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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Landers: Cool, wet spring paying dividends for region’s fish, wildlife - and scenery, too

July 21, 2022 Updated Thu., July 21, 2022 at 6:30 p.m.

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

While hiking around the Fishtrap Recreation Area southwest of Spokane in May, Jack Nisbet realized he was struggling to keep his stride through some areas. “My boots were getting tangled in cheatgrass,” said the local naturalist, author and educator.

“I go out there every year and this was different. That’s when I started sensing there was something special going on.”

Similarly, Tina Wynecoop a nature enthusiast who lives north of Spokane, is waxing lyrical this season over the lush growth of pinegrass, a bright green native perennial that provides early-season forage for big game.

“We have watched it for more than 40 years and this is the first summer it has ‘bloomed,’ ” she said in a Facebook post. She noted the benefits of being able to observe the same landscape for such a long period. It’s satisfying to be able to discern when something’s out of the ordinary, she said.

Retired Colville National Forest botanist Kathy Ahlenslager replied categorically this week when asked by email if she was seeing any flora responding extraordinarily to the cool, wet spring in the Inland Northwest. “Everything is responding gorgeously robust,” she said.

The early-summer mega bloom of beargrass on the upper half of Mount Spokane State Park and throughout much of high mountain areas of northeastern Washington and North Idaho has been especially hard to ignore. Creamy-white softball-size clusters of blooms on stalks up to 5-feet tall have sprouted in profusion from mops of course grass-like leaves.

Notable eruptions of beargrass occur every 3-to-5 years for one reason or another, and this year’s weather may not be the only contributor. The last time weather and moisture combined to spur a burst this prolific was 2017 in North Idaho, when beargrass stalks on Graham Mountain resembled waving fields of grain.

An especially widespread eruption occurred in 2013 throughout the region and into Montana. Pilots were reporting beargrass blooming tightly in massive patches that, from the air, resembled snowbanks on high mountain slopes.

This is one of those years, but on steroids, Nisbet said: “I wish it was like this every year.”

Indeed, an unusual weather pattern set the stage for 2022 to be distinctive.

The region experienced a cool April – including snowfall that saturated the lowlands and piled up the mountain snowpack. Ritzville, for example, breezed through its coldest April on record.

The region’s revered spring bloom of golden arrowleaf balsamroot was a little later and a little slower to evolve and it endured longer.

The trend continued into what turned out to be the 10th coldest May on record in Spokane. This further preserved moisture and snowpack. Irrigators in the Columbia Basin were able to delay pumping precious groundwater, saving it for low-water years surely to come.

Normally, May temperatures hit 70 degrees or higher numerous times in Spokane. This year, the first 70-degree day was May 26, the latest that’s happened in the 126 years official records have been kept.

Colder weather kept the region’s snowpack intact, ranging from 130% to 150% above normal levels, The Spokesman-Review reported. Silver Mountain Ski Area reopened its slopes for Memorial Day weekend.

And the trend continued in June with higher-than-normal precipitation and lower-than-average temperatures.

Spokane’s average rainfall for June is 1.18 inches. This year we had 2.46 inches, the 11th-wettest June on record, according to the National Weather Service. (Conditions vary throughout the region. For example, Pullman was awash in a record 3.94 inches of rain in June.)

On June 22, Spokane’s high temperature finally reached 80 degrees for the first time in 2022, tying the record for the latest 80-degree day since record-keeping began in 1881. Typically, the area hits 80 degrees in mid-May.

Contrast to 2021

Of course, this year was a stark contrast to the scorching we suffered in June 2021, when all-time high temperature records were set. During the unprecedented heat waves at the end of that month, temps ranged from 109 degrees in Spokane to a sweltering 120 degrees at the decommissioned Hanford Nuclear Site – the hottest temperature in Washington state history.

Following a very dry spring last year, the U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded the Spokane area to the “severe drought” category.

Mercifully, the weather made a stunning about face for 2022.

“Beargrass is getting a lot of buzz, but I’ve also been amazed at what’s going on with other native plants like pinegrass and collomia,” Nisbet said.

The collomia grandiflora (also known as large-flower collomia or large-flower mountain trumpet) is notably abundant this year – “bigger and healthier than I’ve ever seen it on the (High Drive) Bluff,” he said.

“And McCroskey State Park (near Farmington, Idaho) is crawling with blue penstemon.”

While doing a walk-and-talk program with the Montana Native Plant Society out of Libby along a creek and in a burn, Nisbet noticed that the early-spring trillium was still blooming when the Canadian dogwood and three dot mariposa lilies were also blooming.

“That’s one of the characteristics of this year,” he said. “Many plants are blooming for longer periods. Usually, those plants get cooked by the increasing spring sunshine and their peak blooming as spaced out.”

Sagebrush mariposa lilies and scarlet gilia are the latest wildflowers to make a good showing in “the next wave,” Nisbet said Tuesday.

Mushroomers say this spring was one of the best morel foray seasons they remember. Rain followed by sun, more rain and then more sun without a stretch of super-hot weather spurred the fungi into multiple sprouting spurts for weeks.

