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A cliff-hanger of a survival story: Jesup’s milk-vetch
Ice, floods, drought, and invasions–and this rare plant hangs on!
by Alison L. Whitlock
Photo credit: Alison Whitlock / USFWS
The Jesup’s milk-vetch (Astragalus robbinsii var. jesupii) can be found at only 3 sites in the world.
The endangered plant clings by its small roots to silt-filled crevices in the steep rock outcrops along the high water mark of the Connecticut River, bounded by New Hampshire and Vermont. The milk-vetch is part of the legume family. Small leaflets shoot off its leaves, giving the milk-vetch a slight resemblance to a fern. Bunches of tiny violet flowers bloom from these leaves in early May, followed by nearly inch-long pea-like sea pods in June.
By 1987, when the Jesup’s milk-vetch was listed under the Endangered Species Act, there were less than 1,100 plants at only 2 sites. The species’ survival has been sustained because of a strong partnership between the two states, supported in part by federal funding provided to states under Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act. State agency staff works with partners to evaluate threats and implement recovery actions.
“Jesup’s milk-vetch is certainly a survivor,” says botanist Bob Popp with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife Natural Heritage Inventory. “The plants have to withstand summer heat and drought, winter ice scour and spring flooding.”
Bob works on the milk-vetch with intrepid botanists from New Hampshire, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New England Wildflower Society and private groups. Each year, the team visits the sites on both sides of the river to count surviving plants and plant the seedlings carefully germinated from wild seeds and grown over the winter by the New England Wildflower Society.
Photo credit: Alison Whitlock / USFWS
They note the extent of invasive species and use the data along with hydrologic and climatologic data from the year to evaluate the impacts to milk-vetch populations and plan their strategy for upcoming years.
Recent years have yielded discouraging results. At times, no more than two transplanted seedlings have survived. Despite this, the team optimistically bet that most of 43 transplants from 2012 survived the winter at one of the experimental transplant sites.
They set out earlier this year to the site, hiking with flats of the precious new seedlings down steep forested slopes to the river’s edge. The search began and cheers rose, as they not only found five wild plants, but 22 transplants growing lushly with many even in bloom!
The team eagerly looked back at their records to evaluate methods and climatological data to learn what factors had brought such high success.
“Until this year, we have been unable to get any significant survival of transplants to augment the natural population,” Popp explained. “But with this year’s success, we hopefully have developed a protocol to augment the two declining populations and to ultimately introduce one or more new populations.”
Due to the efforts of this team, the annual counts of Jesup’s milk-vetch by 2011 ranged up to 2,056 plants. With the success seen so far in 2013, we can look forward to more.
Alison Whitlock is with the Service’s Northeast Region and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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