Last week we headed out to Steens Mountain to do plant inventorying for two RNAs (Resource Natural Area). The purpose of an RNA is the be a “naturally occurring physical or biological unit where natural conditions are maintained in so far as possible”. They are also areas that can be used as baselines for measuring the quality of other similar environments and the effects that humans have on them, used for science, and used as a gene pool for species. The two RNAs we were to visit are called Rooster Comb and Little Wildhorse Lake. Rooster Comb is a 720 acre RNA near the base of the Steens and the Little Blitzen River. Little Wildhorse Lake RNA is about 240 acres and is documented to contain nine special status plants. We spent three days up on the Steens, staying out at a little cabin of a building that the BLM owns near Riddle Brothers Ranch.
We spent two days at Rooster Comb to cover more of the area. It was a nice hike in and out, traveling a good chunk of the way by the Little Blitzen. It was pleasant to settle in and examine the plants, asking “who are you?” and trying to listen for a response. We identified 79 plant species in Rooster Comb and I am sure there are many more we missed. A few of my favorites were Actea pachypoda (doll’s eye), Aquilegia formosa (western columbine), Populus angustifolia (narrowleaf cottonwood), Collomia linearis (tiny trumpet), and Scirpus microcarpus (panicled bulrush). We had to do some detective work since many of the forbs were no longer flowering. We used the vegetative features to figure these out. On Thursday morning we rose at the crack of dawn and drove up to the top of the Steens. The views are spectacular, as you can see deep into the gorges of the green and craggy landscape. Little Wildhorse Lake is situated at the base of one of these gorges, where the land flattens out for several hundred meters before rising steeply again. Looking down from the top, the lake looks small and fish-shaped, the descent long. After taking the Gorge Trail a bit too far, we doubled back to the unmaintained Desert Trail. We followed it until it dwindled to nothing, and we were left scrabbling among boulders, dirt, loose rocks, and vegetation. Due to the likelihood of the feet slipping despite the will of the brain, we turned tail and headed back up, hoping to find a better way down on some other day.
Still, I was happy and excited to see two special status plants in the field above Little Wildhorse Lake. These were Steens Mountain Paintbrush (Castijella pilosa var. steenensis) and Steens Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon davidsonii var. praeteritus), both endemic to Steens. The paintbrush is a plant of similar style and structure to other paintbrushes, but with grayish-green bracts instead of being brightly colored. The penstemon is a large, brightly pink-purple and grows in mats low to the ground. Gorgeous!
Back at the top of the Steens, we met a botanist who is researching grasses (a new species!) and completing an Oregon guide to Carex species. He showed us on the map a way he has gotten down to Little Wildhorse Lake, so when we go out again we will try that way and hopefully make it down. I hope we do because I really want to see the plants down there – it is very beautiful. I would also like to find more of the special status plants and have a chance to do the paperwork and GPS boundary markings for the populations.
I went back up to the Steen over the weekend to hike down to Wildhorse Lake (a different lake from Little Wildhorse, but nearby). This is a steep descent, but has a good trail. The Eriogonums (desert buckwheats) were in abundant bloom, quilting the slopes with varying shades of yellow. Purple monkey flowers (Minulus spp.), red paintbrush (Castijella spp.), light purple wild flax (Linum perenne), the many stamened yellow blazing star (Mentzelia laevicaulis), white sandwort (Arenaria aculeata), and fuzzy pussytoes (Antennaria spp.) were also around. The lake sparkled in the sunlight and a long-beaked, long-legged wading bird stalked in the shallows.