Missoula phlox is rare to the world, and now there's less of it.
Vandals chopped up the rare plant while using hand tools to carve a peace sign into the sensitive hillside overlooking downtown Missoula sometime last week, and now the city wants to find those responsible.
The rest of the city’s residents – along with summer tourists – will be looking at the damage until next year, or until reseeding efforts germinate on the arid North Hills slope that's home to the phlox.
“We’re into peace and free expression, but when you’re doing it in such a way that damages natural resources and habitat, it’s a shame,” said Morgan Valliant, conservation lands manager with the Department of Parks and Recreation.
“The North Hills are our highest-use conservation lands and we spend significant time fixing the plant community and trails,” he added. “It’ll take time to bounce back from that kind of damage.”
After visiting the site, Valliant said the vandals used paint to outline the symbol before working the lines with hand tools. The site bears evidence of heavy raking, digging and picks.
The crooked symbol was intentionally aligned with North Higgins Avenue and covers nearly one acre of ground. Valliant suspects it's the work of several individuals.
“These conservation lands out around town – the main reason for having them is to provide habitat,” Valliant said. “We spend a significant amount of time and dollars on habit enhancement and restoration. Now we’re spending our dollars on areas damaged in the name of peace.”
The parks department has spent several hundred dollars in staff time working to reclaim the damaged site thus far. It also spent more than $100 in seed, though Valliant admits spring is not a good time to seed.
Most of the seed used on the site requires fall germination, he said.
“It requires cold stratification and it likes to sit,” Valliant said. “We’ll probably have to seed it a couple more times. It’s not an ideal time to seed.”
Valliant also noted the area’s rare plant community. The city opted to purchase the North Hills as open space, in part to protect the area’s community of cushion plants.
That includes Missoula phlox, a state plant species of special concern. The rare plant creates a carpet of white blossoms that turn blue as they age.
“The top end of that peace sign went right through Missoula phlox,” Valliant said. “Chopping up a plant species found in only one place in the world, it hurts. It’s a variety of phlox that’s rare and found just around the Missoula Valley.”
Valliant is also concerned that noxious weeds could take root before the native seed has a chance to germinate.
The vandals could face charges if their identity becomes known to the Missoula Police Department.
“This would be considered vandalism, and it’s also illegal to remove vegetation from city parkland,” Valliant said. “They could face charges and have to pay restitution.”