PAT NEAL: Our disappearing ferns

IT ALL STARTED with an attempt to share in nature’s bounty and celebrate the harvest of wild foods. It was a bad idea that just kept getting worse. The life of a modern-day hunter-gatherer is difficult at best.

In past years I hunted the vast wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula. Forget that. You can’t argue with with geologic facts. This great land mass is being constantly uplifted by the tremendous tectonic force of the Juan de Fuca Plate sliding under the North American continent resulting in our hills and mountains becoming steeper and steeper every year. That is why for the past few years I have hunted the flatlands.

Unfortunately, here in Washington we try to manage our wildlife in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings while selling as many hunting licenses as possible. Experienced hunters know that to be successful they might have to alter their game plans if they hope to get a deer or elk in today’s incredibly competitive deer and elk hunting seasons that can start in September and can run until January. Meanwhile we have protected an exploding population of predators, the bears and cougars that hunt the deer and elk year-round.

The poor ungulates are so stressed they barely have time to breed. This can result in a crop of elk calves and deer fawns that are born so late in the spring they have a hard time surviving the winter. In addition to excess predation our wildlife are suffering from a declining food source, sword ferns.

A March 28, 2019, Seattle Times article described the plight of our sword ferns. They’re dying off across areas of Western Washington. These once abundant ferns can spread five or six feet across and grow 4 feet high. They have been on earth for 400 million years providing food and habitat for animals. Ethnobotanists tell us every part of the sword fern was used by the Native Americans. Now the sword fern is disappearing on Puget Sound from Seattle to the Kitsap Peninsula then west along the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Port Angeles.

Similar die-offs of native plants have occurred across North America. A bug from Asia wiped out the hemlock trees in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. A fungus destroyed our chestnut trees. Now our sword ferns are dying for no apparent reason.

That’s progress for you. We’re losing our salmon, orcas, shellfish, birds and countless other creatures down the rathole of extinction, so why is it a surprise if our native plants are dying?

While scientists study the problem the rest of us wonder what this will do to the hunting. Plenty, that’s what. Environmental problems can be the hardest to solve because there’s often so much money being made perpetuating them.

Our own local mystery of the dying ferns is easily solved when viewing the massive use of herbicides on logging roads and their associated clear-cuts. We are spraying them with herbicides. Logged-off areas generally attract deer and elk that feed on the lush new growth. Until the clear-cuts are sprayed with herbicides. This is a scorched earth method of forestry where the land is sprayed to kill anything that might compete with tree seedlings, leaving nothing but bare dirt for animals to feed on.

This is part of a long history of spraying herbicides on the Peninsula. At first, they sprayed 2-4-d, then glyphosate. We were told these chemicals were harmless. Now they have all new chemicals. I don’t know what they are but it’s killing the sword ferns and everything else our game animals feed on.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal

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