Natural Heritage programs, database drives species conservation
Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current
CONDON - Botanist Andrea Pipp carefully waded into the tea-colored water of a small pond in the Swan Valley, searching for a special plant. The handful of scientists following her grinned when she finally pointed out the green tendrils of water Howellia, and its lentil-sized white flower.
Its flower may be minute, but the Howellia is a poster child for a huge but relatively unknown national scientific network that that helps find, protect and recover endangered species.
On Thursday and Friday, leaders of NatureServe joined scientists from the Montana Natural Heritage Program to learn more about how their biological database has helped identify and preserve Montana species. The visit is part of a two-year tour of all 50 states – the Van Humboldt Tour - to help NatureServe reconnect with state natural heritage programs and learn about similar conservation work.
NatureServe, a national nonprofit, has worked for decades with state natural heritage programs to collect and standardize data related to more than 100,000 species and ecosystems, and store it all in a central location where everyone can access it. It’s that standardization and ease of access that helps state wildlife and public land agencies manage and identify threats to species within states and across state lines.
For example, a species might be doing poorly within a state but be stable throughout its entire range or “global” level. That’s information biologists need to know. They can work to recover their own populations without worrying about the species as a whole. But when the global rank drops, then a species might need endangered species protection.
“I like to say we’re the most important organization that basically nobody’s ever heard of. Because we’re gathering the data that helps us protect the most imperiled species on the continent and, therefore, we’re working to prevent extinction. And what could be more important than that, in terms of preserving the planet for the future?” said NatureServe CEO Sean O’Brien.
Back in the 1970s, The Nature Conservancy wanted to buy lands that were the most critical for preserving biological diversity but discovered there was very little information available. As TNC’s science director, the late Robert Jenkins created natural heritage programs in all his state offices to collect the biological data to inform TNC land decisions.
Over time, those offices were spun off to state governmental agencies, to universities, or in Montana’s case, to the state library.
O’Brien said some state offices are better equipped to do the work than others. Some offices have only two employees because their states siphon money away to other programs. But just as Montana used to be a leader in wildlife management, the Montana Natural Heritage Program ranks among the top programs in the nation.
“Bryce (Maxell) and his team are actually driving NatureServe and other programs hard to make sure we stay on the cutting edge of what’s possible with technology and methodology,” O’Brien said. “We actually owe them for sometimes pulling us along. Sometimes, a state program can move a little more quickly because it’s smaller. If we make a change, 60 programs have to come along with us.”
After COVID hit, O’Brien decided it was time to reconnect with all the state programs to learn about each and improve communication. He started driving across the nation in his Sprinter van and jokingly dubbed it the Van Humboldt Tour, in honor of German naturalist Alexander Van Humbolt, a contemporary of Napoleon.
“(Biographer) Andrea Wulf said he first articulated the way we think about nature now as far as a system. He collected more plant specimens than any person ever – ‘course when he was doing it, everything was new,” O’Brien said.
Van Humboldt would no doubt have been thrilled with water Howellia, although it was discovered long after his time. The story of Howellia shows how the natural heritage programs work with NatureServe and how essential good data can be to conserving the plant and wildlife species of Montana. It can also show whether plants or animals are more widespread than previously thought to avoid the need to list a species.
After being discovered in 1978, botanists documented populations in vernal ponds from western Montana west to central Washington and then down through Oregon to California. All those observations live in the NatureServe database. In Montana, it lives only in the moist environment of the Seeley-Swan.
“We are by far in the best habitat across its range,” Pipp said. “We have 221 ponds where Howellia has been documented, a significant amount of the range-wide population.”
While the vitality of the Seeley-Swan population is a source of state botanical pride, the species could be seriously affected if conditions led to the loss of Montana’s population.
It might not take much due to Howellia’s life cycle. As an annual plant, Howellia regenerates each year from seed. Even though it lives in ponds, its seeds require bare ground to germinate. The ideal situation is when the seeds settle to an area of the pond that dries up by late summer, allowing the seed to germinate and the plant to grow just enough to lie dormant through the winter. Then it starts its brief life once the ponds fill again in the spring.
“Some years, the plant doesn’t germinate if the environmental conditions aren’t right. Populations can really fluctuate. It has to be timed with the hydrology in the pond,” Pipp said. “
In the ‘80s, logging was still going strong in the Seeley-Swan, and residential lots were increasingly being sold and developed. Sediment from logging can reduce water quality while new landowners might unknowingly damage the ponds themselves or the hydrology that is so important for Howellia survival.
That’s what led biologists to list Howellia as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1994.
Since the vast majority of vernal ponds are on the Flathead National Forest, the listing spurred the U.S. Forest Service to write a conservation strategy for Howellia and begin regular monitoring. That conservation strategy and related data helped justify the Montana Legacy Project, which transferred 67,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber land in the Swan Valley to the Forest Service in 2007 aided by The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land and money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The Flathead National Forest then created 300-foot buffers around each pond where certain activities were limited. For example, crews weren’t supposed to salt roads or use pesticides within the buffer area.
With fewer threats, the populations seemed more secure. Observation data showed the species was stable. As a result, Howellia was delisted last year, a success for the Endangered Species Act.
After any delisting, the species must be monitored for at least five years to make sure the decision to delist was correct. This July, Pipp, a Montana Natural Heritage Program botanist, led a team of biologists from the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to collect baseline Howellia data for 50 of Montana’s ponds.
They used NatureServe monitoring forms and will upload the data to Montana’s database, which will then be added to the NatureServe database. So should biologists in other states within Howellia’s range need the information, it’s at their fingertips.
Pipp will monitor the 50 sites for two consecutive years then take three years off before starting the cycle again. At the end of 15 years, they’ll analyze the data to either validate or reverse the decision.
"It’s fun to monitor this plant because you realize there’s all kinds of critters using these underwater leaves for cover and nesting," Pipp said.
On his tour, O’Brien has collected similar stories involving species across the country that demonstrate the value of collecting and storing such valuable information. The other Montana species he learned about was Little Brown Myotis bats and how they’re threatened by white-nose syndrome, which was first found in Montana in 2020. The threat has upgraded Little Brown Myotis to a species of concern for Montana, even though the population is still widespread.
“The (federal) government created the Endangered Species Act but didn’t create a system to figure out what was endangered. Effectively, NatureServe fills that role by having the (global) ranks and (state) ranks.The government relies heavily on our data. So in some ways, we’re like a public-private partnership that hasn’t been recognized as something the government should directly fund,” O’Brien said. “We’re 60 people and the (heritage program) network is 1,000 people. But everywhere we go, we see how many more people in the agencies are involved to make it all possible and then use the data.”
Contact Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org