What’s in a refuge? Management tour of Turnbull NWR

This past Saturday was the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge’s first annual Spring Nature Festival – and it was pretty awesome! There was a glass box of mounted specimens of wild bees from the area, showcased by the West Plains Beekeepers, the Northeast Chapter of the Washington Native Plants Society was there, the Ice Age Floods Institute gave guided information tours on the natural history of the area, the Audubon Society brought folks on birding trips, and Mike Rule, the refuge’s wildlife biologist, brought me and a van load of folks on a management tour.

Native Bees found at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. Many of these bees are obligate feeders of particular native wildflowers - are any of these bees suffering from the decrease in native flowers due to increasing suburbanization of this region?

Since I personally hate to be a bother and bop into Mike’s office or into his email box asking lots of questions, I took the tour as an opportunity to learn more about the different areas of the refuge that may be useful for future lichen studies. And boy did some interesting ideas sure pop up – from lichen presence in forested areas that have received burns and areas that are about to receive burns, to lichen distribution patterns in dense ponderosa pine forest versus more savanna like ponderosa pine communities. But first, lets get into a little bit of the history of the refuge, and then cover some of the restoration projects at the refuge.

History of the area: The Homesteaders

The Turnbull NWR sits in the eastern end of the Channeled Scablands – gosh I love that name, it makes this place sound really mysterious, which it is (check out the post about the Ice Age Floods talk by John Soennichsen). And the title is fitting when you consider who named it: homesteaders who were trying to eek out a way of living which was more conducive in the deep soils of the Kansas plains than the rocky terrain found out here. Our homesteaders saw the land as having been scraped up, leaving giant scabs, i.e. the columnar basalt.

The town of Cheney, back in the early 1915 - notice the old electric train on 2nd avenue that used to take commuters the 25 mile trip to downtown Spokane.

Rocky terrain does not bode well for plows, nor for putting fence posts in the ground, so its not surprising that this area was one of the last places in the state of Washington to be inhabited by the homesteaders. They came in droves on the newly built railroads back as late as the early 1900′s! And many homesteaders settled on the 16,000 acres that is now a national wildlife refuge.

“This area used to be pretty densely inhabited” Mike Rule explained as he drove a group of visitors through a non-public area of the refuge. When the refuge was established in 1937 there were 35 families on the refuge, and it took about 10 years for the refuge to purchase land from those families and make the refuge almost the same size it is today. These original land purchases came at a time when many families were looking to get out of farming there — a major drought was occurring, and the Great Depression was still wreaking major economic havoc.

The mark of an old homestead: lilac bushes. This one of over near where the squatter, Cyrus Turnbull, lived. Turnbll was one of the main providers of meat for the town of Cheney when it was first getting established.

The legacy of the homesteaders still remains on the refuge – lilac bushes and apple orchard mark the areas where homes used to be. And the wetlands themselves still retain the legacy, but it is not as obvious to an untrained eye: about 70% of the wetlands were drained, and the bottom of the wetlands made into crop and pasture land. Although the refuge managers have been working to restore these wetlands, the farms around the refuge still have their wetlands drained, and this has impacts – both ecologically for the migratory birds, and for the quality and levels of water at the refuge.

The Establishment of the Refuge: Sportsmen

A great Blue Heron flies over lower Turnbull Slough

In 1937, at the urging of sportsmen, the refuge was established. The landscape had changed so dramatically due to the homesteaders, and migratory bird patterns and presence were so impacted that wildfowl hunters were called into action and they urged the federal government to grant money for land purchases. This is not an uncommon history, sportsmen are responsible for forming many of our national wildlife refuges, including the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island. You can see a list of sportsmen and sportswomen and how they’ve contributed to saving the places that our wildlife friends call home, here.

No narrative accounts describing the refuge’s per-settlement landscape

“if we had interviews with folks describing what the landscape here used to be like, that’d be extremely helpful for what we’re doing” said Mike Rule when I asked him about historical narratives from the old homesteaders. “But as far as I know, there’s none that describe the land.”

