When Rodney Bartgis found running buffalo clover growing in a jeep trail in West Virginia, he was pleasantly surprised. It was his second day conducting a rare plant survey for The Nature Conservancy.
The colleague who accompanied him in the field that day was incredulous.
“He said: It can’t be!” remembered Bartgis.
The plant wasn’t just rare, “It was supposed to be extinct.”
It was 1983, and running buffalo clover hadn’t been seen outside of an herbarium since the early 1940s, when it was last documented in the wild in Webster County, West Virginia — the final trace of a plant once found in Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Illinois, and Kansas.
To discover it growing in the wild again would be like stumbling upon lost treasure.
“The guy bet me a steak dinner that it wasn’t running buffalo clover,” said Bartgis.
Bartgis won the steak, and a certificate of recognition from the American Horticultural Society’s Wildflower Rediscovery Awards program, established to encourage people to search for extremely rare plants in the wild.
But the biggest reward comes now. On August 27th, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will publish the proposal to removal of running buffalo clover from the endangered species list, marking the success of a 30-year effort to keep a plant once thought to have been extinct from disappearing again.
The state where running buffalo clover was rediscovered has turned out to be a key front in a recovery effort driven by innovation, collaboration, and a good deal of ecological detective work.
“West Virginia now has some of the biggest populations of running buffalo clover in the world, many on public land,” said Barbara Douglas, senior endangered species biologist at the Service’s field office in Elkins, West Virginia.
The plant’s name alludes to the eastern wood bison, a subspecies that was extirpated from the region as a result of over hunting in the 1800s.
“The last bison was actually killed in Webster County — the place where running buffalo clover was last documented,” said P.J. Harmon, an endangered species botanist for the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.
It wasn’t a coincidence. Bison offered a clue in the broader rediscovery of running buffalo clover, and a key to understanding how to bring the plant back from the brink.
“After Rodney found running buffalo clover, one of our biologists went through all of our old maps searching for places with the word buffalo in the name — like ‘Buffalo Creek’ — to prioritize where to start looking,” Douglas said.
That’s because running buffalo clover was known to have grown in buffalo trails. The clover provided forage for the bison, and in turn, the bison fertilized the ground for the clover.
With the buffalo gone, its namesake clover needed another animal to fill the ecological gap left by the large ungulate. It took a while for scientists to realize that that animal would have to be them.
“When we first found it, the initial reaction was to leave it alone,” Douglas said. “But this is a species that if you don’t manage, it goes away.”
Consider the population that Bartgis discovered. “It was at the edge of a river-scour prairie on route to a popular swimming hole,” Harmon said. “It got driven over all the time.”
They decided to block the road, leaving a local conservation officer to tend to the running buffalo clover. Eventually, he retired. “Nobody was there to manage it, and it disappeared,” Harmon said.
On the trail
Almost a decade later, Harmon received news from staff at the USDA Forest Service’s Fernow Experimental Forest, nestled in the northern reach of West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest.
Because of his flyer encouraging people to keep an eye out for the plant, a birding group discovered running buffalo clover growing on a limestone ridge.
It seemed that in addition to some degree of trampling, running buffalo clover liked limestone-based soils. “I thought: We have both of those things on the Fernow,” said Thomas Schuler, now a project leader at the experimental forest.
When Harmon arrived, he accompanied Schuler and his supervisor Clay Smith into the forest to search for the plant. “There were hundreds of plants, at a time when not that many occurrences had been documented at all,” Schuler remembered. “My boss was flabbergasted. He actually fell over into the weeds.”
It wasn’t from excitement. The presence of an endangered species in an experimental forest could make research a lot more complicated.
But in the end, Schuler said, “It has allowed us to add a new dimension to our research to better understand not just running buffalo clover, but other herbaceous layer species and how they respond to different kinds of disturbances.”
Consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s field office in Elkins, Schuler and his colleagues set up long-term forest management experiments to carefully track occurrences of running buffalo clover before, during, and after intentional disturbances — like harvesting some trees in an area and removing them on skid roads. These techniques can be replicated by private forest owners as well.
“We didn’t anticipate doing 25 years of running buffalo clover research and monitoring at the Fernow, but we really have been able to shed some important light on the role of forest management in maintaining this species,” Schuler said.
After seeing the results from the experiments at the Fernow, Harmon went back to the jeep trail where Bartgis had rediscovered running buffalo clover. “We scraped around with a fire rake, beat back the stilt grass, and the next year, we found a plant.”
Within a few years, there were 50.
“It takes time to understand how one species responds to various kinds of external disturbances,” Schuler noted. “And we are committed to continuing.”
Land of the lost
Asked if he thought he would see the day when running buffalo clover was considered recovered after his unexpected discovery in 1983, Bartgis said, “I certainly thought it was a long shot. We knew so little about it at the time.”
But as scientists started to find new populations in West Virginia and other states in the species’ historic range, a comeback started to seem possible.
The delisting would be an important milestone, and a reminder for managers to keep the long game in mind not only for recovering a species, but making sure it continues to thrive.
“We call it running buffalo clover because of its probable association with the buffalo, but we have to remember that it wasn’t that long ago — in geological and biological timescales — that there was a lot of megafauna in the Eastern forest, like mastodons and ground sloths,” Bartgis said. “It well could be that running buffalo clover evolved in a time when there were more large animals shaping the Eastern forest, and we haven’t been able to replicate the original ecological conditions in which it lived.”
Until mastodons, ground sloths, and bison reappear, humans will continue to play an important role in ensuring that the legacy of these lost creatures lives on in the plant that followed in their footsteps.
“It really is a plant that represents the heritage and diversity of the Eastern forest ecosystem,” Douglas said. “That it’s managing to survive is a story of resilience.”
The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other government agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, tribes, businesses, utilities and others. It has drawn support for its use of incentives and flexibilities within the ESA to protect rare wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working.