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Rare Tennessee Plant Rebounds
by Gary Peeples
Photo Credit: Gary Peeples
A bead of sweat dripped down the temple of Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) biologist Geoff Call as he stood on the edge of the cedar barren—a shadeless area with ground as much rock as thin soil. Well past blooming on this late summer day, the dead seed heads of the Tennessee purple coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis) were easily distinguishable on the ends of long stalks scattered across the barren. Though the stalks rose from ground-level clusters of green leaves, the seed heads were black, as if scorched by the sun.
On this visit, Call was not doing field work, but sharing an accomplishment. He watched as Ed Clebsch, a renowned botanist in Tennessee, explained to a group of onlookers how botanists count and track coneflower individuals and colonies. After 32 years on the federal endangered species list, the group was out to celebrate the plant’s 2011 removal from the list – after decades of effort from generations of biologists, the plant no longer needed federal protection.
The Tennessee purple coneflower is known only from Tennessee’s Davidson, Rutherford, and Wilson counties. Its distribution is limited to a handful of areas: cedar glades and cedar barrens--habitats known for their shallow soils and limestone bedrock. Harsh by human standards, cedar glades and barrens are exceptionally rare habitats, and with that, serve as home to a cast of rare plants and animals. These areas have been the scene of intensive conservation efforts over the past 30 years.
Earlier, as the crowd cleared from an indoor ceremony at a Tennessee state park, Call shook the hand of Elsie Quarterman, a guest of honor due to her rediscovery of the species 40 years ago. The decades between the plant’s rediscovery and its removal from the federal endangered species list saw the addition of the plant to the endangered species list in 1979, followed by a multi-faceted, multi-partner approach to bring the plant back from the edge of extinction.
Photo Credit: Gary Peeples
Since 1979, 20 of the current 35 colonies of the plant were established through introduction of seed or nursery propagated plants. Paralleling the effort to produce more plants was an effort to protect the places where it lived. Among the leaders responsible for the Tennessee coneflower’s recovery is the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. The state agency bought or secured sites and established Designated State Natural Areas to protect the species. It also built fences to protect coneflower colonies from outdoor recreational vehicle damage, removed competing vegetation, and used prescribed burns at many sites to improve habitat conditions.
“One thing that’s so impressive about this project, is so many people rolled up their sleeves to help this species,” says David Lincicome, manager of TDEC’s natural heritage section. “This species wasn’t just recovered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and it wasn’t just recovered by TDEC. It was recovered because there was a community of people who cared and wanted to see this happen.”
In addition to the State of Tennessee, numerous other partners joined the effort to recover the plant. A new population was established at Stones River National Battlefield. The Corps of Engineers has protected colonies on their land. Even Nashville Superspeedway joined the effort by placing a conservation easement on a colony growing on their land.
Gary Peeples, a public affairs specialist in the Services North Carolina Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-258-3939.
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