The forest encroaching on the mima mounds located between upper and lower Turnbull Slough

And this loss of history is sad, because for the past month I keep looking at the mima mounds that seemingly are almost everywhere – from the BLM land surrounding Hog Canyon, to the east and west side of the refuge – and I keep wondering what those mounds were like before the homesteaders with their cattle grazing pushed the soil around. Perhaps the mounds were as distinct as the ones out near Olympia. But there’s evidence showing that the mounds were never as distinct, even before the settlers. Although some mounds were flattened for farming, the main impact on the mounds from grazing were the invasion of non-native plants. The mima mounds in the Puget Sound area suggest the possibility that aboriginal fire may have played a role in maintaining the mima mound prairie here, too, but this idea remains unsubstantiated beyond a few suggestions, such as the gradual disappearance of mima mounds into the forest.

Today, you can see the forest slowly eating the mounds here, mounds trapped in the forest, as is happening in the Mima Mounds National Area Preserve near Olympia, Washington. But the Olympia Mima Mounds were preserved from the encroaching forest by periodic fires set by the indigenous Salish tribes. It seems to me that similar kind of actions may have kept the prairie mounds here in Eastern Washington free of forest — and that the cessation of those prairie fires may be the cause of the encroaching ponderosa pine forest. But Rex Daubenmire, a professor Washington State University, has said that there’s little chance there was aboriginal fires here, so for now the case remains closed.

Restoration Projects on the Refuge

Its amazing how much we humans have changed our landscapes, but it’s also heartening to see that we can also restore the landscape to function somewhat similarly as it had in the past. And the managers at Turnbull are doing just that.

The roots of an upturned ponderosa pine show how shallow the soil is here at the refuge due to the thick basalt bedrock. Because these roots don't have a tap root and are so close to the surface, hot fires can cause the death of old growth trees, more frequent light fires are needed to protect the older growth communities.

The wetlands have been plugged, and the migratory bird populations have increased. In lower Turnbull Slough there are 29 heron nests and 12 cormorant nests. Although there are some issues of invasive species, including invasive plants like Cheat Grass and Reed Canary grass, and invasive fish including Pumpkin Seed and Brook Stickleback, the restoration of the wetlands continues to be a successful process.

“We’ve got a good handle on the wetlands,” said Mike Rule as he drove through the ponderosa pine forest. He explained that the forest restoration has been more tricky, ”The forest though, we still have a lot of work left on it.” but forest restoration is also a more recent goal, as the paradigm of forestry has changed quite dramatically over the past few decades.

These aspen would not be here if it wasn't for the fencing around them -- elk and beavers are stalling the restoration of aspen communities at the refuge.

Mike Rule and many other foresters and ecologists conclude that the dense, single aged stands of ponderosa Pine that dominate the refuge are a legacy of the homesteader’s logging activities, not a natural composition pattern of the native forest. Rule believes that the forest in this area was more of a ponderosa pine savanna, with meadow grasses in between clumps of ponderosa pines. And periodic fires played a role in minimizing the amount of pine duff (thusly allowing for more soil crust lichen to fix nitrogen :) ), helping the aspen stands regenerate, and burning out the young pine saplings so that more forbs and grasses for wildlife could flourish. A more open canopy would also allow for increased snowmelt in the winter, allowing wildlife more access to undercanopy growth.

As the refuge is reinstating the fire regimes, they have been keeping a close watch on the response of the forest creatures, including birds and rodents.

Forest restoration monitoring began in 1999, and so far there’s evidence that the restoration process has been successful: there’s been an increase in chipping sparrows and western bluebirds, both are indicators of a healthy forest ecosystem in our bioregion. Naturally, lichens would be great indicators as well, as lichens are considered among the best bioindicators of ecosystem health.

… Sites that would be interesting for lichen monitoring include:

1) N47.24-283 W117.34-616 : Left side of road in non-commercial thinning, right side of road commercial thinning in 2002, fire in 2009-2010. Logging used feller buncher, a three-wheel vehicle that cuts trees and puts them in basket reducing dragging and minimizing ground impact. Logging occurs when ground is frozen, or just slightly moist (which is smart because cryptogamic soil crusts have more cell damage when compacted if they dry than when they are slightly moist.

A management burn in a ponderosa pine community, burn happened just over a week ago at the beginning of May.

2) N47.24-156 W117.34-974 : Left side of road will be burnt in fall – would be interesting to see succession of lichen species,diversity and abundance pre to post-fire.

