PPF – Letters From the Land essays
Letter from the Land: Follow-up on Planning, Progress, and Prairie,
Moscow Food Co-op Community News. June 2004. p. 13. [Excerpt]
Several readers of my columns on Palouse prairie have sent corrections and clarifications, which have reached me courtesy of David Hall.
I wrote in the April issue that tundra swans flying over Paradise Ridge before European settlement would have passed over clusters of ladybugs awakening in the winter in the pine needles under the ponderosas.
I am alerted that when I see ladybugs (more correctly "ladybird beetles") today, they may be the aggressive Eurasian invader, the seven spot ladybird beetle, Coccinella septempunctata. We are most likely to see this [species] in crop fields.
A native species, which does congregate as I described, is Hippodamia convergens.
In the same article, I placed sharp-tailed grouse in nests, but, in fact, in March, when I heard the swans overhead, the grouse would have been in leks, which are flat grassy open spaces where up to 25 males gather and perform mating dances for the females.
Later in May, or June farther north, the females, having chosen a male, settle in nests in more shelters, brushy areas, which may or may not be adjacent to the leks.
I am still working on the etymology of "lek."
Sharp-tailed grouse, Tympanuchus phasienellus, have been extirpated over much of North America, as their habitat has been eliminated by cultivation and grazing.
They are gone from the Palouse, as the prairie is virtually gone, but are still present in southeast Idaho, although declining and listed as a species of concern in the state.
For those interested in local prairie wildflowers and grasses, there is a tiny demonstration planting at the east end of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station on South Main in Moscow.
I walked home that way yesterday and admired the lava alum-root (Heuchera cylindrica), prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), and, about to bloom, the little sunflower (Helianthella uniflora).
[Written May 20, 2004]
Letter from the Land: Spring and Summer Walks,
Moscow Food Co-op Community News. May 2004. p. 19. [Excerpt]
The Palouse prairie ecosystem once comprised as much as 3.9 million acres of land in what are now Latah County and Whitman County.
Perhaps a little less than one percent of that ecosystem remains--mostly as tiny remnants on private land.
I asked several members of the Palouse Prairie Foundation (PPF) where a person should go to view some Palouse Prairie today.
The consensus was that Kamiak Butte County Park between Pullman and Palouse was the place.
(From Pullman, take State Highway 27 north 11 miles, turn left on Clear Creek Road for 1/2 mile; turn left on Fugate Road and go 1/2 mile to the Kamiak Butte County Park Road.
More at <www.whitmancounty.org/Parks/Index_Pages/Kamiak.htm>.)
In the park, walk the Sunset Trail, which goes to the west end.
In early May, I think you will see some nice wildflowers.
Last week, driving to Dayton, Washington I saw slopes ablaze with the yellow flowers of Balsam root.
By the time you read this, balsam root should be blooming on Kamiak Butte as well.
If you are interested in helping preserve and/or restore Palouse Prairie remnants, or just want to know more about the subject, log on to the PPF website at
If you want to visit some other regional prairie ecosystems, the PPF is sponsoring May field trips to the Zumwalt Prairie near Joseph, Oregon, and to the National Bison Range in Montana.
[Written April 20, 2004]
Letter from the land: the lost prairie.,
Moscow Food Co-op Community News. April 2004. p. 16.
On the evening of March 13, I
was out in the field filling hay feeders
when I heard an unusual sound. At
first it resembled the high notes of
coyotes, but with the tones of a
wooden flute. Then I realized: I looked
up and saw a flock of sixty or more
tundra swans flying north overhead.
Huge, pale, powerful, arranged beak
to wingtip in tight chevron formation,
they called out melodiously as they
flew steadily over Moscow and passed
out of my sight. I felt a real thrill, an
actual shiver of awe.
I felt grateful for the sight of the
swans, for their continued existence
in a natural world with so many broken links.
I started thinking about what
they would have seen as they flew over
this area 200 years ago, and perhaps
for ten thousand years before that.
After leaving the confluence of two
fast rushing rivers in what is now
Lewiston, they would have passed
over the rim of the canyon and been
crossing Palouse Prairie, a hilly
"meadow-steppe ecosystem" of
grasses (Idaho fescue and bluebunch
wheatgrass), and dozens of species of
forbs (broadleafed non-woody plants),
mixed with snowberry bushes. The
hills would have been a variegated tan
and brown with a haze of green; the
new growth would have just begun on
the grasses, but most of the wildflowers
(prairie stars [?], biscuitroot,
balsamroot, brodaea (sp), shooting stars,
bluebells, red kittentails, prairie
smoke) would still have been dormant,
or been just emerging at their crowns.
Sharp-tailed grouse would perhaps
have been nesting. The many creeks
would have been bordered by dense
thickets of Douglas hawthorn and wild
rose, with scattered open groves of
huge old ponderosa pines. Loggerhead
shrikes would have been nesting
in the thorn thickets. The many
streams draining southwest off Paradise
Ridge and other hills and feeding
Thorn Creek would have spread out
into wetlands in every flat place.
These wetlands would have been full
of camas and wild iris, barely pushing
up their leaves at this time of year.
As the swans passed above Paradise
Ridge, they would have looked
down on a shrubby landscape of
serviceberry, mock orange and wild rose,
at first mixed in with grassland
species and then higher up with large pines.
In sheltered places, the ladybugs and
the first sagebrush buttercups might
have begun to wake up under the pine
duff. On the north side of the ridge,
patches of snow might have lingered
under the Douglas firs and tamaracks,
and especially under the cedars and
grand firs along the streams. In the
valley between the ridge and the
mountain, streams met and flowed
west through a huge camas meadow,
the whole area a great mingling of fingers
of forest and fingers of prairie.
Paradise Creek and the South Fork of
the Palouse River would have meandered
westward through thorn thickets and
pines with the prairie grassland-covered
hills rising above them all around
for miles, part of perhaps 3.9 million
acres of prairie.
The swans still pass overhead, but less
than one percent of the Palouse prairie
habitat remains. A landscape with
as many as 30 plant species per square
meter has been replaced by one with
a single crop species per field, and a
scattering of alien invaders. The
sharptailed grouse are gone, and the
shrikes, and the ferruginous hawks.
The remaining habitat survives in little
bits, mostly on private land. To learn
more about this ecosystem and the
efforts underway to conserve it, contact
palouseprairie.org. Be sure to
view the link,
"Changing Flora of the