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The Western Front
Like their counterparts in Illinois and elsewhere, Minnesota volunteers chip in to help save a threatened orchid.

The western prairie-fringed orchid

Minnesota DNR/Welby R. Smith

The western prairie-fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara) is a “very charismatic plant,” says Nancy Sather. Perhaps it’s this charm that draws volunteers in northwestern Minnesota to the field each July, risking tick bites and heat stroke to help tally orchid numbers.

Like its eastern counterpart (see “The Orchid Keepers”), the western orchid is listed as a federally threatened species. Fragmented and disappearing prairie, grasslands, and pastures are part of the problem. But there are other known or suspected threats. For one, the orchids are sensitive to environmental effects such as drought. The orchids also rely on hawkmoths for pollination, and though there is limited data on hawkmoths’ status, some experts worry that their numbers have been affected by pesticide use.

The current recovery plan for the western orchid, developed in 1996, focuses on enhancing and restoring the flower’s habitat. The orchid’s range is divided into ecological regions, with the goal of protecting at least 90 percent of the plants in each region, explains Phil Delphey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The thrust of the recovery effort is to protect sites that are currently unprotected,” Delphey says. This includes securing more public land and purchasing conservation easements on private land that include specific land use terms.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also works with state agencies that are developing conservation proposals and researching the plant and its interacting species. Consistently evaluating plant populations each year is an important aspect of this research, which is where the volunteers come in.

For more than a decade, Sather, a plant ecologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, has recruited citizen scientists to do counts near the towns of Crookston and Thief River Falls. The approach is straightforward. “We get groups of people, and we go count flowering plants,” Sather says.

Sather and a handful of volunteers cover a grid, “marking, just like Hansel and Gretel, where we have already looked.” Their counts are combined with data collected by the Minnesota chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Across its range—from eastern Iowa to central Nebraska and stretching from Missouri and Kansas in the south up to Manitoba—western orchid populations vary drastically by site. (Interestingly, this orchid has never been recorded in South Dakota.) One location may have just one or two plants and another hundreds or thousands.  Overall population trends are also difficult to evaluate, partly because plants seem to disappear and reappear at will. “It does feel like they’re moving,” Sather says. 

Delphey is reevaluating the recovery plan to see whether it offers the best approaches for preserving the western orchid. He predicts that newer schemes may do more to address the viability of orchid populations in each area, rather than just trying to protect a certain proportion of the plants. Even so, he speculates that the plant may have to be managed in perpetuity. 

Still, Sather and others hope research efforts will uncover the best approaches for protecting this captivating and perplexing prairie beauty.—Andrea Anderson

For more information on volunteer efforts to help the western prairie-fringed orchid, go to http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteering/index.html.

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