Wild Cards

A Guide to Rainier's Rare Flora and Fauna

Bears, marmots, big leafy ferns? That’s everyday stuff at Mount Rainier National Park. Hold out for a sight of these lesser-seen species.

By Allison Williams July 23, 2019 Published in the August 2019 issue of Seattle Met


Pekania pennanti

Just how soft is the fur of this weasel-like mammal about the size of a house cat? Back in the Great Depression, a trapper could feed his family for a year for the price of just one or two pelts. That led to overhunting—they were the only land-based furbearer in the region—but efforts are underway to boost the population. In 2016 the park released 16 fishers near Longmire, and in October four more were set free at Ohanapecosh. Fun fact: The skilled hunters are the only animals able to catch porcupines unscathed.

Ice Worm

Mesenchytraeus solifugus

Sounds like something out of a sci-fi flick, but wiggly glacier dwellers are a fascinating and finicky species. They look kind of like earthworms, ones that require a narrow, cold temperature range and hate the sun. Though billions can live on a single ice sheet, their home habitats are melting. “It’s a safe assumption that as glaciers retreat, so does the ice worm range and distribution,” says MRNP ecologist Tara Chestnut.

Cascade Red Fox

Vulpes vulpes cascadensis

Hang out around Paradise and you won’t think the red fox is rare; it’s common to see one begging for food around the parking lot. But it’s no infestation, just an individual (Chestnut calls her Whitefoot) and one of the very last of her kind. The species only appears in the South Cascades and there are fewer than a handful of reproducing females left, though that’s no reason to feed them. “She has a very convincing beg,” says Chestnut of the scourge of Paradise. “She’s sooooo hungry.” But keeping Whitefoot away from human food (and human cars) may be her only hope.


Biatora alnetorum

There are around 1,000 different species of plants found in MRNP, but that doesn’t stop scientists from looking for new ones. In 2019 a pair of European scientists published a paper on a lichen that’s never been seen before. Of course, these organisms aren’t exactly plants; they’re algae or bacteria living in partnership with a fungus, cobbled together into a new whole like a tiny, leaf-shaped Frankenstein.


Gulo gulo

Move over, Hugh Jackman. Much closer to a husky weasel than a wolf, the ferocious snow lovers were basically wiped out in the South Cascades for a century. A group called the Cascades Carnivore Project monitors the animal’s return; a breeding female was spotted just outside the park border in 2018—even more exciting given only about three dozen wolverines live in the entire state. Since they wander far from their dens, the South Cascade mama wolverine is almost definitely making visits inside Mount Rainier National Park.

Whitebark Pine

Pinus albicaulis

For a while, the Rainier area boasted a pretty strong population of these majestic trees, decimated elsewhere across the west, thanks to pine beetles and climate change. But now our local stands are infested with a fungus from Asia called blister rust, with only about 18 percent in the park left unaffected in 2015. Remaining trees cluster around the Sunrise area, where squirrels and birds splinter open the unique pine cones.

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