OGDEN -- A Weber State University faculty member and three of her students are part of a small army uniting to save a small, native flower that grows nowhere on Earth except in a marshy field near Panguitch.
Michele Skopec, WSU zoology assistant professor, and her trio of students made the drive south earlier this month to help plant 350 specimens of the severely threatened autumn buttercup.
The seeds had been harvested two years ago from the site; sent to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens for controlled germination; shipped to the Arboretum at Flagstaff, Ariz., to grow in size and hardiness; and returned to Utah for planting by volunteers from all sponsor groups, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife.
Skopec worked with her students, James Abbott, Mikensie Lynn and Tyson Sandoval.
"It's one of Utah's most endangered plants," Skopec said of the autumn buttercup. "There are probably a thousand or less in the wild. Planting of the 350 new plants on that preserve will be a significant influx. Weber State is a major partner in this."
The seedlings represent 35 genetic lines, to maximize biodiversity. Each plant was covered by a wire-mesh cage, to discourage mice, voles and other small animals that might see the buttercup plants as a dinner option.
"The whole point is to come up with a management system, so they can reproduce on their own," Skopec said. "We'll collect some seed in the fall, to hold back, but most will be allowed to be dispersed, and we hope they will grow into new plants."
The autumn buttercup, or Ranunculus aestivalis, grows only at a specific elevation, in the Sevier River Valley, Garfield County. A perennial, it grows to about 2 feet.
"It needs to be in a wet, meadow area, which is not very common in Utah," Skopec said. "It likes water, but it also needs to be on a small mound of soil, which cows are really good at making. They step on a wet soil, and a small mound rises as a result."
Added to the endangered species list in 1996, the autumn buttercup was reintroduced in 2007 and 2010, but the newly planted seedlings failed to thrive at the preserve. Scientists had the area fenced off, to keep cattle from snacking on the young plants. But the lack of grazing allowed the grass to grow tall, and the population of mice and voles increased. Scientists believe the small rodents consumed the seedlings.
Skopec and her students are now testing a theory that the grazing better supports the survival needs of the autumn buttercup, by keeping grass shorter and providing soil mounds.
Limited grazing will be allowed. Skopec said many plants in the buttercup species are poison, and cattle tend to avoid them anyway, but the seedlings do face a threat of trampling from passing herds.
The Weber State team, along with other volunteers and botanists, will conduct regular surveys to see how the young plants progress. If successful, botanists agree this reintroduction could be a deciding factor in the survival of this and other native flowers.
Asked if the autumn buttercup has a special value that sparked the extended conservation efforts, Skopec laughed.
"I get asked that a lot," she said. "It doesn't have a medicinal purpose or a commercial value. Our purpose is to preserve biodiversity. Biodiversity is key. You never know what else you are saving when you save one species."