Seek and You Might Find! U.S. Forest Service Botanists Locate and Work to Protect a New Population of Federally Threatened Fassett's Locoweed (Oxytropis campestris var. chartacea)
Fassett's locoweed is a rare member of the legume family geographically limited to the state of Wisconsin. This species was listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1988 and is listed as endangered by the Wisconsin Bureau of Endangered Resources. Fassett's locoweed was first observed and described in northwest Wisconsin in 1928 in Bayfield County. This site was last observed in 1934. Fassett's locoweed was documented from central Wisconsin in the mid 1930s and again from several more central state locations in the late 1960s, 1978, and 1990. By 1990, these eight sites in central Wisconsin more than 240 km south of the original site were thought to be the only remaining Fassett's locoweed populations in the world.
Enter Donn Ambrose and Kristin Westad, seasonal botanists in the early 1990s for the Chequamegon National Forest. One of Ambrose and Westad's tasks during the 1992 field season was to monitor known rare plant sites. Although the original site, which is on the Washburn Ranger District of the Chequamegon National Forest, had not yielded Fassett's locoweed in nearly 60 years, the lakeshore was home to several populations of another state endangered legume, alpine milkvetch (Astragalus alpinus). After monitoring the milkvetch populations, Ambrose and Westad decided to take a look at a nearby lakeshore that, at least on aerial photos, had similar looking habitat. As it turns out, they were perhaps the first botanists to walk from the well known site to a lake as yet un-surveyed and they were rewarded by what they found!
When Donn and Kristen broke out of the mixed conifer and hardwood forest onto a sand and cobble beach of a small seepage lake on that late June day, they were immediately confronted with the rose-pink flowers of Fassett's locoweed in full bloom! More surveys over the next few days revealed 591 individual plants scattered from just above the waterline to just inside the forest edge along several hundred meters of shoreline. Alpine milkvetch, a relative of Fassett's locoweed previously known in Wisconsin from only one site, was also found in this new location.
Over the past 15 years, U.S. Forest Service botanists have continued to monitor rare plants at this Bayfield County site with continued rewards. Monitoring in 2007 found the Fassett's locoweed population to be well over 1000 total plants. The alpine milkvetch population, which started as a small patch of a dozen plants has doubled in size. Three additional plants regarded as rare in Wisconsin have also been found.
- Fir clubmoss (Huperzia selago), known from less than ten sites in the state;
- Another clubmoss with no common name (Huperzia xjosephbeitelli), only known from this one site; and,
- Marsh fleabane (Senecio congestus), known historically from only a dozen sites in the state, but most of which have not been seen in over a century; are all now part of this unique rare community.
Fassett's locoweed has also incidentally returned to its original site with a single plant found in 2006.
This exceptional rare plant site has now been protected through the forest planning process, being recognized as a "Special Management Area" in the 2004 Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forests Land and Resource Management Plan. Special Management Areas are characterized by their unique and significant physical, biological, or cultural features and include areas noted for their botanical values. Annual site monitoring helps to ensure that this remarkable area remains intact.
This special rare plant site indeed owes a note of thanks to Donn Ambrose and Kristin Westad for taking that extra look.
For More Information
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest Ecologist
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest West-Zone Ecologist
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest West-Zone Botanist