Thursday, June 25, 2015


We should all be more comfortable with questions and not so quick to spout our opinions. After all, we know less than we think we do, especially about the biological world. That’s one thing Jack and I share, the joy of questioning. We both like a question that hangs comfortably in the air, causing contemplation, not the rush to an answer.

So it was no surprise that we found more questions than answers when we walked the wilderness area encompassed by the Craters of the Moon National Monument during the height of the preserve’s famous wildflower season. The staff here had told Jack that a sage grouse breeding lek existed on the property. We wanted to see what the habitat looked like.   

Eruptions occurred here over some 13,000 years, the most recent being only 2,000 years ago. It was not from a single volcano erupting in the classic sense, but rather lava that flowed up and out of a deep fissure known as the Great Rift. The area was designated as a national monument in 1924 when explorers pushed to have the lava flows protected. Then in 1970 much of the land was deemed wilderness, a rarity within the National Park System. In 2000 the area was expanded and now encompasses 750,000 acres, some of it privately owned.     

We toured what the Hawaiian’s call a Kipuka, an island of natural vegetation surrounded by lava, thereby eliminating most human effects, including wheeled traffic, grazing, etc. We both wanted to see what this non-grazed area looked like. 

Jack and I sparred over the health of the grass community. I was convinced that the (what I call over-rested) plants would benefit from periodic grazing, as long as they received adequate recovery periods. He wouldn’t go for it, insisting that I was making assumptions based on limited knowledge. “Maybe that plant is just old,” he said.

We walked all the way to Little Prairie which had burned in 1992. The vegetation here was noticeably different, more grass, less brush. Our wet May meant an impressive sea of waving seedheads. But what about plant spacing? Could well managed grazing help fill in the bare ground?

Much of our walking followed the hint of a trail recently traversed by an elk. We noticed here and there her preference for penstemon blooms!   

In our nine mile journey we walked across lots of different degrees of what we might call “healthy” range. Some areas were abundant and diverse, others mostly bare ground. And the one thing that Jack and I agreed on, these differences were NOT caused by cows, or sheep, or any domestic grazing animal. They were caused by soil composition, aspect, etc. And in our culture’s heated debate over the effects of grazing, that’s a mouthful. 

a grouse was here, I even flushed a hen and three chicks!

in the distance, the 2000 fire which left behind a sea of cheat grass

the translucent blue of penstemon
lovely in anyone's eye

with no grazing, there is nothing to remove old growth and rejuvenate the plant
Do you agree?

cheat grass established with no domestic grazers

this area burned in 1992, lovely tall grass from a wet May
Could there be less bare ground with good grazing management?

bed of delicate monkeyflower 

no fire, no grazing by domestic livestock
Is it healthy? And as compared to what?


  1. Just lovely, has been a while since we have been there. Thanks for taking us along. Aren't the teensy monkey flowers darling?

  2. Thanks for the post and beautiful photos of one of the most interesting spots in Idaho. Yes, everyone sees a place differently. A builder would see Craters of the Moon as a terrible place to put up a house. Photographers must see it as a lifetime of photo shoots. As a plant ecologist, I see it as a challenging place to be a perennial grass.

    I don’t see too much bare ground at Craters. I see plants growing in clumps so they can use the water and nutrients in the space around them. Grasses in sagebrush steppe have to do all their growing in the short time between “too cold” and “too dry.” They have to grab all the water and nutrients they can, as fast as they can, from as large an area as they can.

    I don’t see too many dead grass leaves, either. The old leaves look untidy; we’d all rather see lush, cool, green, leaves. But plants can’t worry about looking pretty for us. The old leaves protect the soil from erosion and reduce evaporation, which means more water for the plant. As the leaves decay, they provide nutrients. If the center of a bunchgrass dies, the dead material stays to guard the soil, its water, and its nutrients, and the plant just keeps growing outward.

    I’m impressed that perennial grasses can grow at Craters and I’m glad they’re out there 24/7 protecting the soil.

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    2. Oops, let's try that again. Nice to hear from you Cindy. I appreciate seeing it from your eyes.