Contact(s): Kevin Doyle, DNR, 608-416-3377; Nicholas Tippery, UW-Whitewater, 262-472-1061
WHITEWATER, Wis. - Deep in a laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, students are carefully tending seedlings of one of Wisconsin's rarest plants in new efforts to assure its future in the face of threats ranging from flooding, to competition from invasive plants, to hungry deer.
Fassett's locoweed (Oxytropis campestris var. chartacea), which is known from only eight sites in Wisconsin and nowhere else on the planet, is being propagated this winter. In the spring, Department of Natural Resources botanists will transplant the students' seedlings along a lakeshore where the plant was once found but disappeared 15 years ago.
"We're very excited about this project - this is the first time we've tried to start new populations of Fassett's locoweed," says Kevin Doyle, the Department of Natural Resources botanist who leads DNR's Rare Plant Monitoring Program and who will be transplanting the plants.
"With this effort, we're moving into the next step in the conservation of this species. Not only are we monitoring and protecting the naturally occurring population of Fassett's locoweed, but we are trying to grow the statewide population of this plant to increase its viability and reduce its vulnerability."
Fassett's locoweed is a Wisconsin Endangered and Federally Threatened plant named after Norman C. Fassett, a University of Wisconsin professor and curator of the university herbarium, who went on to describe it as a plant unique to Wisconsin. Fassett was a leader in taxonomic thought and an ecological restoration pioneer and published books including Spring Flora of Wisconsin and Manual of Aquatic Plants.
Fassett's locoweed, a member of the legume family, is found along the shores of lakes with fluctuating water levels, and its abundance year-to-year is sporadic, depending on water levels.
For several years, students under the direction of UW-Whitewater associate biology professor Nic Tippery have been monitoring populations of Fassett's locoweed at sites in Portage and Waushara counties. Locoweed is also found in similar habitat at two sites in southern Bayfield County.
They've been conducting randomized surveys to estimate the locoweed population size, learn how individuals transition between life stages, and parse out how locoweed and its competitors respond to changes in their environment.
They've also been tagging individual plants to understand when and which plants flower, develop fruit, and to learn the fate of their seeds, and the factors influencing whether the seeds germinate.
Altogether, that research, funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, has enabled Tippery and his students to calculate how long it will take for individual populations to replace themselves and determine what the future will look like for Fassett's locoweed in Wisconsin.
Building on their research results, Tippery and his students are using seed and soil collected in 2015 to raise plants in a growth chamber on campus where they can carefully control light and other factors.
"We're hoping that we can give these plants an edge by starting them earlier so they have a more developed root system by the time they're planted," Tippery says.
Their past research has suggested that competition from other plants, particularly invasive species, is a significant threat to Fassett's locoweed populations. Extreme fluctuations in lake levels are also a problem, he says.
There's a sweet spot for the plant when it comes to lake levels. The plant thrives in a sparsely vegetated area near the water's edge. Periodic years of high water can kill competing plants, allowing Fassett's locoweed to capitalize because of its high seed production and hardy, long-lasting seeds. But in recent years, water levels have been so high that they killed almost all plants, including Fassett's locoweed, Tippery says.
Animals grazing the plants can also be a problem, as the students discovered in 2016, when animals, likely deer, had eaten virtually all of the reproductive stalks.
The students' work to germinate and grow the plants in the lab can help unlock more information to help steer efforts to manage their habitat, Tippery says.
"One thing that's been a missing piece of the puzzle is it's hard to know what happens to the seeds once they go into the soil," he says. "There's also a gray area on seedling survival. By taking seeds to the lab and germinating them up we can perhaps see more of what influences germination and seedling survival."
Ultimately, Tippery says, "We hope we can accelerate the restoration back to what things were."