OGDEN, Utah – The autumn buttercup is a perennial, bright yellow wildflower that can grow up to two feet tall, but only in one place in the world: the Sevier Valley in Sanpete County. In order to save this native flower from extinction, Weber State University faculty and students joined a collaborative effort to plant 350 seedlings at The Nature Conservancy’s autumn buttercup rare plant preserve near Panguitch, Utah.
“Any loss of biodiversity is a bad thing,” said WSU zoology assistant professor Michele Skopec, who worked on the project. “Being able to maintain an endangered plant means you’re also maintaining a healthy ecosystem in the Sevier River Valley.”
In 1991 The Nature Conservancy, with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acquired and fenced much of the species’ remaining habitat. For years, experts were convinced that trampling from livestock damaged the plants, so the conservancy always kept the preserve carefully fenced. However, the preserve protects only a small population, and subsequent habitat surveys, population monitoring and genetic studies had botanists worried they were losing the battle.
They needed a new strategy.
“Another private property, north of the preserve, maintained grazing, and yet still had the autumn buttercups on their property,” Skopec said. “Our hypothesis is that the plant might need disturbance in order to grow.”
Skopec said when the cows were kept out, the area experienced an overgrowth of plants, which allowed small herbivores that need a lot of cover, such as voles, to move in and eat the plants.
“The great thing about this project is showing that grazing or managed grazing actually may be part of maintaining a healthy ecosystem,” she said.
Two years ago, project partners collected seeds from the Utah preserve to use as starting material. They then propagated individual plants from 35 genetic lines to produce more than 350 rooted shoots in the lab at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. The plants were then transferred to the Arboretum at Flagstaff, Ariz., for growing and monitoring. There the buttercup plants were acclimated to soil in pots.
Scientists from each of these organizations, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Partners for Fish and Wildlife, all helped plant the seedlings back into their home soil June 8, bringing a new population of this endangered species to life in the wild.
“We have this great design where half the preserve has been grazed by cattle and half has not been grazed,” Skopec said. Half the seedlings were planted on each side, which will allow the scientists to monitor the plants and compare how well they flourish under different circumstances.
Two of Skopec’s zoology students, James Abbott and Mikenzie Lynn, helped create caging to go around the plants to protect them from small herbivores. They will return to see if grazing by the cows affects the amount of grazing by small herbivores.
WSU botany student Tyson Sandoval was in charge of taking all the data about the plants and helping coordinate the actual planting day. He will return to study the survival of the plants and see how well they grow and whether the soil is sufficient.
“We dug all the holes and got all the plants organized,” Skopec said. “We tagged each plant with a number, so we know where each one is, and later we’ll be able to see how each of those plants survive.”
Skopec said in addition to helping save an endangered species, it was rewarding to see her students get hands-on experience.
“Because it’s such a collaborative project, it shows them how much effort and collaboration you need in order to implement a project like this,” she said. “They really got to see how much work goes into science.”