just as ready to meet us.  A large team provided the opportunity to split into two crews and survey both the status of rare plants as well as whitebark pine habitat and occurrence on the mountainside above the lake.  Blacktail lake contains a larger expanse of quaking bog habitat than Moose lake, and traversing the sinking vegetation became precarious at times.  Many species were recorded, but none of our rarest individuals made an appearance.  The whitebark pine crew came up on the short side of things too, with the habitat being better suited for subalpine fir and Englemann spruce.  Nonetheless, a quick hike to the summit of Moose mountain provided the crew with great veiws of both lakes at once.  Sometimes no data is data, too.

bug nettingLastly, during last week’s backcountry overnighting surveys on Lightening, Twin, and Bear Mountains, an unnamed alpine lake was surveyed for its rare plant status.  Although none were found at the lake itself, a rare Cottongrass was identified in a nearby drainage.  The forest service staff was well honed to keep focused on multiple botanical objectives as we made or way through the mountainsides and contours. The lake supported an incredible population of tadpoles, and elk, moose, and deer tracks abound in the thick, wet soils.  On the hillsides above, ancient whitebark pine skeletons were interspersed amoung old growth whitebark pine trees, intermediate-aged subalpine, and younger seedlings of all the species present.  Plant populations are dynamic, and repeated surveys may be conducted throughout multiple season to assure accuracy of observations.

Finding subalpine lakes supporting vegetation is like opening up buried treasured!  These high elevation lakes form where rock impedes infiltration of precipitation and runoff.  Often, the bedrock remains prominent and vegetation is relegated to the shoreline and/or beyond.  But under the right conditions, in undisturbed location, bogs may develop.  Bogs take hundreds to thousands of years to develop, as a lake, low lying area, or drainage slowly fills in with plant debris.  Since infiltration is poor in these areas, the water sits on the land surface and oxygen availability is reduced, conditions in the water/soil interface become acidic.  The area becomes a haven for those plants who have evolved adaptions to this water-logged and oxygen deprived environment. A unique ecological niche is created.  Rare plants are often encountered in these areas.  Theses rare and endangered species provide important contributions to the genetic make-up of our forests.  This genetic diversity is critical to quality ecosystem functioning.  We depend on our earth for everything, so the healthier our ecosystems are, the more integrity we allow them, the better the quality of life around us, supporting us. Plants and animals hold medicinal, agricultural, ecological, commercial and recreational value. When a species is lost, it is lost forever.  With the current condition of our national forests, under fire suppression and a changing climate, as well as indiscriminate use by its visitors, these precarious ecosystems and the raw materials for life they support, are in danger.

Bogs are also ecologically important, and for many reasons.  Bog plants and soils absorb great wetland destructionamounts of precipitation, and aid in controlling runoff and preventing flooding.  Insects thrive on many bog plants, and these insects in turn provide food for other animals, including  frogs, salamanders, and newts, birds, and small mammals.  Moose, beaver, and other large alpine animals frequent and depend on these bogs.  In addition, bogs serve as “carbon sinks,” sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it underground, thereby buffering the amount of carbon dioxide being pushed into the atmosphere at ever increasing rates.  If a bog is given enough time, eventually peat soils develop.  Peat is harvested by humans for its beneficial properties.  Given even more time, these plant materials will decay into the fossil fuels we use in society today.  Next time you drive your car, give a shout out to those ancient bog plants who get you there!

Due to the delicate and fragile nature of bogs, reviving from disturbance is a lengthy and difficult process.  Unlike other wetlands, bogs take thousands of years to develop and hundreds of year to recover from disturbance.  Because of all the ecological services they provide, in addition to recreational and aesthetic contributions, their protection is important.  As a forest visitor, you can help assist the protection of these great landscapes.  Please remember (and remind others!) to stay on boardwalks and established trails when visiting one of our regions’ outstanding bog ecosystems.

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