Wildlife biologist Clint Wirick, of our Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program in Utah, tells us how a community and conservationists are proving cattle to be a useful tool for recovering an endangered plant.
In Utah’s rural Garfield County, a 44-acre preserve lies amongst wet meadows, pastures and livestock along the Sevier River. The preserve was purchased nearly 27 years ago by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as a safe haven for one of the last known populations of an endangered wildflower, autumn buttercup.
In 1989 we listed the plant as endangered because data told us it was on the brink of extinction. The plant is endemic to the area, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world.
Not a whole lot is known about the plant’s life history, and when the preserve was purchased, grazing was discontinued. Over the next 27 years, the preserve drastically changed, and with that change autumn buttercup became nearly non-existent on the preserve, even with reintroduction efforts in 2007 and 2010.
|The grazing gets rid of a dense understory of old plant litter. To the right of the fence, the grazed side, it's green; the ungrazed side is brown. Photo by USFWS|
What happened during that time period was the preserve’s vegetation had become thick with a dense understory of old plant litter.
In 2011 a team, consisting of our Partners for Fish & Wildlife and Ecological Services programs, TNC, Utah Association of Conservation Districts, Utah State University Extension, local landowners, Weber State University and the Natural Resource Conservation Service visited private property where a landowner reported a large population of the endangered buttercup. The field visit was eye-opening.
|Grazing has created open wetland habitat. Photo by USFWS|
The plant was thriving in concert with grazing. The endangered buttercup appeared to prefer growing on the small hummocks, or mounds, created by cattle’s hooves. The team also concluded that grazing may be limiting competition with other plants for resources. It was kind of an “ah-ha” moment.
So the team formulated a grazing plan for the preserve and recruited a local livestock producer. With that, grazing began with a goal to restore autumn buttercup to the preserve. The plan had an experimental design – grazing half the preserve while leaving the other half ungrazed.
A lot of locals have taken notice of the cows on the preserve after decades of no grazing. The Excells, who run a cow-calf operation in Panguitch, Utah, have gotten a lot of questions since they began grazing the preserve and have been happy to provide answers.
|Team members and local volunteers planted about 300 plants. Photo by USFWS|
After initiating the grazing, team members and local volunteers planted about 300 plants grown out from collected seed in 2013. Michele Skopec from Weber State and her students have been monitoring the plants, and data have shown that the plants on the grazed side are surviving much better than those on the ungrazed side of the preserve. Also plant diversity and production have greatly increased on the grazed portion.
The project is much bigger than just one rare plant, it’s about biodiversity, ecosystem health and community-based conservation.
The results of the project are driving development of a long-term grazing plan, a stark contrast from management on the preserve for the last 27 years. The project has been an out-of-the-box approach to endangered plant management and recovery, and it is a great conversation piece when approaching landowners for other habitat work. Results from the data collected have been presented at local, state and national levels, and a publication is in the works.
Now the future looks a little brighter for this discrete yellow flower. More reintroduction plantings are scheduled and our biologists are working with partners to do a larger scale survey on the privately owned wet valley bottom that the buttercup prefers. We hope to find populations that have been unknown because of limited access in the past. This project might be just the tool needed to start the conversation and open access with private landowners.