Over the summer, my fellow intern, Maya Kahn-Abrams, and I monitored twelve species of alpine plants in Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks. These plants were chosen from a list developed by botanists from each park to describe current status and collect long-term data to develop strategies for adaption to climate change. These species are generally tracked by the Washington Natural Heritage Program, while a majority of them are endemic to Washington State. Using a mixture of data from the Heritage Program, herbarium records, and location information from previous surveys, known historical populations were compiled using ArcMap GIS software for Maya and me to go visit. Prior to going out in the field, our trips were planned based on location, phenology, topography, and accessibility. We hiked, or sometimes backpacked, to these historical populations using Garmin GPS and topographic maps. Once getting to the locations, we searched the area to see if the target species were still growing there, and collected data on population size, disturbances, aspect, slope, and associated species. GPS points were taken on the perimeters of the populations.
Looking at the map for weeks and seeing all the beautiful areas we were going to explore made me even more excited to get out into the field. During our first outing in the beginning of July, I was quickly reminded how wet it is in the Olympics. The first two weeks were full of rain, hail, and chilling winds. Some days, the fog was so thick, it was hard to see even 30 feet ahead of myself. Nonetheless, it was still worth it to find our species thriving in this harsh environment, making me appreciate them even more for evolving to tolerate this habitat. It wasn’t until the day we were heading back to Seattle that we woke up to gorgeous blue skies and sunshine at Obstruction Point. This was the first time I could actually see the landscape that lay ahead of me. Finally, we were awarded with 360-degree views of mountains that went on for miles.
One of my favorite memories of the Olympics was when we hiked a steep trail up to a ridgeline. We descended the saddle in search for Cotton’s milk-vetch (Astragalus australis var. cottonii) – which we found – in this shale slope that crumbled right below your feet every time you took a step. The terrain was extremely hard to walk on, especially up hill. I remember trying to walk up hill back to where Maya was because she spotted a cool plant she wanted to show me. I was basically walking on all fours at this point, which was a blessing in disguise, because I came face to face with Flett’s violet (Viola flettii), one of our target species. I was so happy to have found this plant. It was our first spotting of it this summer, and I don’t know if I would have seen it had I not been that close to the ground. We found only a few in this area, but found even larger populations further down the trail. The next day Maya found the largest population I had seen that was in peak bloom on a mountain summit approximately eight miles to the south. The purple flowers created such a beautiful contrast with the shale slopes and rocks.
Mount Rainier was quite different from the Olympics. Most days were very warm and dry. The two species we primarily monitored were obscure paintbrush (Castilleja cryptantha) and Mt. Rainier lousewort (Pedicularis rainierensis), both endemic to the park. Mt. Rainier lousewort was tricky to survey because it often hybridizes with related species bracted lousewort (Pedicularis bracteosa) when growing in the same area. There are subtle differences between the two species, and the hybrid offspring will leave you perplexed. Does it represent Mt. Rainier lousewort more or bracted lousewort? This is some of the data we had to report when coming across the hybrid populations. There was a site in the northeast part of the park that Maya and I originally thought were Mt. Rainier lousewort populations, but when Wendy came out into the field with us one day, she informed us that they are actually hybrids. About 95% of the population were hybrids, the other 5% pure Mt. Rainier lousewort. It is not known if this stand has always been full of hybrids, or that over time, the population has become mostly hybrids. Hybridization can have undesirable effects such as eliminating species as a whole.
Mt. Rainier lousewort’s habitat is limited to moist alpine meadows, while bracted lousewort can be found in more dry, open forests. A theory we came up with is as the places where Mt. Rainier lousewort reside become drier, it creates a habitat that is more favorable for bracted lousewort. This may lead to populations with both species present. Hybridization is then more likely to occur, creating populations that are no longer pure Mt. Rainier lousewort over time. Thankfully, we found some populations of pure Mt. Rainier lousewort with no bracted lousewort present and think that it would be a great site to study this question. These areas can then be surveyed closely to better understand how much of a threat hybridization is.
A great memory I have of Mount Rainier is when Maya and I hiked to a subalpine lake on the north side of Mount Rainier. There was an obscure paintbrush population listed along the edge of an unnamed lake that we had to scramble up and down a ridge off trail to get to. When we finally got to the lake, we found the obscure paintbrush population and a new Mt. Rainier lousewort population that had not been recorded before. The best part though was when we were scrambling back up the ridge for the trail to head to camp for the night. Our pure exhaustion was rewarded with a herd of about fifty elk coming into the lake we just monitored. This would have been a great moment for binoculars because we were pretty far away at this point and it was hard to see them, but their calls made it well known they were right below us. Maya and I have now named the area Elk Lake.
One aspect of this job I loved so much was running into the many friendly people on the trail that were curious about what Maya and I were doing. Telling people we were doing plant monitoring brought smiles across their faces, and they were appreciative of the hard work we were doing to preserve plant species. Two people stood out in particular, Jill and her friend Jean. I shared a few words about how we were monitoring the two species that are endemic to the park. They were both so thrilled to learn about these plants that Jill took notes and pictures which she planned on showing to her classroom once school started in the fall. We all shared a few more laughs together, while Jill gave me some of her delicious cherries. The conversation we had left me feeling positive and hopeful for the future of these plants. When more people are aware of the unique species and habitats around them, more efforts go into conserving them.
Overall, this internship has made me a stronger plant biologist. I’ve acquired a variety of skills that will benefit me in future endeavors such as map reading, GPS navigation, rapid plant identification, and seed collecting. This is all thanks to Wendy Gibble, Rare Care’s Program Manager, and Stacy Kinsell, Rare Care’s Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator. It has been an incredible experience getting to learn from both of them over the summer and pick their brains about the wonderful world of botany. Wendy and Stacy have given Maya and me an excellent opportunity that I will always be grateful for, and I am excited for the next set of interns who get to have this experience.