HELENA — When Pete Lesica and Dave Hanna get their boots on the ground, they like to keep their eyes there, too.
“I do botany as a hobby and as a living. I’m kind of a nerd and am a little obsessive,” Lesica said with a laugh. “I look at the ground all of the time.
“I’ve probably missed seeing grizzlies; I guess I have had a couple of close encounters. I suppose they see me and think I’m some kind of a nut, so they just go away. But I also don’t step on rattlesnakes.”
Their intense focus on flora paid off in 2009 when the duo found what they thought might be a new species of Indian paintbrush deep in the heart of the Scapegoat Wilderness Area.
“Pete collected some and it didn’t really match up with the keys and ideas in our heads of what that species is, so he pursued it more,” said Hanna, who lives in Choteau. “It’s always fun just to be up there, but it was pretty cool finding something that we thought might be new.”
Lesica, a Missoula resident, added that the shape of the flower didn’t fit any species that was described as being known to exist in Montana. It appeared to be of a different species of Castilleja — the scientific term for paintbrush — that is known to grow in the Treasure State.
“I spend a lot of time above timberline and … this wasn’t something I felt I had seen before,” Lesica said. “I didn’t get too excited but had some questions about it.”
Lesica contacted J. Mark Egger, a science teacher in Seattle and taxonomic expert on Castilleja and sent him samples and photographs. It took a few years for Egger to come to Montana to make the 22-mile trek into the area of the Scapegoat where Hanna and Lesica found what’s now known as Castilleja kerryana, but last month he published information in the online botanical journal Phytoneuron.net about the new species.
Egger named the new species Castilleja kerryana, in honor of his daughter and sister, both named Kerry. In his paper, he noted that his late beloved sister is now a beautiful flower on the planet and he hopes his daughter will continue to live in a world filled with diverse natural forms.
While it’s not uncommon to find new plant species in areas with little traffic, he was still thrilled with the discovery.
“... There’s still a lot of nooks and crannies where people haven’t been or the right people haven’t been there to know they’re seeing something different,” Egger said. “This probably had been collected before but no one had seen specimens of this species to properly identify.”
Paintbrushes are well-known wildflowers that often grace mountainsides and meadows, brightening them with splashes of scarlet, purple, yellow or orange. Egger said this new species is different size and color — it’s more crimson — than others.
Egger said that during their 2011 pack trip into the wilderness, the team of botanists documented five separate populations and several subpopulations of the new species growing in a high-alpine meadow known as the Scapegoat Plateau. The new species grows mainly on gravelly limestone with thin soil in the drainages of Straight Creek and the South Fork of the Sun River, which are both tributaries of the main stem of the Sun.
The species is quite common when its habitat requirements are met, Egger said, but added that global and regional climate change may adversely affect it.
“For the present, C. kerryana should be considered as a range-restricted endemic and managed as a sensitive or threatened species ...” Egger wrote. “Further study of the new species, particularly its genetics, range and population trends, is recommended.”
Hanna and Lesica probably will leave that research up to someone else. They’re already looking forward to the next trip into mountains and what they might find.
“You’re always trying to look a little deeper when you’re out there because there’s always something you don’t know about,” Hanna said. “It’s always good to go to some place that you don’t get to take a close look at and see not just what you can learn for yourself but also for someone else.”
Neil Snow is a botanist residing in Helena.