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A flowering bush with pink flowers.
Information icon Roan Mountain bluet. Photo by BlueRidgeKitties, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Mars Hill College Students Help Conserve Endangered Plant

A group of Mars Hill College students are working with professor Scott Pearson to bring the power of the school’s computers to bear in an effort to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) protect the endangered Roan Mountain bluet.

Roan Mountain bluet is found at only a handful of high elevation sites in five western North Carolina counties. With such a limited distribution, knowing where every plant is found is critical to scientists working to save the plant. This information was collected in the 1990s, however it sits, of limited use, as a stack of topographic maps with dots on them and a pile of data collection forms. Students from Pearson’s Introduction to Geographic Information Systems class are going make this data more useful and more accessible by converting it into an electronic format detailing the location and attributes of each bluet site.

“It’s really helpful to me, as a botanist, to have the students engaged on this project, and I truly believe that they’re contributing to the recovery of this plant,” said Carolyn Wells, a botanist with the Service. “It’s exciting when something in the classroom has real-world applications.”

Pearson’s class teaches students how to use geographic information systems, or GIS. GIS is a powerful tool in conservation, allowing scientists to build electronic maps and to manipulate and use place-based information linked to specific locations. It can be used to build models predicting where certain species are likely to be found or what areas of the landscape are likely to be developed; or it can simply be used to make custom maps.

On October 7, the students joined Wells on a field visit to a Roan Mountain bluet site and discussed some of the conservation issues surrounding the plant and that particular site. From there, they’ll take the paper files — all the topographic maps and the accompanying data sheets — and turn them into a digital GIS file, enabling scientists to project on their computers a map showing the locations of all the sites, and call up information for each site, such as habitat type, elevation, amount of area occupied by the plants, and number of plants.

Having it in a digital format will also let scientists overlay those data with other spatial-information, for example maps of the Forest Service’s proposed prescribed fires or maps predicting where development is likely to occur. This helps land managers determine their conservation priorities. Further, the electronic format will facilitate sharing data with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, a repository for location information on rare and imperiled species like Roan Mountain bluet.

The partnership between the college and the Service resulted from the Asheville Field Office’s web site, which posts projects that would help the Service conserve rare species while giving students a chance to meet course requirements with a real-world application of what they’re learning.


  • Carolyn Wells, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (828) 258-3939, ext. 231
  • Scott Pearson, Mars Hill College, (828) 689-1402

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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