ELEMENTS: Endangered Species of the Salmon River

Our Elements series is a close-up look at the natural world through the eyes of river guide Codye Reynolds. This time she gives us a glimpse at two rare species found in Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

Delicacy is in the eye of the beholder. At camp on the Main Salmon River, I was reminded of this twice, as I spent an hour contemplating in a Pacific yew grove and was visited by a feather-light Edith’s checkerspot butterfly.

Pacific Yew –Delicate, with unseen powers

One of my favorite treasures of the Main Salmon River is a grove of Pacific yews that lies a few miles from the river. Upon entering the shady, mystical grove, the temperature mercifully drops a few degrees. A quietly wandering creek slinks by the nearby cliff wall, and the yews are magnificent. There aren’t many of these yew trees, but they leave a distinct impression of a unique and rarely seen beauty. Their surfaces are a silvery green, peeling sheen that reveal glimpses of a harder, shimmering heart-red under-bark. With the yew’s fairy-dust-like glimmer, it’s not a stretch to believe they have medicinal powers.

pacific yew

As it turns out, a breast and ovarian cancer drug named Taxol is derived from the Pacific yew’s bark. In the 1960’s the yew bark was identified as a possible anticancer agent. Unfortunately, this drug led to wide-ranging deforestation, as deriving the compound killed the trees. The search for a wholly synthetic replacement was long and arduous, culminating in total synthesis in the 1990’s.

The yews are delicate, with unseen powers of healing. Their powers of awe, though, are reliant on their groves staying untouched. Luckily the Main Salmon yews are protected by the scientific synthesis of their medicines, and the Frank Church of No Return Wilderness.

Edith’s Checkerspot – Small and spectacular

Upon my exit from the grove, and thinking about the fragility of the yews, I sat down to eat lunch and an Edith’s checkerspot butterfly landed on my dry-bag.

edith checkerspot

I watched it for as long as it cared to perch, as it tested my green bag for traces of nectar. Its long, tongue-like proboscis probed and explored, unsure of how something so brightly colored could NOT be rich tasting. Even though Edith’s don’t move more than 2,000 feet in their entire lifespan (they are not migrators), they live only about 10 days as an adult, so I knew that even if I was on this Idaho river trip next week, I wouldn’t see this very butterfly again.

Various subspecies of Edith’s checkerspot are endangered in North America, primarily due to habitat destruction and warming of their home ecosystems. As they are exceptionally sensitive to warming temperatures, California’s endangered Quino checkerspot is considered an early warning indicator of climate change, as whole populations are moving north to cooler temperatures.

I contemplated the nature of fragility and mighty impact of a changing world. I watched while my checkerspot butterfly flew off, perhaps in search of a mate, and I wished it luck.

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