/ Opinions / Monitoring rare plants locally helps put together bigger pictures of rare species

Monitoring rare plants locally helps put together bigger pictures of rare species

May 22, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill

For my next adventure, I decided to sign up to do some rare plant monitoring. I though that would be a fun way to spend a day outside and get to also learn some new things. 

The Rare Plant Monitoring Program training is all available on YouTube now, which is great. With the current social distancing climate and, at the time of the recordings, the governor’s Safer at Home order still in place, it was a great way, I think, to get this training out to people who were and are interested.

Before heading to the training, though, anyone interested needs to be able to identify the rare plant species they would like to go out and find. Of course, there are a ton of resources to learn that sort of thing and even many different apps, such as iNaturalist, that a person can take into the field with them. iNaturalist is also one way to make rare plant observations, so it’s a handy app to have for a variety of reasons. It is worth checking out.

One of the things that struck me about this rare plant monitoring is the confidentiality. I would have never guessed there was such a thing as poaching in the rare plant world. Of course, I knew there were many threats to native and rare plants such as urbanization and changing habitats. But poaching? I had never thought that would be a “thing.” I guess I was ignorant about that aspect of the world — and, if you were, too, know you know. It is crazy.

When volunteers go out to monitor, they are not to tell anyone else exactly where they monitored or exactly where rare plant species were found. I am totally fine with that, of course, but the thought of it, and the urgency with which the topic was treated was eye-opening to me. I understand the reasoning, I just cannot believe it. But enough of that. On to the cool stuff.

The training itself comes in nine videos (with confidentiality being one of them) that give a volunteer everything from what to take into the field to how to find a place to monitor. Reporting is also covered, with a variety of ways to get that done. 

Reporting can be done with a traditional paper method, or on the iNaturalist app, or with the form on the wiatri website through Survey123. Survey123 can be used either on a desktop or mobile platform, which gives several options for those who may still want to gather data with a pencil and paper, but then turn it into a digital format later.

For those unfamiliar with wiatri.net, it is the Wisconsin Aquatic and Terrestrial Resource Inventory website. Many have heard me talk about it before, as it is another great resource. There are many different citizen science opportunities on the website, one of which is rare plant monitoring. When heading to the Rare Plant Monitoring Program page, it will show that all training for this year has been cancelled. However, there is a link to the program coordinator’s email, and also his phone number, so anyone interested can still sign up and get the link to go through all of the videos required by the program.

Under the volunteer tab on the page, all of the needed forms and some training materials can be found. This includes the complete 27-page manual that can be downloaded for future reference. As I said, though, I would highly recommend an app such as iNaturalist that can be used in the field as an add-on. An app such as this will have photographs and other information regarding a rare plant species that may make identification easier. 

For me, I think I would stick with one or two rare plant species (just as I did with invasive species) to make it easier to learn to identify a species. I am better with some species than others, as I am sure we all are, so for me that is the best way to learn.

Once training is complete, a volunteer can go to the Wiatri website and look for a rare plant population for which they would like to search. The interactive map shows me where rare plants have been found before, what those plants are and the last year they were observed. There is also the option to select the time of year, giving the best chance for identification at any given time. Clicking through the ones closest to me at this time, I see wafer-ash was found in a spot near me in 2000. It has not been observed since then, so that may be an interesting one. To find out whether or not that species is still there is important to the overall picture.

When I look at the information presented, it also gives me the option to click through to the wafer-ash page on the DNR website. This pace is full of all kinds of information about wafer-ash. Of course there are photographs of the rare plant, which are helpful with identification. 

The page also goes through distinguishing characteristics of the plant, flowers, fruit and leaves ash well as the phenology and other information. There is a tab for habitats and landscapes where wafer-ash can be found and does well. There are state maps including ecological landscape association scores for the plant in Wisconsin. The state status map shows me where the plant has been found.

Reporting findings

So now that I have taken the training and have found a species for which I would like to look, due to its proximity to where I am currently sitting, I can send an email off to Kevin, the program coordinator, letting him know I am interested in seeing if this species is still there. At that point I can get a survey assignment packet including maps for finding the wafer-ash. 

As I stated above, there is an element of confidentiality in all of this. That said, the exact locations of rare plant species are not listed on the map. Rather, they are only pinpointed to the township level. Once I send in a request to survey a particular species in a township, then I will get information regarding where the species was found within that township. I can then use that information to go out and complete my survey.

After I am done with my survey, whether I find my intended species or not, I send that back in, or report it on one of the apps. I have yet to use Survey123, but it seems pretty straight forward, and I feel comfortable recommending its use to other volunteers. 

As I am writing this, it looks like a blanket of rain is covering most of the state, according to the radar. Probably not the best day to go out and complete a rare plant survey — unless, of course, I was a duck. But, it is a great day to check out the rare plant map and get more familiar with the apps and software associated with the program, as well as to request information about surveying that wafer-ash I just found out about. I can also take some time today to learn as much about the species as I can.When the sun comes out again, as we know it will, I will be ready to grab my handheld GPS and get out in the field and do some searching for that rare plant. I hope others get inspired to do the same thing. As with any citizen science project, the more volunteers participate, the better data we have and the better we can manage these and other species.

Beckie Gaskill may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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