Magazine article National Parks

A Rare Tuft

Magazine article National Parks

A Rare Tuft

Article excerpt

THE GUADALUPE FESCUE IS AN UNLIKELY CELEBRITY in the plant world. A slim, knee-high bunchgrass with delicate pale yellow blooms, it looks like other grasses that grow in the high peaks of the Chihuahuan Desert. But though its appearance is unremarkable, the Guadalupe fescue is different. It is among the rarest plants in the world and a prized find for botanists. In the U.S., it sprouts in only one location: a cool forested enclave along the popular Boot Canyon Trail high in the Chisos Mountains of Texas' Big Bend National Park.

"If you have walked up Boot Canyon, you have walked right by it - probably within 6 inches of it," said Joe Sirotnak, who was until recently a botanist at Big Bend. "Only grass nerds really even know to look for it, but this plant has fans, you know, it has admirers who come up here."

One sunny, cold October day, some of those fans - more precisely, a team of National Park Service rangers - hiked up the Boot Canyon Trail, past stands of Douglas fir, aspen groves and rocky pinnacles with views over the pale desert far below. Finally, they arrived in a pine-oak woodland that sits more than 6,000 feet above sea level and is 5 miles from the nearest road. Armed with tags and wires to mark any new tufts of the rare grass, a compass to locate known plants, a tape measure and knee pads, they got down on all fours and crawled about, looking for the fescue among the rocks and trees.

After about eight hours of scrambling, the researchers had scoured all six research plots - 33-foot-diameter areas that have been monitored annually since 1993 - and come up with a grand total of 56 tufts of Guadalupe fescue. The count confirmed a long-term trend: This fragile, defenseless plant is in trouble.

It's so close to extinction that in September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing it as endangered, a move that will likely be confirmed in 2017. Including areas beyond the monitoring plots, Sirotnak estimates fewer than 200 individual plants survive here. There is only one other confirmed location where the rare bunchgrass dwells: a protected area, Maderas del Carmen, in Mexico, about 20 miles east of Big Bend. The fescue was known to exist in two other sites in northern Mexico, but botanists haven't been there in decades.

Because it is so obscure and difficult to find, little is known about the Guadalupe fescue. Botanists believe it could be a relic of the last ice age when the climate was much cooler than it is today. As the climate warmed, the grass might have died in low-lying areas and reseeded in higher, cooler areas, eventually ending up only in so-called sky islands, high isolated mountain ranges moated by desert, which often harbor rare endemic species.

Botanists first discovered the Guadalupe fescue in 1931 in lush McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas, an area that became a national park 41 years later. Despite at least a dozen field trips and plenty of crawling around in the dirt, no one has been able to find the plant there since 1952. Officially, botanists accept that the grass was extirpated from the area, though a few lonely tufts might still poke up somewhere far beyond human traffic.

"We hope that it has been overlooked," said Chris Best, Texas state botanist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. …

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