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Robbin's Cinquefoil & Friends

by Mary Jasch

The word is out. Results are in. The Endangered Species Act is a success! But now it, too, has become endangered. Below is a handful of federally listed endangered native plants of the Northeast Coast and their current stories and status.

Sandplain Gerardia, Agalinis acuta (listed 1988)
Status: population increasing from 4,441 to 196,466

This funky wild flower grows between clumps of Little Blue Stem and other native grasses and herbs in unusual sites -- graveyards preferably. This hemiparasite merges its roots with those of a host, usually Little Blue Stem, sharing nutrients, a good strategy when growing in poor soil. It likes open habitat with good light.

It's no surprise that when scientists from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, NEWFS, and National Fish and Wildlife Service introduced sandplain gerardia to new sites on state land, they first burned, mowed, or scarified the soil. “It likes some disturbance," explains Bill Brumback, New England Wild Flower Society's director of conservation.

This delicate annual flowers profusely, producing copious amounts of seed.

Fire is a natural component of the sandplain ecosystem, keeping woody plants out. Burning when plants are dormant in early spring also removes litter, a problem for young plants becoming established. The rest is a question of nutrient balance -- whether, when, and how much to feed the host, which may out-compete its guest. “Fire is a great establishment tool but the verdict is out as a regular maintenance tool,"¯ says Paul Somers, a Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife biologist.

Small Whorled Pogonia, Isotria medeoloides (listed 1982)
Status: downlisted to threatened in 1994

Bill Brumback has been looking for this terrestrial orchid in the mixed hardwood-coniferous forests of New Hampshire's lake region.

The rare native orchid has succumbed to habitat destruction and collectors' trowels. Once dug and taken, they don't survive and are lost forever. Particular habitat is critical for survival, as is nearby habitat with the downstream movement of water bringing nutrients to the plants.

“To my knowledge, no one's ever been able to grow this species," says Brumback. “We manage its habitat. We open the canopy to let more light in. We've seen them in the thousands. We're hopeful."

Jesup's Milk-vetch, Astragalus robbinsii v jesupii (listed 1987)
Status: stable

The only known place in the world that Jesup's Milk-vetch grows is on three sites along a 15-mile stretch of the Connecticut River. It likes rock ledges close to the river, scraped and scoured clean of competing vegetation by ice and water, which also deposits silt.

Brumback and crew collected and germinated seed and grew them into year-old plants. In spring, 2004, they transplanted them above existing and likely habitat so their seed would rain down onto the scoured ledges below. The hopeful plan: the seeds would germinate, grow and survive, becoming the first generation of reintroduced wild Jesup's milk-vetch. But transplants and seeds sown at one location were washed away by the river's wild waters. Others made it through winter, flowered in spring, and set seed last year. It is not known whether seed has taken root.

“The emphasis on this is to augment existing populations. This plant naturally has great fluctuation of flower numbers and plant numbers every year,"¯ Brumback says.

Robbin's Cinquefoil, Potentilla robbinsiana (listed 1980)
Status: critical habitat designated 1980; delisted due to full recovery 2002

The U.S. Forest Service, Appalachian Mountain Club, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New England Wild Flower Society worked together to re-establish Robbin's cinquefoil in the alpine zone of White Mountain National Forest.

A reroute of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in White Mountain National Forest began in 1980 when Robbin's cinquefoil's population began plummeting dramatically. The plant only lives in the White Mountains with 99 percent of its population on the trail along a series of Appalachian Mountain Club huts, each a day's hike apart. Lakes of the Clouds, the largest hut, is just above tree line near the larger of the two populations.

“Trampling has been a big issue,"¯ says Doug Weihrauch, Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) alpine ecologist. “The AT is one of our most heavily hiked trails. We took a 100 meter stretch and moved it 20 meters over. It used to go directly over an outcrop and we moved it closer to the summit of Mount Monroe."

The plant grows on a round knoll on a low point between Mount Washington and Mount Monroe where blowing winds keep the area relatively snow-free. With its freeze-thaw cycles, soil moisture freezes at night and expands, melting and shrinking by day. Soil movement in winter tends to push bigger things out of the soil. Most plants in the alpine zone can't live there.

“The reason the plant is so rare is it has very special habitat requirements," says Weihrauch. “It needs a certain amount of freeze-thaw because it is a very poor competitor. It has no cover in winter. This area has more freeze-thaw than anywhere else and is critical to the plant, which comes into a disturbed area and grows really quickly. If freeze thaw stopped, others would come in and compete. They're very well adapted for these environmental conditions, but not against other plants."

Its habitat on the AT looks barren like a pile of rocks, but a close look reveals little rosettes. Five other species live on the ridges, including diapensia, but quarter-sized Robbin's cinquefoil dominates. Botanists transplanted another 500 elsewhere.

The AMC transplanted in over 20 locations where the plant had been trampled out. Only two took -- one with over 300 plants in a short time; the other seems to be self-sustaining with 150 individuals.

“We had a responsibility to act as stewards because if we weren't being very good stewards we would contribute indirectly. We could pretend it wasn't our problem and let the population suffer or take responsibility as well as enjoying the outdoors. Drawing people to these places has an impact. We ask people to be cautious and appreciate what's around them and to appreciate this plant and not adversely impact it."

Winds of 240 mph whisk across this Critical Habitat. They blow snow crystals that blast the paint off the signs that the AMC erected 25 years ago that let people know a rare plant grows there. Sometimes in August it snows. Six-inch high scree walls surround the quarter-acre plot of 15,000 Robbin's cinquefoil plants, high enough to keep most people out.

“Above the tree line there's nothing growing above a few inches, so if you're not paying attention it's easy to step off the trail. The idea is to define the trail so people don't step off it,"¯ says Weihrauch. Results of an AMC trespass study show that during the first year 10 percent of hikers stepped off the trail into the Critical Habitat, with only 2 percent in subsequent years. “People want to do the right thing. People want to keep low impact."

Last year the AMC set up a “viewing garden" with a handful of plants right next to the trail so hikers can see the plants without stepping into Critical Habitat. The Lakes of the Clouds naturalist takes people out and talks about the plant. Five years after delisting in 2007, post-delisting monitoring is required. “We want to make sure that removal from ESA doesn't remove protections," Weihrauch says.

“This is a plant that's never been common and never will be even under the best of conditions. In turning around that main population and setting up a couple transplant populations, that's historically where the plant was at. That's success for a plant of habitat requirements that specific. That's a success."

Other Federally Endangered Plant Species in the Northeast
Seabeach Amaranth: listed 1993; population increasing
Sensitive Joint-vetch: listed 1992; unknown
Northern Wild Monkshood: listed 1978; stable
American Hart Tongue Fern: listed 1989; population declining
Leedy's Roseroot: listed 1992; stable
Furbish Lousewort: listed 1978; stable
Northeastern Bulrush: listed 1991; stable
American Chaffseed: listed 1992; unknown
Eastern Prairie White-fringed Orchid: 1989; unknown
Knieskern's Beaked-rush: 1991; unknown
Swamp Pink: 1988; unknown

NEWFS Research Reports: www.newfs.org/researchreport.htm
Federal List: www.fws.gov/Endangered/wildlife.html#Species
Appalachian Mountain Club: www.outdoors.org/
MA Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program: www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/nhesp/nhspecies.htm

** Photos on Homepage and main photo on this page are courtesy of Doug Weihrauch.

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