American Heritage: December/January 2000

  • Gabrielle deGroot
  • Dec 01, 1999
Throughout the fall of 1992, scientist Craig Freeman and his colleagues at the Kansas Biological Survey worked long hours to convince the Federal Highway Administration to move the alignment of an interstate bypass being developed for the Lawrence metropolitan area. A study of the site, which at that time was still under private ownership, found that the project would damage a stand of western prairie fringed orchids, a threatened species native to the area.

Sparks continued to fly over the location of the bypass until one evening in November, when the landowner decided to take matters into his own hands. Fearing the controversy would derail the sale of his property, he proceeded to plow over the entire site. Conservationists cried foul, but what the landowner did was perfectly legal.

"Plants have only limited protection under the federal Endangered Species Act when they´re growing on private land," Freeman says. "You have to appeal to a landowner´s sense of ethics for conserving biodiversity of the ecosystem in which his or her land is located."

In the case of the western prairie fringed orchid, that ecosystem is the tallgrass prairielands and sedge meadows of the Great Plains states. The hardy perennial averages two to three feet in height and thrives only in areas that remain moist for much of the year. Pollinated by hawkmoths, the plant blossoms with cream-colored, deeply fringed flowers from late June to mid-July. "It´s a beautiful plant that´s so fragrant, especially at night when the moths are active," says Carolyn Hull Sieg, a U.S. Forest Service biologist. "Unfortunately, it´s also a poster child for our disappearing prairies."

Formerly widespread throughout the central United States and Canada, the orchid is now found only in isolated pockets of prairieland in six states and the province of Manitoba. Approximately 90 percent of the known western prairie fringed orchids grow in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota. The remainder are found in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

The orchid´s decline began in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when broad swaths of tallgrass prairie were converted to agriculture. Today, by some estimates, less than 1 percent of the nation´s native tallgrass remains.

Another major threat to the species entered the picture early in this century: a noxious weed known as leafy spurge. Originally from Eurasia, this invasive species was inadvertently introduced into the Great Plains in hay supplies and has since displaced much of the region´s indigenous vegetation.

One of three native orchids included on the Endangered Species List, the western prairie fringed orchid was officially declared threatened in 1989. Since then, it has been heavily studied and monitored. But given the long list of threats to the species´ survival, experts say it may be years--even decades--before the species is fully recovered.

"We´re making progress with this orchid, but there isn´t enough money directed toward the recovery of endangered species in general and plants in particular," says Karen Kreil, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota. "And that´s unfortunate, given the important roles plants play in producing medicines and other things that people and animals depend on for survival."

Why aren´t plants protected as aggressively as animals under the Endangered Species Act? The answer, observes John Kostyack, a National Wildlife Federation attorney who specializes in endangered habitats, may have a lot to do with our historical view of wildlife. "We have a tradition in this country of animals being held in the public trust and it´s not clear whether that tradition has ever been extended to plants," he says. When the act was passed in 1973, plant protection was a relatively new concept in federal law, and at the time, lawmakers were preoccupied with protecting imperiled wildlife.

Today, the western prairie fringed orchid continues to be a symbol of unchecked development of the nation´s grasslands. "It´s obvious to most people here in Kansas that the decline of the orchid is symptomatic of what´s been going on with the tallgrass prairie community over the last 150 years," Freeman says. "If you think about what we stand to lose in terms of total biodiversity, it´s pretty staggering."

Maryland writer Gabrielle deGroot is an avid native plant lover.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates