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Rhode Island Landowners Needed to Conserve Sandplain Gerardia
by Ann Haas
Photo Credit: University of Maryland
"My vision is to see a field in bloom—make the whole place pink," says Chris Raithel of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, referring to restoring populations of the endangered sandplain gerardia (Agilinis acuta), particularly on private properties in the state.
In 2002, Raithel approached Audubon Society of Rhode Island hoping for support to create a new population of the flowering plant, which gained federal protection as an endangered species in 1988.
This member of the figwort family stands at eight inches, with its brilliant pink flowers lasting for just one day between late August and September. Found historically on sandy grasslands near the coast in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and Maryland, sandplain gerardia declined as its habitat was developed and grazing and fire management were discontinued, allowing trees and dense shrubs to crowd it out. The plant has since survived in isolated locations, including a handful of historic cemeteries where mowing has prevented encroachment of trees and shrubs.
"From a local biodiversity standpoint, we need to do what western states are doing for the prairie—that is, rebuild the habitat," says Raithel. "With a lot of declining plants, we need a kind of Jurassic Park for plants—a wild zoo."
Using seeds from a historic town cemetery and the New England Wild Flower Society, Raithel and Audubon's Larry Taft set up nine plots on a half-acre of Audubon Society land. These plots of exposed mineral soil were already home to little bluestem and other native grasses, which sandplain gerardia requires to thrive.
"We set up a grid: north-south and east-west orientation. We still have the plots marked off," says Taft. "The population has increased and has even been pretty stable."
Rhode Island has experienced more development during the past 30 years than in the previous 300. According to the comprehensive conservation plan for Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, urban sprawl – including roads, businesses, and residences – is consuming rural areas. In fact, the Refuge's 160-acre pond is Rhode Island's only coastal pond not flanked by development. "There are housing developments practically up to the water," says the Refuge's Nick Ernst.
In 2007, with seeds from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Refuge created a nine-meter square plot of the species, bringing the number of sites where it is found in the state to three. Management involves mowing twice a year and restoring sandplain grasslands through prescribed burning and mechanical disturbance along with collecting and re-sowing seeds and removing weeds such as black swallowwort and autumn olive. On the Refuge, volunteers remove the invasive plants by hand.
Because sandplain gerardia is an annual species, its populations have experienced significant fluctuations. Historically, the plant was found on 60,000 acres of native grasslands. By 2003, only 200 such acres existed, including properties along roadsides and railroad tracks, on golf courses, and in openings in spruce-pine woodlands. Although the species had been known to have 51 populations, there were just 12 by the time the species was listed as endangered. As of 2005, they had increased to 22. Estimates of the total number of plants vary from 10,000 in 2002 to 196,000 in 2005.
Taft is enthusiastic about the Audubon Society's role in recovering the endangered species, noting that the property had been deeded to the organization as a preserve. "We get to control the conditions and ensure that the plants will be left alone," he says.
Of his initiative to engage landowners willing to help the sandplain gerardia, Raithel adds, "We are seeking not only properties in permanent conservation status and already managed for meadow habits, but stewardship—a perpetual commitment and the tools to do the work. Whether it's fire, mowing, or grazing, we'd like to see fields managed as they have in the past and let the plants find their own way."
Ann Haas, a program specialist of the Ecological Services Program in the Service's headquarter's office in Arlington, VA, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-358-2360.
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