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Prairie flower firmly planted

McLeod, N.D. - The western prairie fringed orchid is a mouthful of a name for a wildflower that unwittingly serves as a symbol of the vitality of its habitat on one of America's last vestiges of native tall-grass prairie.

Looking for the orchid

McLeod, N.D. - The western prairie fringed orchid is a mouthful of a name for a wildflower that unwittingly serves as a symbol of the vitality of its habitat on one of America's last vestiges of native tall-grass prairie.

The plant, shaped a bit like a pagoda tower of fringed ivory cups, makes its home in sedge meadows scattered around the Sheyenne National Grassland in southeastern North Dakota.

It's listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened plant species, and therefore is carefully monitored and protected on the grasslands, one of three major habitats remaining in North America.

In July, while in glorious bloom, the plant is much sought after by a small army of volunteers and grasslands staff who fan out in survey teams to get a rough count in order to gauge the health of its population.

"They seem to be doing OK," says Robert Self, a survey volunteer and land steward with The Nature Conservancy, which owns land within the grasslands. "But we don't have a huge population of orchids, and we could lose them."


The finicky plant, which so far has defied efforts at indoor cultivation, was threatened during the severe drought of the late 1980s when its numbers declined from the parching heat.

But orchids at the Sheyenne National Grassland, in the sandy soil of the Sheyenne River delta, rebounded during the wet 1990s. Their seeds can lie dormant in the ground for long periods, and each seed pod contains 10,000 seeds.

To sprout from its tiny seed, the orchid requires the right mix of nutrients and moisture - a Goldilocks balance of "not too dry, but not too wet" that it tends to find in the lush sedge meadows between the lowlands and hilltops in the grasslands' rolling terrain.

The orchid has formed a symbiotic - or mutually beneficial - relationship with a microbial fungi, Mcycorrhizal, which is critical for meeting its nutritional needs.

Although the orchid is federally protected, relatively little is known about the plant. North Dakota State University researchers are studying helpful insect species, such as the spurge hawkmoth, that spread its pollen.

Identifying "pollinator" insect species and protecting their habitat can, in turn, help to preserve the western prairie fringed orchid, Self says.

The water table on the grasslands fluctuates frequently in the sandy soils, rising and falling with precipitation levels. In many low-lying areas, pools of water actually are the water table coming to the surface.

The orchid tends to migrate with the water table from year to year, seemingly clustering in relation to the "bathtub ring," or water line.


Bernadette Braun, a range management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the grasslands, says the orchid's migrations complicate grazing on pastures.

Pastures with high concentrations of the orchids are kept off limits to cattle until mid-September to give the plants time to reproduce and become established.

The orchids must also cope with natural enemies.

"The deer like to munch them," Braun says. "Then there's a little weevil that likes to chew on them. Then, of course, grasshoppers."

Recently, small levels of herbicides have turned up in underground water. As a result, the Forest Service is proposing added restrictions on chemical controls of noxious weeds, including leafy spurge.

Fortunately, "biocontrols," insects that feed on leafy spurge, including flea beetles and spurge hawkmoths, are growing in numbers, Braun says.

"We're just not finding anything in really high numbers," she adds. "We're finding them sprinkled, which is encouraging."

The Fish and Wildlife Service developed a western prairie fringed orchid recovery plan in 1996 and monitors the status of existing populations.


As of 2004, the orchid's population had fallen 75 percent in the last 130 years, according to a group of orchid conservationists, Self says. Presumably, most of the decline is from habitat lost to farmland.

The orchid's ecological range extends over southern Manitoba, eastern North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, as well as western Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. It was also in Oklahoma, but hasn't been seen there in a decade.

"It seems to be resilient, but it is a limited population in a limited area," Self says. "You never know what's going to be the thing that could eliminate it."

Ron Saeger of Fargo is one of the volunteers who turned out last week to help survey the orchid's population on the grasslands.

"It's just a wonderful place to be on a nice day like this," he says. "Most people hop in their car and go to Minnesota for outdoor recreation. There's a lot of nice stuff in North Dakota."

Saeger, who is 60, regards ecological conservation as an important legacy. For him, the little orchid with the long name is an important part of the complex mosaic of life that should be preserved.

"We're concerned about the world we're leaving to our kids and grandkids," he says. "Some of our legacy is kind of sad."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522


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