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Robbins' Cinquefoil: Setting the Precedent for Plant Recovery
by Jennifer Linforth
Photo Credit: USFWS
It is able to withstand some of the harshest weather conditions in New England, yet despite this, the Robbins' cinquefoil flower (Potentilla robbinsiana) needed the protection of the Endangered Species Act to survive. As a result of over collecting, habitat destruction and trampling, this small alpine species from the rose family that grows on the slopes of the White Mountains in New Hampshire was nearly lost forever.
For us, the story begins in 1824, when the yellow-flowered Robbins' cinquefoil was discovered along the Crawford Path ascending Mount Washington. The footpath – now recognized as the oldest continually used mountain trail in the U.S. – was completed just five years earlier. Over the next 150 years, hiking and backpacking boomed, and foot traffic and horses trampled the cinquefoil, creating a deep and rutted path through its habitat. Additionally, plant collectors rigorously plucked the quarter-sized plant from the mountainside.
By 1973, this once-thriving species had dwindled to a mere 1,800 in number and was considered one of New England's rarest plants. With 95 percent of this diminutive plant's known habitat occurring on just one acre of the mountain, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) listed the species as endangered and designated critical habitat on Mount Monroe in 1980. Shortly after, the Appalachian Mountain Club and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) teamed up with the Service to relocate the Crawford Path. The New England Wild Flower Society later joined the partnership, as the agencies and two non-profit organizations began long-term biological and population studies to guide recovery efforts focused on reestablishing healthy populations of Robbins' cinquefoil.
In order to meet the recovery goal of maintaining additional self-sustaining populations, the New England Wild Flower Society collected seeds, developed methods to rear seeds and accelerate their development, and advised on transplanting methods for ensuring that nursery-raised cinquefoil could be successfully transplanted back into the wild. Biologists from partnering agencies hiked plants and water up the mountains for years until they successfully augmented the existing cinquefoil population and established two separate populations. To minimize disturbance, the Appalachian Mountain Club and USFS launched a public education campaign and created a viewing garden, allowing Mount Washington hikers to see the rare plant without harming the natural population and its habitat.
These efforts helped improve the species' status so well, that the Service removed it from the endangered species list in 2002. It stands as the first plant to be fully recovered under the Endangered Species Act's protection.
"The successful recovery of the Robbins' cinquefoil could not have happened without the long-term collaboration between the federal agencies, the Appalachian Mountain Club and New England Wildflower Society," said Susi von Oettingen, a biologist in the Service's New England Field Office. "This partnership continues today as we work on conserving other listed and declining species both on the White Mountain National Forest and elsewhere."
This collaboration between these organizations was the backbone to the project's success. Since 1973, the Robbins' cinquefoil rebounded dramatically from those mere 1,800 plants to 4,831 flowering plants and three distinct self-sustaining populations in 2006. The USFS, with the assistance of the Appalachian Mountain Club, annually surveys some of the populations and periodically introduces transplants provided by New England Wild Flower Society to ensure the species never again depends on ESA protection for survival.
Jennifer Linforth is an information specialist in the Service's headquarter's office in Arlington, Virginia.
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