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Researcher’s Work Advances Conservation of Wyoming Plant Species

September 22, 2011
Man standing outside
Botanist Walt Fertig's work will help preserve Wyoming's flora. (UW Photo)

New information about Wyoming's plant species and a set of tools to preserve the state's botanical heritage are provided in a Ph.D. dissertation by a University of Wyoming botany student.

Walter F. Fertig recently completed his dissertation ("Strategies for Plant Conservation in Wyoming: Distributional Modeling, Gap Analysis and Identifying Species at Risk") that addresses the conservation of Wyoming's 2,800-plus plant species. Fertig examined patterns in geographic distribution, rarity, and protection of the state's flora and provides a set of protocols for modeling the potential range of each species.

He was able to accomplish this work by compiling a checklist of the state flora through laborious updating of records in UW's Rocky Mountain Herbarium (RM) and Wyoming Natural Diversity Database (WYNDD).The RM houses the world's largest collection of Rocky Mountain plants and fungi.

WYNDD, a scientific organization that deals with species at risk, is among the units housed in the interdisciplinary Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center that fosters an understanding of biological diversity and promotes maintenance of ecological structures and processes.

From this checklist, Fertig developed a ranking system to evaluate species rarity and determine conservation priority. He says this system can be applied quickly to Wyoming's entire flora using critical but readily available criteria such as habitat specificity and plant population trends. Less than 2 percent of the state's flora ranks as extremely high or high priority for conservation attention. An additional benefit of this ranking system is to identify species in need of more research due to data deficiency.

"Using more than 200,000 specimen records from the RM", Fertig says, "I was able to develop habitat models to predict the potential range of a random set of 100 plant species from Wyoming. This information helps resource managers determine if suitable habitat might occur for a species of interest in their area and helps researchers assess how well species are represented in existing protected areas across the state."

This comparison is termed "gap analysis." Species falling in these "gaps" are highlighted for conservation concern.

William Reiners, a professor in the UW Department of Botany, says the capacity to pull such information together is unique in the United States because of the superb spatial data available in Wyoming,

"Walt was able to correlate habitat variables associated with individual species into a model that predicts where else those species might occur, or where they might be introduced for conservation purposes," Reiners says. "His work will be a foundation stone for the university's dedication to knowing and protecting our biological heritage through the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database and the biological conservation programs of the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center."

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