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Once Thought to Be Extinct, This Lucky Clover Has Recovered Enough to Come Off the Endangered List

Running Buffalo Clover, which once spread on trampled ground left by bison, has made a comeback in the Midwest and Appalachians

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
smithsonian.com

When the massive herds of bison disappeared from the North America in the 1800s, they took with them a very specific ecosystem: trampled ground. The disturbed earth was the chief habitat of running buffalo clover Trifolium stoloniferum, a plant species once found in nine states stretching from the Midwest to the Appalachians. While it was believed to have gone extinct by 1940, a small remnant population of the plant held on. Now, as Sabrina Imbler at Atlas Obscura reports, the clover has recovered enough that the Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended removing it from the Endangered Species List.

Back in 1983, Nature Conservancy biologist Rodney Bartgis first came across a population of the low-growing clover on a jeep trail in West Virginia's New River Gorge during a plant survey. More botanists soon identified surviving stands of the species in elsewhere, and it was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1987.

Now, 154 populations of the clover exist in Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It has not yet been re-established in Arkansas, Kansas, and Illinois, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The species connects modern conservationists with the North America that once was. “This plant likely once followed the trails of bison, which helped maintain [its] habitat,” Meagan Racey of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region tells John Hayes at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s incredible to know that thanks to the help of foresters, botanists, landowners and others, we can in fact bring back a plant that was on the brink of extinction.”

One reason the remnant plant went undetected by botanists for so many years is due to its unusual life history. “Part of the reason … it took us a while to start to find populations in the wild is that, unlike a lot of rare plants in the eastern [U.S.] forest[s], this one likes clear, obvious disturbances,” Bartgis tells Imbler of Atlas Obscura.

When the species was first found, officials kept logging and forestry equipment away from the plants. Those populations soon died out. But areas run over by skidders or trampled by elk flourished. “Oftentimes when you find an endangered species, you say, ‘OK, I’m going to step back and not touch it,’” Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service, tells Imbler. “But this one likes being run over by a skidder. It’s a funny plant.”

Making sure the plant gets trampled at least once every decade or so is part of the strategy to bring it back. According to the Fish and Wildlife Services analysis, the plant now meets the criteria for delisting, including having populations in several regions with a high probability that they will persist for the next 40 years.

“Running buffalo clover has recovered because we’ve worked closely with our partners to ensure the plant’s habitat is conserved while also searching for new populations,” says Charlie Wooley, Acting Midwest Regional Director, in a press release. “Our efforts have paid off, and we believe the future of this plant is secure.”

A public comment period on the delisting runs until October 28, after which the decision will be reviewed.

Unlike killing or destroying endangered animals, there are no fines or criminal charges for destroying listed plants, meaning they need a little more monitoring, John Hayes at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains.

This particular species, Meagan Racey of the FWS tells Hayes, connects modern conservationists with the North America that once was. “This plant likely once followed the trails of bison, which helped maintain [its] habitat,” she says. “It’s incredible to know that thanks to the help of foresters, botanists, landowners and others, we can in fact bring back a plant that was on the brink of extinction.”

Imbler reports that if the plant does come off the list, biologists will still closely monitor it to make sure it continues to do well.

While the species does need some disturbance, too much disturbance is also a concern. For instance, Bartgis says, coal mining and gas development in West Virginia may be destroying unknown populations of the clover, as well as other rare or undetected species.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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