3) N47.23-785 W117.36-307 : Forest here was burned just a bit over a week ago, would add to understanding of lichen succession post-fire.

4) Head west on Salnave road to the area where there was a fire storm in 1991: here there are aspen stands have been regenerating very successfully, while on the refuge aspen stands are struggling due to elk – which is unfortunate because aspen stands have some of the most diversity in terms of bird population associations.

5) N47.24-290 W117.36-436 :Wetland restoration, increase in microclimate humidity as shown by lichen succession or changes in diversity and abundance?

Xanthoparmelia wyomingica

Xanthoparmelia wyomingcaOut at the Basaltic Mounds last Monday, I came across a lichen that got me pretty excited. It is the only macrolichen I have yet to find in the mima mounds areas, and after staring at micro-lichen so much recently (crustose), I was so happy to find it, especially as a huge patch. The patch was at least one meter square patch, an area composed primarily of bare soil and fist sized basaltic rocks, and located in the area between the basaltic mima mounds (inter-mound area).

a) A big ole patch of Xanthoparmelia wyomingca in the intermound area in the Basaltic Mima Mounds at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. b) Check out how well the rhizines have gathered up the soil, giving this terricolous lichen some security on windy days.

This foliose lichen was pretty well attached to the soil in certain parts, rhizines had dug into the soil, and they were not attached to rock. So I picked one up and brought it to the lab. After microscope work, chemical work, and using three different keys to ensure accuracy, I figured it out: Xanthoparmelia wyomingica. Although my collaborator Jessica Allen already added this species to the inventory list last year, identifying this species was really fun because it brought back a flood of memories. I remember helping her key it out while we were in Bruce McCune’s lab at Oregon State University, checking the identification with McCune’s extensive lichen specimen collection, and having McCune verify the ID. All very exciting. Jessica is the person who got me into lichen – before I met her I was all about fungi!

But, back to Xanthoparmelia wyominca — how do you know if you find it? Well, they grow on the top of soil, sometimes they detach from the soil and wander around and you’ll find one of them caught in the base of a shrub – a vagrant lichen these are called, but they are not the typical vagrant lichen like Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa.

Cross section of Xanthoparmelia wyomingca, look closely for the green algae photobiont layer.

Typical vagrant lichen will roll their margins when they dry up, this allows the photobiont (algae) to be protected from the sun. When suitable moisture occurs the margins will unroll, allowing the photobiont to receive light and photosynthesize. But X. wyomingca doesn’t curl in its margins as extensively as X. chlorochroa. So look for that.

The unbranched rhizines are pretty long 0.5-1.0 mm long

Also check the underside for color: blackish. The lobes will be pretty skinny along their length, less than 2mm, though they’ll be wider at the end and at the point where the lobe branches at the base. And especially check for the presence of rhizines – these rhizines are black, numerous, and 0.5-1.0 cm long and they are unbranched for the most part, although some seem to fuse together at the base and appear forked.

The lobes of X. wyomingica are less than 2mm wide, that measurement is critical for differentiating between different Xanthoparmelia species.

Also check for the photobiont, in this case it is green. And always do your chemical tests! And last but not least – take pictures of the process, take notes, and then put them up on Mushroom Observer so you can get feedback and make sure that your identification is correct!

Further Notes:

Recent research published last year indicates that the genus Xanthoparmelia is polyphyletic, meaning they do not come from the same ancestor and subsequently should not be part of the same genus classification. Additionally, the genetic testing of 18 different species found 21 species clusters, however these clusters do not neatly overlap with the 18 species groups, which has provocative implications.  The current species groupings are based on morphological traits and chemical composition, and assumes that species that have similar features should be grouped together phylogenetically (on the same tiny branch of the tree of life). The genetic data indicates that this assumption is false, that many of the traits were developed independently of each other (convergent evolution), and that there is a high level of variation of these traits within individuals of this species (S.D. Leavitt et al. 2011).


“Species delimitation in taxonomically difficult lichen-forming fungi: an example from morphologically and chemically diverse Xanthoparmelia (Parmeliaceae) in North America.” By S.D. Leavitt, L.A. Johnson, T. Goward, and L.L. St. Clair in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. September 2011.

