Plant Conservation Initiative at Colorado State University Focuses on Rare Plants: ‘The Forgotten Majority’

Colorado is home to numerous plant species that are not found anywhere else in the world but many of these plants are imperiled and facing the threat of extinction. Colorado State University’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program, The Nature Conservancy and several other partners recently completed a statewide strategy to address plant conservation efforts for the next decade.

The Colorado Rare Plant Conservation Initiative seeks to secure on-the-ground protection for all of Colorado’s imperiled plant species during the course of the next 10 years. Long-term success of the initiative will mean the establishment of a state program and policies and funding mechanisms dedicated to the conservation of Colorado’s imperiled plants and their habitats. Colorado is one of a minority of states with no state plant protection statutes. Although 12 species are listed on the federal endangered species list, Colorado has no state level recognition or protection for plants.

“Rare plants are the ‘forgotten majority.’ So often people focus on the more charismatic large animals, but 75 percents of the imperiled species in Colorado are plants, many of those are found nowhere else in the world,” said Betsy Neely, senior conservation planner for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.

According to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, 119 out of the state’s 155 imperiled species are plants and are considered globally imperiled and are at significant risk of extinction. More than 68 of these plant species are known to occur only in Colorado.

About 70 percent of the state’s imperiled plants are found on federal lands and 24 percent occur on private land. About 3 percent of these plants are on state lands with the rest occurring on lands managed by non-governmental organizations, local governments and tribes.

“We hope to accomplish our goal of protecting all of Colorado’s imperiled plant species by working with local land trusts and willing landowners on conservation easements as well as collaborating with public agencies on special designations and seed collections,” said Susan Panjabi, botanist with CSU’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program. “We also want to work with energy companies to encourage them to use best management practices to reduce the impacts of oil and gas development on plants and habitats.”

A vast majority of plants have not been tested to determine their potential values for food and medicine. Rare plants play a valuable role in natural history in that their persistence over time serves as indicators of good stewardship and ecosystem health. Furthermore, each species, with its unique color, form and fragrance, contribute to the beauty of the natural landscape.

Colorado is one of the fastest growing states in the United States and as residential development, energy development, motorized recreation activities and road construction continues to increase plants and their habitats strain under the pressure.

Beyond urban development, researchers believe the biggest threat to rare plants is climate change.

“Climate change is a particularly serious threat to specialized habitats like alpine environments because if plants are restricted to specific habitats they don’t have many options for moving when the climate changes,” said Neely.

“The first step toward assuring the long-term survival of the botanical diversity of Colorado is increasing people’s awareness about these rare and vulnerable species. These plants occupy very small areas on the landscape, and most people in our rapidly growing population are simply not aware that they exist,” said Panjabi.