Restoring Palouse prairie: A field trip with Chris Duke

October 10, 2023 Washington State Magazine Season 3 Episode 25
Restoring Palouse prairie: A field trip with Chris Duke
Show Notes Transcript

Palouse prairie of eastern Washington and northwestern Idaho is an endangered landscape. It’s dominated by forbs—flowering plants—that cover the fields with a riot of color that attracts native pollinators.

The Phoenix Conservancy is among the groups restoring Palouse prairie. Led by Chris Duke, a doctoral graduate in biology from Washington State University, the organization works to bring native plants back to endangered landscapes from Madagascar to the Great Plains of North America to the Palouse hills.

In this episode, Washington State Magazine editor Larry Clark takes a field trip with Duke to the apartment complexes on the edge of Pullman, Washington, where a half-acre hillside shows how Palouse prairie can thrive even on a small, urban piece of land. They call it a pocket prairie.

As sounds from construction of new buildings surround the area, Duke shows off the blue asters, purple lupine, and myriad other native plants as butterflies and pollinating beetles move from flower to flower. It is a sign of hope and the resilience of native species in the region.

Read more in “Rooting for the prairie” in the Fall 2023 issue of Washington State Magazine.

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Ep 25 Viewscapes - Palouse Prairie

Chris Duke 00:00

When I got started, this was all  mullein and thistles. Now on this the last species count we got, there are somewhere between 60 and 70 native plant species living happily and coexisting and holding their own against these weeds. You can see there's a thistle being smothered by lupine, so you give them half a fighting chance they will take it. “They” being the natives.


Larry Clark 00:21

Palouse prairie of Eastern Washington and Northwestern Idaho is an endangered landscape. The Phoenix Conservancy, cofounded by Chris Duke, who you just heard, works to bring native plants back. 


This is Viewscapes. Stories from Washington State Magazine, connecting you to Washington State University, the state and the world. I'm Larry Clark, editor of the magazine. 

I took a field trip with Chris due to a large apartment complex on the edge of Pullman to check out some Palouse prairie. Chris showed me a small hillside that's now a pocket prairie thriving with native plants, wildflowers and pollinating bees, butterflies and beetles. 

As sounds from construction on new apartments in the background, we saw the resilience and beauty of the Palouse prairie. 


We're here in Alpine apartment complex, on the backside of Pullman. There's construction going on so you'll hear things in the background. But the really cool thing that we're looking at is native Palouse prairie. And I'm here with Chris. Do you want to introduce yourself?


Chris Duke 01:24

Yeah. Hi, I'm Chris. I'm the executive director of the Phoenix Conservancy. And we're a nonprofit based in Pullman, Washington, with a mission to restore endangered ecosystems.


Larry Clark 01:35

Yeah, and you're also a Coug, right?


Chris Duke 01:37

I am. Go Cougs. I find I finished my PhD in 2022, I believe. It all kind of blurs together, not only being in grad school, but the pandemic too. It's just kind of a big black box of I don't know when that was. 


Larry Clark 01:52

Well, tell me a little bit about the Phoenix Conservancy. What do you do? 


Chris Duke 01:57

Yeah, so kind of the origin of our name, everybody asks us if we work in Arizona, and we always have to disappoint them and say, “Well, not yet.” But the phoenix is very much a symbol that summarizes our goal here, which is to start with an endangered ecosystem that is, in the case of our Madagascar site, quite literally ashes. And from that, restoring the ecosystem that used to be there, or rather restoring the plant communities and the functional ecosystem that used to be there.


Larry Clark 02:29

It's not just in Madagascar. It's really close to what a lot of our listeners probably recognize, Pullman in the Palouse.


Chris Duke 02:37

So we have three focal ecosystems, which two of which are prairie. The other one is Madagascar rainforest. So we go prairie, prairie, rainforest, and we get a lot of questions about how in the world we arrived at that conclusion. What they all have in common is—we work on a local, national and global scale—and what they all have in common is that they are 5% or less intact. So Palouse prairie, very conservatively, maybe half a percent intact. Our national projects mix grass prairies and shortgrass prairies in the Great Plains, have been highly fractured and degraded by resource extraction and ranching, conservatively about 5% intact and connected. And then Madagascar rainforest is a global project, somewhere between 5 to 3% of Madagascar rainforests are still standing. And in some cases, the causes are different. In a lot of cases, they're shockingly similar. But in all cases, we put them on equal footing. 

Even if you live in Pullman and have done your whole life, it's hard to find true Palouse prairie and to know what it looks like. I know a lot of people that wouldn't recognize it, but it is nice to see more of it. If you know what you're looking for. And you know, you can overcome the plant blindness.


Larry Clark 03:57

It's a very interesting type of prairie I've learned because of you and I working a little bit together and an article that you worked with the magazine. Yeah, tell how is Palouse prairie different, especially when it comes to forbs?


