Protecting Round-leaved Orchis (Amerorchis rotundifolia) on the Hiawatha National Forest

Volunteer citizen scientist Steve Baker.
Here we see volunteer citizen scientist Steve Baker getting a shot in the habitat of the round-leaved orchis on the Hiawatha National Forest. Photo by DebLeBlanc.

Close-up of Amerorchis rotundifolia.
Close-up of Amerorchis rotundifolia showing its green throat, lightly pink colored petals with the lower lip having red-purple spots aligned in a way as to lead the pollinator into the flower. The lower lip serves as a landing pad for the pollinator that will pollinate this rare orchid. Photo courtesy of Tom Nelson.

Round-leaved orchis.
When in full bloom the round-leaved orchis is sight to behold, which will bring a sense of “awe” in finding words to describe discovery of this very rare orchid. Photo courtesy of Tom Nelson.

By Deb Le Blanc

Hiawatha National Forest volunteer, Steve Baker, travels from his home in northern lower Michigan near Houghton Lake (below the bridge) to the West Unit of the Hiawatha National Forest in central Upper Peninsula of Michigan in his quest to help protect one of the last known populations of round-leaved orchis (Amerorchis rotundifolia). Steve spends nearly 6 hours one way in his hybrid car just to get to the Munising area. Steve volunteers on the East Unit of the Hiawatha National Forest providing rare plant monitoring assistance there too. Steve is an exceptional field botanist/ecologist who has documented dramatic changes in orchid populations over the past few years.

Steve approached the Hiawatha National Forest during the winter of 2008 to offer his services to document and establish a monitoring program for our last known population of round-leaved orchis. Reduced budgets and loss of botanical personnel have placed a high burden on the two remaining botanical staff on the Forest. Having someone with so much experience and desire to help with rare plant monitoring was an early Christmas present for Forest botanical staff that very cold winter day in 2008 when Steve called to offer his services.

During the summer of 2008, Forest botany staff met with Steve and acquainted him with the last known population that is still on the Forest and worked with him to come up with a monitoring plan. During the height of the Upper Peninsula’s “bug season,” Steve spent nearly 3 days in the field mapping round-leaved orchis locations with a GPS unit. Steve monitoring work included photographing populations and their associated habitat and counting all flowering and non-flowering plants. While sloshing through the wetlands, he drew boundaries on aerial photos, documented habitat characteristics and noted impacts to this rare orchis’s habitat. On his return home, he spent more time reviewing his field notes and ultimately provided the Hiawatha National Forest with an in-depth report of his findings. Steve stated he couldn't wait until the summer of 2009 to do it all over again. Now that is dedication!

During the summer of 2008, Steve noted human impacts to the round-leaved orchis were very evident. He saw trampling and documented foot paths into some of the round-leaved orchis populations. One day while carrying out his monitoring activities Steve had the pleasure of meeting one of the State's most renowned botanists who first documented the round-leaved orchis in the Upper Peninsula. For one last time, he was hoping to observe the round-leaved orchis in bloom.

Of particular interest to Forest personnel at the Munising Ranger District, were Steve’s observations of recent OHV impacts to the fragile fen ecosystem. OHV impacts to wetland ecosystems such as this fen were severe. Unfortunately, these impacts will be long lasting and self-evident for years to come.

Steve's dedication and hard work paid large dividends. Finally, the Hiawatha had an accurate map of the population’s location and its boundary, as well as 2008’s population numbers of flowering and non-flowering individuals of round-leaved orchises. We compared Steve's monitoring results with some qualitative monitoring done three years ago. There is a significant decrease in the number of flowering individuals, nearly half the number counted in 2006. We also compared Steve's 2008 monitoring data with the original monitoring data that was collected more than 25 years ago by the renowned botanist Steve ran into while out working in the fen. Although they were difficult to detect, we discovered the original blazed trees and were able to locate nearly all of them. Unfortunately, we could not relocate any round-leaved orchis. We are hopeful that, in the not too distant future, we will be able to restore and manage the population to its previous vigor.

Steve also documented other associated plants. Amerorchis rotundifolia has exacting hydrological requirements in this fen ecosystem. With the continuance of Steve’s monitoring work the Hiawatha National Forest will gain valuable information on the affects of climate change on these rare orchids and the fen ecosystem it inhabits.