Thursday, July 08, 2010

Volunteers key in effort to restore endangered Illinois orchid

Volunteers key in effort to restore endangered Illinois orchid

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Among the more than 130 species of native plants that make up the flora of the Loda Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in Iroquois County, the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) can be difficult to pick out, and the beauty of its flowers is best appreciated up close. They’re only about an inch long, and they grow in a cluster on a single, upright stem. Each has a lower lip divided into three parts, which branch toward the tip like tiny antlers. From any distance, the prairie fringed orchid tends to be obscured from view by its taller neighbors.

What sets the prairie fringed orchid apart is its rarity. Prior to European settlement, it was widespread across the upper Midwest, with the largest and most extensive populations occurring in Illinois, where it was found in 33 counties. Loss of habitat due to agriculture and urban development has eliminated it from all but nine counties, and only three of those are outside the Chicago metropolitan area.

The fringed prairie orchid is currently listed as “threatened” federally and “endangered” in the state.

Because it is listed, the prairie fringed orchid is the subject of a recovery plan developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This plan, which was crafted and approved in the 1990s, involves a great deal of cooperation among scientists, landowners, and conservation organizations, and it relies heavily on the efforts of citizen-scientist volunteers.

At Loda Prairie Nature Preserve, which is owned and protected by the conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends, the role of citizen-scientist is filled by Jackie Roy, who came to it as an active participant in the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist program. Before spring of 2008, she had never heard of the prairie fringed orchid, but she answered the call for a volunteer monitor because lives just down the road in Paxton.

As a fringed prairie orchid monitor, Roy visits her site three or four times in June and early July, when the orchids are typically blooming. [Photos: above, close-up of eastern prairie fringed orchid flowers; left, Jackie Roy making notes on her observations at Loda in June.] While there, she locates as many orchids as she can, beginning where plants have been found in previous years. When she finds one, she marks its location, measures its height, counts its leaves and blossoms, and makes notes about its general condition--whether, for example, it has been browsed by deer, etc.

If Roy finds more than one prairie orchid in bloom at the same time, she takes the further step of transferring pollen between the flowers on one plant and another. Prairie orchid flowers that are cross pollinated produce more viable seed than those that are not, and among small populations, the odds of cross pollination occurring without human intervention are fairly slim. That’s because fringed prairie orchids are pollinated by only a few species of night flying hawkmoths, which simply may or may not find them at the right time.

Is there any reason to think the eastern prairie fringed orchid will come off the lists of threatened and endangered species in the years to come? That’s a question I put to Cathy Pollack, who is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and coordinator of the recovery effort. She expressed hope that it would. “We’ve got a great team of researchers, scientists and partners helping us,” she said, “and right now that’s about all I can ask for.”