By Allison Campbell-Jensen

David Remucal in greenhouse with western Jacob's ladder; photo credit John Noltner
David Remucal, Curator of Endangered Plants for the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Photo by John Noltner.

Plant blindness — it’s a phenomenon recognized by those who work in plant conservation. When others go out for a walk, even though they may have positive feelings about plants, what they notice are the deer eating grasses or a pheasant bursting out of brush, not the vegetation itself. “It’s human nature,” says David Remucal, Curator of Endangered Plants at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. “They might see the plants but they are drawn to and remember the things that move and make noise — the animals.”

Eye-opening presentations on plants, rusty-patched bumble bees, and piping plovers will be offered by Remucal, Extension Educator and Bee Researcher Elaine Evans, and Professor of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Francesca Cuthbert, when they gather online Thursday, April 22, at 4 p.m., to highlight Minnesota endangered species.

“Through this event, attendees will not only learn about conservation going on in their own backyards, but also what we can do to help efforts,” says organizer Shannon Farrell, Natural Resources Librarian. Farrell is the librarian for the departments of Entomology, Fisheries, Wildlife & Conservation Biology, and Forest Resources. She is also a member of the Libraries informal sustainability group, which seeks to promote environmental programs and projects in the Libraries, the University, and the community.

A miniscule comeback

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee by USFWS, Midwest Region licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Rusty Patched Bumble Bee by USFWS, Midwest Region licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The rusty-patched bumble bee was at one time one of the most common bumble bees in the Midwest and eastern North America. But it virtually disappeared about 20 years ago, Evans says. “We were worried they were completely gone.” They began to be spotted again about 10 years ago but in much smaller numbers and in only a small percentage of places where they used to be seen.

They are one of a crew of pollinators, she says. “We want to keep species around for their intrinsic value as well as what we don’t know about what they do.”

Evans offers four ways to help bees:

  • Plant flowers. “Bees get their food from flowers so planting a lot of different kinds of flowers (that bloom from April through September) will help support a lot of different kinds of bees.” Trees like maples and willows also are sources of pollen in spring.
  • Provide homes for bees. “They need places to build nests, so leave parts of your yard messy,” with stems and piles of sticks in corners you can leave alone.
  • Take climate action. “Bees are being negatively affected by extreme climate events, temperature changes, and range shifts.” Switching to clean energy, supporting sustainable agriculture, and other steps are important.
  • Help us keep track of where these bees are and how they’re doing. “People can take photos of pollinators they see on flowers and share them on iNaturalist. . . . They’ll be forwarded to scientists.”

Protecting rare plovers

Piping plover chick.

There are fewer than 10,000 individual piping plovers in the world, Cuthbert says, and they are only found in North America. Of the three populations, the Atlantic Coast and Great Plains have about 2,000 pairs each. The Great Lakes population, however, has only 60 to 70 pairs of birds. When it was put on the federal endangered species list, there were even fewer.

The piping plover nests on Great Lakes shorelines that are also very valued by people for recreation. “When people are present in the same areas where plovers are nesting, it’s very disruptive,” Cuthbert says. Dogs and letting dogs off their leashes also cause problems for these very rare birds.

Piping plover nesting sites are marked with prominent signs. Cuthbert asks that people respect those signs to protect these birds. “Stay back and keep pets out; that’s very proactive.”

Learning about these birds, their conservation and their life history, is another way to help. “And just being informed about endangered species in general,” Cuthbert adds. “Endangered species have a lot of benefits in many different forms. It’s important for people to know about them, why they are listed, and share this information with their family, friends, and others.”

Plant-based knowledge

“There are too many species of endangered plants to effectively talk about” in the time available, Remucal says, so he’ll talk about the breadth of work they do, their techniques and projects. He also will offer a fun story about collaborating with the Minnesota DNR on the western Jacob’s ladder, a species recently featured in the Minnesota DNR’s Conservation Volunteer magazine.

To help this and other endangered plants, Remucal suggests paying attention to one’s surroundings — particularly plants and the impact humans have on them. “When people are out in the wilderness, at public Scientific and Natural Areas and state parks, just remember to be careful when they are walking around.” When you’re out in a natural area, hiking, playing, or photographing, keep in mind that when you stray from a path to get to something you want to take a photo of, or a spot with a great view, or just to “wander,” there are plants you could step on and/or break.

Native orchids, one of the groups of species he works with, excite people who hunt them in the wild to take photographs. But they can be overzealous to the detriment of other plants. “You’ll see an orchid blooming and they will have arranged the photograph so that they clip out or pull out all the plants around it, to have a singular picture of the orchid,” Remucal says. “Not all photographers are like that but if there are one or two of these orchids in a location, it only takes one person.” There are other plants around that need help, too, he adds, and not all the plants that need help are beautiful and showy.

He also asks that people try to “remember plants when they are thinking about conservation” and funding. Funds for wildlife conservation, for example, typically focus on animals. “People don’t think that plants are wildlife — that wildlife only includes animals, which makes it hard or even impossible to get funding,” Remucal says. By excluding plants from conservation funding or focus you not only neglect a group of species that deserve attention in their own right, but you also neglect what happens to be a major part of the natural system supporting those animals you are focused on.

Showcasing these conservation efforts on Earth Day features researchers supported by the St. Paul campus libraries, Farrell says. It also accords with her convictions as a lifelong environmentalist, concerned with endangered species. “Earth Day is a way to draw attention to environmental issues,” she says, “and highlight ways we, as humans, can have meaningful impacts.”

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