“A Key to Xanthoparmelia in North America, Extracted from the World Keys of Hale 1990″ by John W. Thomson in The Bryologist 1993.



The Basaltic Mima Mounds at Turnbull, invasive grasses, and cryptogamic soil crusts

Basalt mima mounds, Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge; May 7, 2012.

Last Monday I got a chance to go with an EWU grad student named Kristen out to an area where she is thinking about studying management of invasive grasses. The area that she is focusing on is another mima mound area at the refuge: the basaltic mima mounds. I couldn’t hold back from taking a trip out there with Kristen to look at the lichen in that area and learn from Kristen about the different grasses out there, particularly the invasive grasses.

Kristen’s M.S. research is focusing on the affects of different management and disturbance practices on invasive grasses. Her study involves lichens in a way because the cryptogamic soil crusts (lichens, mosses, fungi, cyanobacteria, algae) have been shown to play a role in keeping out the invasive plants while nurturing the seeds and fulfilling the needs of the native plants. Kristen will be altering her plots with fire, with pesticides, foot traffic, and other practices and seeing how these increase or decrease the native grass vegetation.

What lit up in my mind was the potential to see how these disturbances affect the composition of lichen, and if the lichen go through different stages of succession in response to different disturbances. That study would have to be a long term study but I could at least get a baseline assessment of the lichen distribution in those plots, and let someone else pick it up in a few years.

Xanthoparmelia wyomingca, growing on the soil in the inter-mound areas of the Basalt Mima Mounds

So we took a quick trip out there with her to get a feel for what’s going on out there, and what we found was pretty incredible: a huge patch of Xanthoparmelia wyomingca! I did not notice any Diploschistes like I did over in the alluvial mounds, which seems to indicate a change in soil quality, and I did learn quite alot of grasses, the primary ones of which are invasive. I’m going to briefly go over these here because that will help us identify crusts that are hosting invasive versus non-invasive grasses.

Kristen explains about the different invasive grass species that are taking over the praries at the refuge.

A quick peek at the Turnbull NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan (see grass species list at bottom of page) shows that more than half the listed grass species are exotic species. It is important to note that exotic species are not necessarily invasive, but many of these grasses are in fact invalsive. These invasives include Poa bulbosa, Ventenata dubia, and Bromus tectorum (the infamous Cheatgrass).

Although none of the native grasses are listed as being endangered or threatened, it is very hard to predict what types of ecological affects may be happening due to the decrease in native plant abundance. The affects may be simple: certain insects may be favored by the changes in spring bloom time and quality, and this could impact the health of our regions forests and farms if these insects become pests. Or they may be complex, causing changes in migration patterns of certain birds and causing a ripple effect throughout North America from a seemingly minor causation factor. Or the effects could be very local, the grasses may be releasing toxins harmful to other plants and microbes (allelopathic chemicals), preventing the establishment of thick cryptogamic soil crusts, thus leading to major erosion issues that affect riparian ecosystems and cause the suspended silt in the water to rip up the tender gills of fish. This all sounds catastrophic, but the effects of loosing native organisms can have vast consequences on an entire ecosystem.

Poa bulbosa - an invasive grass at Turnbull

I like to think of an ecosystem as a net that is holding up all the soil and water and living creatures in an area, and its obviously a super strong net because its carrying trillions of tons of biomass. Creating this net are a bunch of threads, and each species is one of those threads and they each have numerous roles to play. And when one of the species is unable to function properly due to a competing invasive organism, or by environmental stressors, that little thread in the net snaps, and the ecosystem becomes a tiny bit weaker. But no fail, the surrounding threads can often figure out how to plug that hole and keep the ecological net intact. However, if these threads snap all over the place, so fast that the other creatures are unable to respond and repair, then the shear weight of the biomass will start snapping more threads. Worst case scenario is that all the soil and water and living creatures will fall into an unorganized massive mess on the floor, the net in tatters, and the humans too. So, although invasive grasses seem pretty harmless, its important to make sure that our native grasses and their roles in our local ecosystems aren’t compromised.

So, going back to lichen, there’ll be a post up soon going over the roles that lichen and cryptogamic soil crusts play in meadow steppe. Stay tuned!

List of grasses that have been found within the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge; notice that more than half of these grasses are exotic, a major management issue. Source: Turnbull NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan 2007.


Site #1: The Alluvial Mima Mounds

Cladonia spp. from alluvial mima mounds, Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. may 2, 2012. Photo by Therese Addis.

Last Wednesday Therese and I headed out to our first site, the alluvial Mima Mounds. Pronounced Mee-mah Mounds, these are some of the most bizarre geological formations found in prairies around the world – Texas, China, and here at Turnbull too. The Mima Mounds, also called prairie or pimple mounds, are named after the mounds over near Olympia, Washington. When I first walked through the mounds last winter out on the west side of the state, I was shocked — the mounds over there are 8-12 feet tall, about the same in diameter, and they look like a giant permaculture or agricultural project. Perhaps that sounds like a ludicrous idea, but it sounds just as crazy as them being constructed by ancient giant gophers, and there are many of geologists and scientists who support that hypothesis, Note: check the resources list below for some popular science articles about the mima mounds. In sum, the mima mounds are mysterious, and Therese and I were excited to find out what lichen are living in the soil crusts out there. I knew that there wouldn’t be the Reindeer Moss kind of Cladonia lichen like on the mounds in Olympia, but exactly what would be there, neither of us were really too sure.

Alluvial Mima Mounds

Alluvial mima mounds, walking west towards Stubblefield Lake. May 2, 2012.

So what did we find? Well, at first there were many grasses as we walked west towards Stubblefield Lake. And the intermound areas were very filled in with soil making the mounds look less distinct than the typical mima mounds — the tops of the mounds only poked out about 3-4 feet, and the mounds were most visible due to the clump of dead woody forbs on the top of each mound. As we walked further into the refuge the density of the grasses decreased, small granite rocks increased, and the cryptogamic crusts became more abundant. At our trial location we plopped down our bags and began collecting some soil crusts, and a few rock crusts.

And what lichen did we find? Well, I’m still keying them out but here is a sneak peek:

Diploschistes spp.

The first one we found was a Diploschistes spp. which was very abundant. Therese’s first comment was that she would have thought that they were just some sort of poop, and they did look like poop because they are parasitic and grow over other lichens, and it looks like they may be parasites of mosses too.

We also found a Cladonia, a black crust with tiny apothecia, a very leprose lichen growing on a rock (Lepraria?), a possible Leptogium growing within moss, and others. And we found a couple possibly different species of squamulose lichen with no reproductive features, no pruina, no cephalodia, no distinctive features besides typical colors (brown or green top with white bottom) that we could see in the field. Or were we just looking at the primary thallus of a Cladonia, perhaps, not sure yet,

Checking out the cryptogamic soil crusts

Only a few rock crust lichen were collected, but we’ll be back on site next week after we key these 9 soil crusts out, so we’ll focus on rocks, and gather any additional soil crust lichen that we may have overlooked. We may also check to see if there is any difference in the  diversity and composition of different slopes of a mound – NESW sides. But I’m also super excited for the rock crusts. It’s so neat to me that endolithic lichen can actually grow within the rock matrix, in some cases up to 2mm deep. Intense critters! For more information of endolithic lichen, check out the Discussion of Lichen Biology: Chapter 4.


“Heaps of confusion”. By Beth Geiger. Earth, Aug98, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p34, 4p.

“Mystery of the Mima mounds”. By Daryl Gray. Current Science, 1/8/99, Vol. 84 Issue 9, p10, 2p

“Soil properties and microbial activity across a 500m elevation gradient in a semi-arid environment”, Soil Biology and Biochemistry. By Jeffrey L. Smith, Jonathan J. Halvorson, Harvey Bolton Jr.

“Engineering properties of Mima Mound soils from Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, Eastern Washington”. by Toni Voile and Richard Orndorff from the Department of Geology at Eastern Washington University. Presented at the 2004 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.

Spatial Modeling of Biological Soil Crusts to Support Rangeland Assessment and Monitoring” by Matthew A. Bowker, Jayne Belnap, and Mark E. Miller in Rangeland Ecology Management 59:519–529; September 2006.

Biological Soil Crusts: Ecology & Management” Technical Reference 1730-2 for the U.S. Department of the Interior (2001). By Jayne Belnap, Julie Hilty Kaltenecker, Roger Rosentreter, John Williams,Steve Leonard and David Eldridge.