Dec. 6, 1996
Biologist has Passion for Endangered Species
By Ellie Walradth
UW-RF News Bureau
Every summer a UW-RF biology professor combs the prairie of Western Wisconsin searching for plant species that are becoming harder to find.
James Richardson studies and monitors 12-15 threatened and endangered species in St. Croix, Pierce, Burnett and Polk counties.
"Local populations get smaller every year," Richardson says. "If they are lost, we can't bring them back. . .we have lost something that was part of a much bigger community."
One species that is federally endangered can be found within the city limits of River Falls. The endangered Prairie Bush Clover grows in three areas in River Falls: a local cemetery, a roadside ditch, and on private undeveloped land located on the edge of a housing development.
"That's one you'd walk right past and wouldn't even know it's there," Richardson says.
River Falls is one of the few areas that has conditions for Prairie Clover to flourish. "There is a reason why it is here: protect it," Richardson advises.
Richardson hopes the Prairie Clover will be preserved in each of its sites as the cemetery and ditch are monitored, and the state is working with the landowner to conserve it on the private land.
Richardson describes the Prairie Clover as an obscure, tall and slender plant without colorful flowers or leaves. "It's a relatively small plant that looks like an 'anemic alfalfa,'" he laughs.
It can only be found in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Northern Illinois.
Like the Prairie Clover, over half of the 61 endangered and 57 threatened species in Wisconsin require grassland or prairie conditions that have less than one tree per acre. According to Richardson, only a few protected sites remain.
Richardson says that endangered species are those in jeopardy of surviving. Threatened species live in an environment that is under threat of destruction from forest invasion, agriculture or land development.
He notes that the eradication of a species typically has a snowballing effect: "If you lose one (species), you lose four or five."
Because of this, Richardson believes in saving the community where the endangered species thrive.
"If they are there, it is for a reason and it is important to save the area."
He says that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently shifted its emphasis, also. They no longer focus on specific endangered or threatened species, but rather attempt to save entire communities of plants.
Every summer, Richardson reports the status of each species to the DNR and, he says, that the outlook for next year is about the same as this year.
In March and April, Richardson will prepare to visit the sites where threatened Snow Trilliums and endangered Carolina Anemones bloom.
The Snow Trillium produces small flowers that are close to the ground and not very showy, Richardson says.
Requiring special conditions, the Carolina Anemone is "showy for about two days and then you'd never see it," he says.
His field work lasts all summer long, with Prairie Clover blooming in the fall.
Kitten tails are another threatened plant that is very common to the St. Croix Valley, but rare in other states, Richardson says. Other endangered species in the four-county area are Great White Lettuce, Wild Petunia, Prairie Plum and Dotted Blazing Star.
Each species has its own distribution, Richardson says. Many of the species found in Pierce and St. Croix counties do not extend further north because of cooler climates and distribution patterns.
According to Richardson, Polk and Burnett counties are part of the Northern Hardwood forest, and Pierce and St. Croix counties are included in the Southern Hardwood forest.
In addition to outdoor work, Richardson manages an herbarium in the UW-RF biology department where over 20,000 "remnants of the past," are kept.
While Richardson has a state collecting permit to hold endangered species in his herbarium, but would rather leave them in their natural environments.
The herbarium serves as a valuable tool for Richardson and other biologists. By looking at species' records, they are able to learn about conditions in the environment decades ago that allowed certain plants to thrive.
" I have an herb in there from 1877," Richardson says. "Seeing plants that were here before we were is like seeing a bit of history."
Richardson says he gets continous requests for samples from colleagues in Madison who are now studying the flora of Wisconsin. Richardson also dispenses samples to biologists across the state who research various species.
Richardson notes that funding for research is limited because society tends to focus on other areas of science, such as cell biology and genetics. He feels preserving plant species that represent variety in the environment is just as important.
Richardson says that many people are motivated to preserve when they are told that an endangered plant could one day be the cure for a disease such as cancer, but thinks people should be concerned about saving plant species for more fundamental reasons. When these plants are gone, he stresses, humans cannot bring them back.
"If you lose diversity, you lose the ability for the environment to fight back."