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New report provides regional perspective on the conservation status of plants

In response to a need for better information about the location and status of rare and endemic plant species in the North Atlantic region, a team of botanists led by NatureServe conducted a broad-scale conservation assessment for vascular plants that occur from Virginia to Maritime Canada.
New report provides regional perspective on the conservation status of plants

Sandplain agalinis is a rare endemic species, native to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and Maryland. Credit: Alfred R. Schotz

On the forest floor, along riverbanks, and in garden beds, plants create a foundation for life by providing ground cover, stabilization, and energy. And so it stands to reason that sustaining a diversity of plant species is essential to support the natural systems and processes that people and wildlife depend upon.

But even plants for which we cannot measure natural-resource benefits may warrant conservation attention. They may be found only in one place, like the arctic-alpine flora of the Gaspé Peninsula, or they may be few and far between, such as sandplain agalinis. Just like iconic species of fish and wildlife, they deserve protection in their own right.

The problem is there isn’t nearly as much information about the conservation status of plants as there is for fish and wildlife. “One of the reasons why it’s harder to get good information on plants is there are simply a lot more of them,” explained Anne Frances, lead botanist for NatureServe. “There are about 19,000 species of vascular plants alone in the U.S., and about 3,000 species of vertebrate animals.”

Another reason is funding. “Despite the fact that plants comprise about 55 percent of all species listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, over 90 percent of government funding is directed towards listed vertebrate animals with the remainder of funds divided between plants and invertebrate animals,” she added.

But thanks to collaboration among botanists across the region in a project led by NatureServe, practitioners now have access to a list of 431 of the highest priority vascular plants from Virginia to Maritime Canada as part of a new resource developed to help inform conservation efforts from the ground up.

Developed with support from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), Prioritization and Conservation Status of Rare Plants in the North Atlantic provides a prioritized list of rare, highly threatened, declining, or sensitive plant species based on a broad-scale conservation assessment of those that occur across this region.

Building on the collective data, knowledge, expertise, and methodology of the Natural Heritage Network, NatureServe synthesized existing information to identify assessments that are out of date, incomplete, or insufficient.

“How are plants distributed regionally? What is their conservation status on that scale? We’ve never had the opportunity to ask those questions before,” said Frances, emphasizing the importance of doing so in a geography like the North Atlantic.

“There are lots of relatively small states in the area with unique ecological and geological features that cross state lines” -- think of the Appalachian Mountain range -- “so if a species just has a tiny part of its range in one state, it might register as a high priority, even if it occurs in four other states.” Conversely, a plant could appear to be a low priority if it is abundant in one state, even if that’s the only place where it occurs.

By developing a new set of Regional Conservation Ranks for species in the North Atlantic and updating the complementary Global conservation status ranks, the project offers valuable perspective to people who encounter these plants on the ground.

“It gives them more context to know if that plant is not just rare in the state, but rare in the region,” explained Frances. “If it’s rare in the state, the region, and globally, that elevates it to the highest priority for conservation.”

By knowing that it’s a species that can’t afford to lose ground, practitioners can make more informed decisions to protect it as a part of our region’s natural heritage, and for its own right.

Frances will present the results of the Prioritization and Conservation Status of Rare Plants in the North Atlantic in a Science Seminar on Tuesday, November 7th, from noon to 1:00 p.m. Visit our events page for information about the presentation.

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