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Botanists are an eccentric lot. Eyes trained on the ground most of the time, their attention is absorbed staring and stooping over shoots and flowers. They are thrilled to discover a rare bloom or even an adventuresome weed sprouting from the cracks of a paved parking lot that turns out to be a new state record. All the while they compile a mental list of what is growing underfoot.
One of Wisconsin's oldest support groups for those hopelessly fascinated by plants is the Botanical Club of Wisconsin – Wisconsin's Native Plant Society (BCW). Its members, professional and amateur alike, are inquisitive with an unpretentious passion to understand and protect native flora. Recently a handful of these BCW members collaborated and volunteered their time and expertise to evaluate the plant diversity growing at some of Wisconsin's less studied state natural areas (SNAs). These organized outings are referred to as "botany blitzes."
We know readers are familiar with the SNAs, which are featured on the back cover of each magazine issue. To date, Wisconsin has acquired or set aside 560 of these land parcels that are home to plants, animals, significant geological formations and archaeological sites. These locations are highly valued as reservoirs of natural and human communities that thrived in Wisconsin before the area was settled by European immigrants. More than 90 percent of threatened and endangered plants and more than 75 of the animals and insects on state threatened and endangered species lists benefit from SNA management.
Protection alone does not mean that we have accurate inventories of the species found in these rare natural "warehouses." A botany blitz helps take stock of the natural riches of these rare sites. The information gathered provides a beginning point for future research, for comparisons in future years and a means to gauge how the ways we use land can also bring unintended changes to the landscape as parcels are developed.
Given limits of time, budget and personnel, the Department of Natural Resources routinely seeks assistance from individual volunteers and organizations to help manage outdoor spaces. The BCW stepped up and offered to conduct botanical surveys of some of the lesser known and more fragile SNAs. Starting from a list of potential sites developed by DNR Natural Areas Specialist Thomas Meyer back in fall 2006, BCW board members selected three sites for inventories during 2007: Red Banks Alvar (SNA #332), Trempealeau River Meadow (SNA#346) and Lawrence Lake (SNA #404).
The three sites vary widely. Red Banks Alvar's flat limestone and shallow soils support low vegetation – shrubs, saplings and sedges – in addition to 25 extremely rare snail species. It is near the shore of Green Bay in Brown County, just a bit south of Edgewater Beach. The Trempealeau River Meadow is a wetland complex with tussocks, grasses, and forbs in old oxbows of the Trempealeau River over in the hilly driftless area northeast of Fountain City in Buffalo County. Lawrence Lake is a small, wild lake surrounded by wet forests and bogs in Langlade County.
During these botany blitzes, the observation teams visit each site at least twice during different times of the growing season to see what is growing, prepare a flora report recording what plants were seen, collect specimens, summarize findings, recommend management steps to maintain the natural communities (like removing invasive species) and prepare descriptions that tell the public a bit about the natural features of each site. Before the blitz date, GPS coordinates of parking locations, access routes, and photos of the ecological communities are recorded to help give the volunteer BCW teams the lay of the land that will help plan their survey. Since many of the sites are not marked with big signs, the advance team also compiles driving directions to coordinate travel.
On the day of the blitz, depending on the number of participants, three to four teams of volunteers conduct a "walk through" of the property, evaluating as many ecological communities as possible in six to seven hours. The observers come equipped with field guides, hand lenses, field notebooks and sampling equipment aiming to compile a comprehensive list of plant species identified by scientific name and estimates of each species' relative abundance. They document each species, collect specimens and label each sample with the species' identification, location, collector's name and the herbarium where each specimen will be deposited. These voucher specimens are physical evidence of a plant's whereabouts on the site and become part of the botanical record for that SNA.
When rare species are encountered, the blitzers fill out a Rare Plant Field Report form. To collect these specimens, the BCW must have an SNA Research and Collecting Permit or must be accompanied by one of the regional DNR ecologists. The botanists prefer to collect the above-ground plant parts but for endangered or threatened plants, they start by taking digital photos and then may subsequently return to the spot after the plant has been verified, an Endangered and Threatened Species Permit Application has been submitted, and permission granted to knowingly collect a specimen of these exceedingly rare plants.
Preliminary floral reports were submitted for Red Banks Alvar in June 2007, Trempealeau River Meadow in July 2007 and Lawrence Lake in August 2007. You can view the reports at Botanical Club of Wisconsin. These same SNAs will be visited once again later during a different growing season and the comprehensive plant list will be updated accordingly.
In addition to vascular plants, Botany Blitz Coordinator Jim Bennett from the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies specializes in lichen collection and identification. Lichens, which are classified as fungi that also have algae-like characteristics, grow on different substrates in varied habitats. Since some lichen species are very sensitive to air quality, they can serve as bioindicators for environmental quality. The lichen diversity at the examined SNAs is impressive – 44 related lichen species were identified at Green Bay's Red Banks Alvar, at least two of which were recorded for the first time.
The BCW collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources has already produced fruit. New distributions and range extensions for some plant species were discovered, new county records reported, and some of BCW's recommendations will be included in property management plans. For instance, at Red Banks Alvar, DNR property managers will work to aggressively eliminate the invasive species European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica). Managers and partners will also be thinning tree density to promote a healthier mix of ground layer species, and conducting prescribed burns where possible.
Thomas Meyer also praised the 2 help: "On behalf of the State Natural Areas Program, thanks to all of you who participated in the Botany Blitz this summer at Trempealeau Meadows State Natural Area. Your thorough documentation of the flora of this wonderful area is a welcome addition to the meager data we have in our files. Having comprehensive surveys of the plants and animals in our SNAs helps inform our decisions on how to protect and manage these sites. We look forward to working with you and the BCW in the future."
Throughout its 40-year history, the Botanical Club of Wisconsin has shown steady dedication to study of all types of native vegetation and flora. Members keep in touch through a newsletter and by participating in meetings, field trips, workshops and evening presentations. BCW also sponsors a monetary award to assist undergraduate research studies. For more information, visit Botanical Club of Wisconsin or mail inquiries to T. L. Eddy, at: 426 Walker Avenue, Green Lake, WI 54941.
Thomas L. Eddy teaches for the Green Lake School District and at Marian University in Fond du Lac. He is vice president of the Botanical Club of Wisconsin – Wisconsin's Native Plant Society. And he continues to train his gaze on the ground.