Chris Duke 04:13

Well, it's definitely different in a couple of ways. Like you're mentioning, it's forb dominant. So it's a prairie that we were very careful not to use the term grassland because it's not really a grassland ecosystem. It's a piece of prairie, so low lying, generally treeless with small shrubs or very small trees, but it's dominated by flowering plants: forbs. So what you end up with in true Palouse prairie, and in early summer, is just an almost unimaginable sea of flowers. There's grass in there but it is not what's driving the show there. 

And it's also kind of unique in that it's so variable. You can go around one of the last remaining patches standing which is Steptoe Butte and you can actually see basically all the eco zones that make up what you would consider Palouse prairie on one mountain. And all it really changes is what aspect you're facing. So the north side, you get ponderosa pine forest, open sort of savanna forests with these various species that move into the understory. And as you get a little bit drier on to the west, and the east is where you see true Palouse prairie, which is forb dominated, extremely high diversity. And once you move into the really dry areas on the south facing aspects is where you tend to get grassland, more grass dominated areas and drier forbs. So it's also unique and then it's not homogenous at all. It as far as we can tell has always been a patchwork habitat. And that diversity, that variability is really what drove it to be as valuable that ecosystem as it is. It's not one thing. It's kind of many things all at once. So very, very cool place. 


Larry Clark 06:08

Well, and one of the neat things that I find is it doesn't have to be just big swaths like over by Steptoe Butte. Like right now, we're standing next to a fairly small space piece of land on a hillside next to an apartment. And talk a little bit about how you've restored you know, sort of these micro prairies if that's a term you can use.


Chris Duke 06:31

I guess nobody's copyrighted it. So I guess we refer to them as pocket prairies. Just gotta guess because we like alliteration. If you really want to go off the deep end there, there are Palouse pocket prairies. But maybe that's a lot of alliteration. Yeah, the misconception, I think this is this is probably a misconception from forest based ecosystems that in some cases, in kind of the early days of the concept of restoration, the thought was, well, you can't really have a functional ecosystem unless you're talking 100 square miles or more. And yeah, nobody thinks about these tiny little areas as having any value. But yeah, as you said, we're on, you know, maybe less than a quarter acre of hillside that formerly was just completely covered in weeds, and in particular, two species of weeds. So there really wasn't a lot of value in terms of what this land was being done with. It was just being ignored. Now, you look out and you see dozens of species of flowers and pollinators on every one, native pollinators everywhere. And so the thing to remember is a lot of depending on the scale of what you're thinking about. Can this support a breeding moose population? No, but many of our native pollinators have a home range that can be as small as 1000 square feet, if you're talking about some of the really small bees, prairie doesn't act the same way as a big homogenous forest. And part of an artifact of being Palouse prairie and being used to being alternately covered in ice, covered in miles of lava flows, existing in these isolated patches, is very well predisposed to function in islands. It doesn't have to necessarily all be continuous. It's better if it is. But even someplace like this that you would think would have no value at all, or did have no value at all. There's absolutely no reason why every parking lot every, you know, little unused nub of land couldn't be this.


Larry Clark 08:38

Well, you know, it certainly would bring color and life and you know, just looking out over this hillside that we're standing next to, you know, we see some yellow flowers. What are those? Are those coneflowers?


Chris Duke 08:51

Well, some. So these are Canada goldenrod right here. Okay, the coneflower. Here is actually this is Rudbeckia maxima, which I'm butchering the scientific name as always, but it's a native to the Great Plains that a well-meaning unknown citizen got established. It's one of these things. It's not really native here. But it's also not a tragically horrible weed and it's in the other end of its range. It coexists just fine so we haven't tried to eradicate it. But you also see blanket flower. We've got showy milkweed, Jessica’s aster and Western aster blooming together. Also, there's about 60, somewhere between 60 and 70 species of natives, and a full complement from early bloomers all the way through the end of fall. 

A lot of our natives are so much more resilient than people give them credit for. What they can't tolerate is being plowed. The great tragedy about the Palouse prairie is that we don't we don't really know that much about what it was. The Palouse was settled and plowed almost entirely within a space of 100 years. And in doing so, Pullman and a lot of these towns lost the artesian wells that they were built around and on a lot of that had to do with our aquifers being recharged during our long wet winters with these deep rooted, extremely resilient plants. But as long as these are here, this is not going to be plowed, it's not going to be converted. It's just kind of part of the landscape now and from Dabco’s perspective, they don't really have to do anything to it. And instead of a field of weeds, it's now this little biodiversity oasis that in early spring, right about the time they're they're putting in new tenants, this thing is a riot of flowers, which is that Palouse prairie is.


Larry Clark 10:47

Right? It seems like such an easy win, you know, to take these areas that are really just neglected.


Chris Duke 10:57

Year after year, I would swear to you that every single one of my plants, my native plants in my entire yard is just dead, like “Nope, this is the year they're gone.” They can't stand up to this heat or this winter or anything else. And every year they bounce back harder and faster than they ever have. And yeah, so it doesn't have to be perfect soil; they like it better when it's not. Some of our most invasive weeds are are invasive because they do a good job of sponging up soil nutrients. And when there's not very much soil nutrient available is really when our natives take over and shine pretty well because they're used to that sort of situation. So yeah, we did a site at Bishop…we did some restoration at Bishop retirement community. And we're literally packing gravel and sand around the roots of these things in the fall. Every single one of them, we experienced a 0% mortality out there over the winter.


Larry Clark 11:54

I think you know, there is this misconception you need to talk about restoration and native plants. And I think there is a misconception that they, you know, are, forgive the sort of pun, shrinking violets. You know that they're going to disappear. And this really proves the opposite. You know, you look at this hillside right next to construction of new apartments right over there. You know, this is a busy place. And it's wonderful to see.


Chris Duke 12:20

Well the origins of this of this place, I used to live in that building. This was when the Phoenix Conservancy had just, forgive this pun, fledged, I guess. One of the first project sites that we have was right here and it was me with a shovel. And I was tired of looking at a field of mullein. You can see what its former state was right there. Arid, bombed out weed field. And I was just so sick of looking at it. So I would go out there when I had time and pull out mullein, either drop seeds that I collected from the area or in some cases plants that were growing out of a crack in a parking lot somewhere. Transplanted them one by one, piece by piece. Somebody called the called the Dabco staff line and said that there's a guy running, this crazy shirtless guy with a shovel running around on your hillside doing I don't know what. You should probably look into that. And so Patrick, the grounds manager loves this story, because he wouldn't ever catch me because I'd be out for just a couple of minutes, get too hot. And I wasn't trying to avoid him. It just never worked. Yeah, he finally caught me one day. “So what are you doing?” And I told him “Well, I'm planting native species and removing weeds,” and he goes, “Oh, that's fine. You are? Well, they grow here really? And tell me more.” And so this site in so many ways is the birth of not only kind of Phoenix's perspective of there's no such thing as too small of a prairie, it's still going to have enormously deep roots, it's still going to store a ton of carbon underground, it's going to absorb a ton of water. And it's going to be enormous value to our native pollinators. It's not hard to just look out and you see bees and butterflies everywhere.


Larry Clark 14:18

I think it's amazing to see and it is a hopeful thing as well.


Chris Duke 14:24

Yeah, in the time that I was living here and going from seeing nothing out here ever to seeing, you know, new species of birds popping up and using the prairie and some of them are seed eaters and some of them eat fruit. Yeah, that's kind of the way of it, is if you create the habitat suddenly you have all the things that spread seed and and we're always here fostering Palouse prairie. And if you give them a space for it, they'll bring the prairie to you.


Larry Clark 14:49

Absolutely right. We're looking over at this butterfly, flitting from one plant to the other.


Chris Duke 14:56

It's not a monoculture. Either way this is not the same as I would say, the ancestral Palouse prairie that's on Steptoe Butte. But even on Steptoe Butte you can't find a patch of Palouse prairie now that doesn't have at least some invasive species somewhere in it. Everybody likes to ask us, “What do you mean restoration? So like, what are you restoring back to?” You do ghoulish overkill and you go, Okay, well, are we talking 100 years? Are we talking 1000 years? Should I be worried about putting, you know, cheetahs and horses back on the landscape and, or dinosaurs? And the reality of what restoration actually means is buying time, not going back, but finding a balance. 

It's easy to write off. And a lot of agencies and a lot of places have more or less written off the Palouse prairie and said, “Well, it's gone.” I would amend that by saying, it's not the same, but nothing ever really is. And that's kind of the nature of just evolution and ecosystems. Generally, this prairie is here, because, you know, the seafloor that it used to be got thrown up into the sky when the mountains came up. So yeah, the world is in constant change. And it doesn't need to be exactly the same to be of incredible value. I would say the biggest starting point if your reaction when somebody says Palouse prairie is to say, what's that? That's very common. But that's the starting point. And the joke that we always have is people go to Steptoe Butte, drive to the top of the Butte, and completely miss the view. And they're looking out over the sea of what's biologically a desert, which, you know, we need croplands, but it's there's not much there. And what they're missing right at their feet is this riot of biodiversity and a really unique natural heritage that people don't even see. So I'd say plant native plants, see native plants. And if you don't want to do it yourself, get a hold of the Phoenix Conservancy, and we'll see what we can do.



Larry Clark 17:07

Thanks for listening. You can read more about Palouse prairie in the fall 2023 issue of Washington State Magazine. 

What do you think of the podcast? Any ideas for episodes? Let us know at

The music was by composer, saxophonist and emeritus WSU Professor Greg Yasinitsky.