Seeking Answers In The High Places
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
It's 10 am on August 23, and I've just arrived at the bottom of the tramway that climbs 3,300 feet up to the top of Mount Howard, in the Wallowa Mountains. This will be my third attempt to find and photograph the American Copper (Lyceana phlaeas) at Mt. Howard since 2017, and this time I'll have help. Mike Hansen used to be the Assistant District Biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Enterprise, and I knew he had good field skills. Now that he's retired, like me, he spends a lot more time enjoying chasing birds and butterflies. I hadn't met him in person before, and today we were wearing face masks because of the coronavirus, but we had no problem spotting each other in the parking lot--our binoculars, cameras and backpacks give us away.
Mike has also been looking for the American Copper in the Wallowas, and two years ago while I was scouring the south slopes of Mt. Howard, he was searching the other known historical site, near Ice Lake and the Matterhorn. When we compared notes after our 2018 expeditions, we found that we'd had the same experience: plants were dried up, and we saw no sign of American Copper or its suspected host plant, Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna). Mike and I share a desire to find out whether this species is still breeding in Oregon.
Mike and his partner Kim had seen American Copper in the Seven Devils Mountains across the Snake River in Idaho in late July, 2016. Interestingly, that copper seemed to be associated with a tall species of Rumex, rather than Mountain Sorrel. According to Andy Warren, Ernst Dornfeld proposed Mountain Sorrel as a possible host for American Copper back in 1980, but I'm not aware that anyone has definitively confirmed this in Oregon. A couple of years back, Don Severns shared details with me from the day he and his son Paul found American Copper on Mt. Howard. They found it in August about half-way down a steep talus slope on the south face of Mt. Howard, near Mountain Sorrel. As far as I know, no one has seen one since then. The only other record in Oregon was from decades earlier, when C.W. Nelson found it at 9,500 feet on the Matterhorn, further west in the Wallowas.
Mike and I rode the tram up to the summit of Mt. Howard and then hiked away from the small crowd of other tourists near the restaurant at the top of the tram line. Within minutes we were by ourselves. We had to first hike east, and then south to get to where we could cross a steep side slope over to the targeted talus slope. The talus slope was somewhat treacherous for walking on, as the rock was very loose and prone to sliding as soon as we stepped on it. At some points I had to use my hands and feet to keep my place on the hill.
This year there were a few butterfly species flying on the talus slope, visiting the bright purple patches of Coyote Mint. Hydaspe and Callippe fritillaries seemed to be most prominent there. We each chose a spot at different elevations on the slope and zig-zagged our way across, up, and down the slope looking for any sign of the coppers or their host plants. When we met up to check in after about 45 minutes, neither of us had seen any coppers, or any dock or sorrel plants.
We decided to try the north-facing rocky slope on the far side of the mountain next, as we suspected it would be more moist, and because Mike thought it was more like a site where he had seen a few Mountain Sorrel plants on a recent hike to the west of Mt. Howard. We spent about an hour on that slope, where we ate lunch and enjoyed several more butterfly species, including many Milbert's Tortoiseshells, Mormon Fritillaries, Northern Blues, Juba skippers and some close encounters with Pikas.
The Pikas were very sneakily scrambling amongst the rocks under and around us, and occasionally popping up for a loud "peek!" They were quick and hard to catch with a camera, but both Mike and I got some nice photos of them.
The north slope was more a boulder field than a talus slope, which is the habitat type we understood to be used by American Coppers in the Wallowas. In the western US, the American Copper is a denizen of the high country, restricted to life on the high slopes of the Sierras, Rocky Mountains, and perhaps, the Wallowa Mountains. Conversely, in the eastern US, American Coppers are widespread in low elevations and in all kinds of habitats, including weedy fields and vacant lots. We saw no coppers or potential hostplants on the north slope either.
We decided to finish off the afternoon by skirting the east rim of the summit and visiting some sage meadows and grassy meadows with wildflowers still in bloom. We found several more species in these areas, including many Blue Coppers and Mariposa Coppers. We'd given up on finding American Coppers for the day, and we contented ourselves with padding our species list for the day.
As we walked back towards the tram for the ride down the mountain, we discussed potential next steps in our search. We agreed that we probably needed to search earlier in the season, probably in late July based on Mike and Kim's Seven Devils sighting. We speculated that global warming and drying of the summers here had shifted things, perhaps drying out populations and favoring an earlier flight period. We discussed following up on historic sightings of Mountain Sorrel in the Wallowas from the Oregon Flora Project website. As I rode down the tram (social distancing in my own tram car) I wondered if Mountain Sorrel wasn't our target plant after all. I thought about how helpful it would be if we could connect with a mountain-hiking field botanist who knew the habitats, plants and trails of the Wallowas well. If you know someone like this, please help me get in touch with them!
Mike and I both felt good about finding 24 species for the day, even if we missed the main target, and we agreed to talk more about how to proceed with the search next year. With only two documented historical records, it would be somewhat of a long-shot. No one knows whether it is still hanging on in some high rocky meadow in the Wallowas. Yet, with global climate change dialing up the summer heat and drought, if we put it off, we might lower our odds of ever finding it again in Oregon.