Plant species conservation

The Steamboat buckwheat plant in Reno, Nevada. 

State botanist keeps his eye on Nevada’s rare flora

By Bob Conrad

Third-graders in Huntsville, Alabama are singing a new song. It goes: “The roots on the plant go root, root, root, mostly in Madison County.” It’s sung to the melody of “Wheels on the Bus.” The children are vocalizing about the Morefield leather flower, Clematis morefieldii, an endangered plant found only in Alabama’s Madison County.

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This spring Southern Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base received a permit from the Nevada Division of Forestry for new construction on a portion of the Air Force’s property. More than 200 acres, however, will remain undeveloped for the sole purpose of protecting a plant found only in the Las Vegas area—the Las Vegas bearpoppy, Arctomecon californica.

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Found only in south Reno, the Steamboat buckwheat lives side by side with the Truckee Meadows’ geothermal plant, operated by Ormat Technologies, Inc. Ground at the facility has been set aside to protect the plant, which is found nowhere else in the world. Years of work and agreements between the facility and the state have helped to ensure the plant’s habitat will remain intact.

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Dr. Jim Morefield, state botanist with the Nevada Natural Heritage Program

The three examples above each have one thing in common: Jim Morefield. In 1982, as an undergraduate student, Morefield was collecting plant specimens in Huntsville. “I was gathering plant specimens to take them back and identify, to help me learn more about plant species in that area,” he says. “Some I could identify pretty easily with the existing references, some I couldn’t. Eventually I took the whole stack of specimens to Robert Kral, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He was working at the time on the entire flora of the state of Alabama and was excited to see an entire pile of specimens from a part of the state he was working on.

“He went through all of the specimens and either confirmed my identifications or changed them when I had been wrong. In this particular case, he saw something that he couldn’t put a name on. He was eventually the one that decided to name it after me.”

Morefield is pleased to have a plant of his own name, the Morefield leather flower. “It’s always an honor to have a species named after you as a botanist, so it was definitely a high point in my botanical career.”

It was discovered that the plant was located only in the area where Morefield was exploring. As people looked for more of the plants, few were found and those that were lived in Madison County. “After all the searching, it still ended up being a rare and vulnerable enough species that it was decided to list it as endangered,” Morefield explains.

The plant’s endangered status has led to increased efforts over the years to preserve the species. The third-grade students in Huntsville recently took up a campaign to help raise awareness about the plant. A play, book and proclamation by Huntsville’s mayor are part of the group’s efforts. They are also collaborating with The Nature Conservancy.

The discovery of the Morefield leather flower was a fitting start to Morefield’s career. The fact that it’s endangered is also symbolic of Morefield’s ongoing work into the present: Keeping a keen eye on Nevada’s rare plant species. Morefield, who earned his doctorate in botany at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, is a rare plant botanist with the Nevada Natural Heritage Program, the state agency that keeps biological data on rare plant and animal species.

“There are about 350 plant species in the state that we maintain information on,” he says. Rare species preservation is a topic that can evoke passion and controversy. Morefield’s position on the subject is diplomatic. In regards to the Steamboat buckwheat, which occupies the same ground as the south Reno geothermal plant, Morefield conveys that “it’s been a careful dance between the regulatory agency—the Nevada Division of Forestry—and the geothermal plant to conduct their operations in such a way as to minimize impacts to the plant. It’s been largely successful.”

Morefield says that his job, and that of the Heritage Program, is to maintain and disseminate information, not to make policy decisions. The information maintained by the Heritage Program has been used to identify species of concern for consideration of protection, such as the Steamboat buckwheat and the Las Vegas bearpoppy. Conversely, the agency’s data have been used to demonstrate that some species don’t need protection, because the species were shown to be more common than originally assumed.

When asked why it’s important to protect rare species, though, Morefield is quick to respond: “The honest answer is—we don’t know. And that is the reason to protect (rare species). There are nearly 3,000 plant species that occur in Nevada’s natural heritage. We know exactly why some of them are important—what functions they perform in nature and the ecosystem. We haven’t studied a lot of the rare plants, so we don’t know for sure what important functions they may perform.

“They may support certain pollinators that may in turn support crops that are grown in the state,” Morefield adds. “They may contain unknown chemical compounds that may one day be important to human beings. They have their own value besides what they may or may not do for human beings.”

Whether it’s the plant named after himself or the state’s many plants that have adapted to the harsh, high-desert climate, Morefield’s uncertainty underscores part of his outlook on humans and the environment: “We’re just a part of the overall natural system of the state.”

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