March 15, 2014

Welcome back, Spring!

Happy Ides of March, everyone!  I'm back after a solid winter break, and pretty excited to be packing away my long undies and sharpening up my garden tools.  It's been a badass winter...
Here's my back yard, June 1st a couple years ago versus March 1st this year.  All that snow is from one day, btw, and is well over ten feet high.  It was an excellent blizzard, and after a day of subzero temps and howling yowling winds, the weather is pretty much back to normal for this time of year.  Sunny skies mixed with some drizzly rainshowers, and temps in the glorious mid-50s.
A hike on Waterworks Hill yesterday told me that the bitterroots are out in droves.  I found hundreds of the bright green anemones tucked into the rocky northeast slopes.  Now I'll start keeping my eyes peeled for buttercups, draba and Rocky Mountain douglasia.  The earliest spring wildflowers are some of my favorites.
Draba verna, each flower no bigger than a grain of rice.
I'm starting up a new project with Watershed Consulting, hunting for Mecinus janthinus, the biocontrol weevil that attacks the noxious weed toadflax.  The hard cold temperatures this winter (we had two good stretches where it was under 20 below zero) killed off quite a few bugs, which overwinter as adults in the toadflax stems.  Our plan is to find stems that were hidden underneath the snow during those cold snaps.  Hopefully the snow will have provided some protection from the frigid temps, much like an insulating blanket.  We'll see!  Once we find the weevils, we'll pack some of the population up and ship them out. The simple version of how biocontrol projects like this work is this:
Linaria dalmatica, Dalmation Toadflax
A non-native plant moves into an area where it has no natural predators, nothing to check its growth.  In some cases, this exotic plant turns out to be such a good competitor that it starts displacing the native plants of the area, which in turn has a devastating ripple effect on the local ecosystem.  The plants that have really really bad environmental and economic effects get deemed official "noxious weeds," and are thereafter subject to some government regulations.  One of the ways we try to control these noxious invaders is through the use of other words, introducing predators that will attack the weeds and slow their population growth.  Like a weevil, that eats toadflax.  It's a long, somewhat complicated process (you can imagine the risks involved in introducing another exotic species into the environment) but in the end, biocontrol agents really do work as a weed management tool.  So we introduce the bugs, let their population build up to a healthy level, then collect some and ship them to other parts of the state that have the weed but not yet the weevil.  And so on and so forth.  
Matt, from my 2013 Youth in Restoration crew, getting biocontrol weevils ready to ship.
It's a fascinating and effective process, and one that I'm really excited to learn more about.  Over the next few weeks, you'll find me out in the hills, rambling through weedy patches, slicing stems and looking for Messinus.  Did they survive more on north or south slopes?  Low or high?  Big stems or small?  The Bitterroot Valley or the Swan?  So many questions.  I'll let you know how it goes.
In other news, I'm still building wild bee houses, and now is the season to order one!  You can visit my Flora montana Etsy shop, or pop in to one of the Missoula businesses that carry them (the Naturalist's Mercantile and The Buttercup Market and Cafe, at the moment).  I have woodblock photography and bee houses on display (and for sale!) at the Montana Natural History Center through the end of April, and will be setting some stuff up at Bad Goat for a First Friday show in May.  And of course, feel free to drop me a line if you'd like to order one directly from me!  I'd love to hear from you.  Happy spring, everyone.  I'll be back soon with the first of this season's Plant Profiles.  Keep in touch.

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