“Everything seems to be a little later and a little longer than normal,” Nisbet said.

Huckleberries were ripe for picking in some low-elevation areas near Priest Lake last week roughly a week to 10 days later than local pickers expect to find them.

“Most plants may have emerged or started budding out later than normal, but often by early-mid summer when warmer temperatures begin in earnest, plants start ‘catching up’ to their more typical seasonal patterns,” said Jennifer Costich-Thompson, botanist for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

All plants – perennials and annuals – typically benefit from the moister conditions and subsequently grow more/bigger/faster, she said in an email. “That can lead to more vegetation available for grazers/browsers/agriculture and then, later in the season when the plants start curing out (senescing), it can also lead to more fine fuels available for fires.”

Wet, cool springs can also be hard on our native, solitary, ground-nesting bumble bees which pollinate many of our native plants, she added.

A wet year following a dry year can be especially productive, she said.

“When we experience long, droughty summers the hormones in flowering plants often trigger flower bud initiation – the plant’s way of planning to reproduce offspring in the event the parent plant may die.

“So, for plants that flower annually that may not create any great change, but for plants that only produce flowers irregularly, that can dramatically affect the flower production the year following a drought. For instance, this year, many of our conifers are setting bumper cone crops that may ripen this fall or next, depending on species.”

Momentary reprieve

We all want to think this lushness means the climate is back to a more normal operation, that the drought is over, that wildfires will be smaller and not so hot, that aquifers will recharge, Nisbet said.

“But the ponds at Turnbull and other places in the scablands haven’t recharged,” he said. “If we could get five years like this in a row, we would be seeing some real nice stuff.”

That’s not the trend, climate scientists say. The consensus is that cool, wet seasons will be the anomaly in the trend toward hotter, dryer seasons.

Todd Barstaad, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife habitat specialist at Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area south of Creston, said the scablands, especially the 130,000 acres scorched by the 2020 Whitney Wildfire, badly needed a wet, cool spring this year.

“The soil profile was so depleted after last year’s dry heat,” he said. “It was bad.

“All in all, I’d say things look great out here. The cropland is looking good, the rangeland is looking good. The sagebrush is making a comeback.

“The cool, wet spring was boosted by the 1.1 inches of rain that fell in Lincoln County during two storms in the first week of July. That was just awesome. It’s created much-needed cover for birds such as Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse.

“On the other hand,” said Mike Finch, Swanson Lakes assistant manager, “we have mustard and cheatgrass going gangbusters. Little brush, but weeds galore. The rain wasn’t enough to make up for last year’s drought and change the surface water. Both Swanson Lakes are still dry.”

Lush growth of cheatgrass puckers land managers because of its volatility. It provides forage for gamebirds and wildlife briefly as it sprouts green, but cures quickly and becomes unpalatable – and dangerous.

A spark into dry cheatgrass virtually erupts into flames. Add a bit of wind and you have a formidable wildfire.

Salmon benefitting

Fish managers are getting mostly good vibes about this season.

“This cool, wet spring and early summer has been really positive for adult migrations up the Columbia River,” said Chris Donley, WDFW regional fish program manager. “The water is colder and that translates into better body condition and more effective spawning for salmon and steelhead.”

Columbia system fisheries are complex, and the benefits may not be universally good for every aspect, he said. For example, the bulk of young steelhead and spring chinook had already out-migrated before the spring rains came and they didn’t get the big push toward the ocean that boosts survival, especially through the reservoirs on the Snake and Columbia.

“But the late spring conditions could be very beneficial for later sockeye and fall chinook migrations.

“And from a resident fish perspective, higher, colder water throughout the area improves survival,” he said, noting the possible downside of negative impacts to the tail-end of the incubation period for steelhead eggs.

“Nothing is perfect, he said. “But as a fisheries manager, I’m not going to turn down high, cool water.”

Being realistic

Wildlife officials are keeping their hopes in check, as there’s still a lot of summer to come.

“Northeastern Washington and North Idaho are still very green,” Kevin Robinette, WDFW regional wildlife manager said Monday. “But in southeastern Washington and the Blue Mountains, a lot of the fuels were dried out by last week. The forage is in good shape, but we’re a little concerned about wildfire.”

However, Barstaad and other wildlife habitat observers prefer to see 2022 as a gift year.

One notable weed, hairy vetch, is “going crazy,” Barstaad said, “and for wildlife that’s a good thing. It’s good habitat for bugs, and gamebird chicks need bugs for protein and survival,” he said.

Wildlife managers take that positivity a step further.

Hairy vetch is in the pea family and growing legumes results immediately in high protein feed while the plant also puts nitrogen into the ground, which can boost plant growth in following years, Donley said.

That could spell better body condition for deer and elk, which leads to better reproduction, higher winter survival and better recruitment for the next year, he continued.

“This might be a real positive season for the future of whitetails that have been decimated by blue tongue,” he said. “If they get a break on the severity of the upcoming winter, they could rebound with a good calf crop next spring.

“When all the stars align, wildlife responds.”

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