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Published September 14, 2018
A University of Wyoming researcher headed a research project that reconstructs the 70-year past to set the stage for the future of a rare plant species in Wyoming.
Bonnie Heidel, lead botanist and associate research scientist with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database (WYNDD), teamed with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) colleagues on monitoring Penstemon haydenii Wats., better known as blowout penstemon. After walking many miles of dunes during census work, they noticed landscape differences from one year to the next, and evidence that population trends are tied to habitat trends. They sought a bird’s-eye habitat picture using aerial photograph sets and digital imagery across the Ferris Dunes and over a nearly 70-year timespan from 1946-2015.
“The resulting habitat information provides a ‘missing link’ in understanding the population information produced in our monitoring studies,” Heidel says. “It indicates that blowout penstemon-occupied habitat has been continuously available over past decades. It will contribute directly to a newly launched U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service status review process announced last month.”
Heidel is lead author of a paper, titled “Dune Habitat Trends of an Endangered Species, Penstemon haydenii Wats. (blowout penstemon), in Carbon County, Wyoming,” that was published in the June issue of Western North American Naturalist. This peer-reviewed scientific journal focuses on biodiversity and conservation of western North America.
Samuel Cox and Frank Blomquist, from Wyoming’s BLM state office and Rawlins field office, respectively, co-wrote the paper.
Blowout penstemon is Wyoming’s only endangered plant species and an herbaceous perennial that is restricted to unvegetated or sparsely vegetated sand dunes. Following widespread habitat loss, the species was thought to be extinct when it was only known from the Nebraska Sandhills.
Blowout penstemon was first discovered in Wyoming in 1996, in the Ferris Dunes of Carbon County, by Blomquist, a UW alumnus. There, the species occupies three main groups of dunes.
Blowout penstemon is a pioneering plant that helps stabilize the dunes. The plant is favored food for Wyoming big game, as well as pollinators -- including 26 species of bees and a bee-impersonating wasp -- that feed on the plants’ pollen and nectar.
The plant is shaped by landscape conditions and, in turn, may be a barometer of those conditions, Heidel says.
This study was supported by the U.S. Department of the Interior BLM and WYNND, whose mission is to collect, synthesize and distribute information about plant and animal species of conservation concern, and their habitats in Wyoming. WYNDD botanists are leaders in collecting essential data and researching Wyoming threatened, endangered and sensitive plant species as needed for management and recovery, and in collecting the data to document what is not rare.