U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Makes the Endangered Sacramento Prickly Poppy a Spotlight Species

Sacramento prickly poppies.
Sacramento prickly poppies are herbaceous perennials that can live 10-15 years. A healthy plant will produce thousands of seeds each year. Photo by Tyler Johnson.

Forest Service employees counting adult prickly poppies and seedlings along a forest road.
These Forest Service employees are counting adult prickly poppies and seedlings at a population along a forest road on the western slope of the Sacramento Mountains in southeastern New Mexico. Photo by Tyler Johnson.

Prickly poppy seedlings.
Prickly poppy seedlings can be abundant when there is enough rainfall, but most of these plants will succumb to drought before they can develop strong root systems. Photo by Tyler Johnson.

A young prickly poppy rosette.
This young prickly poppy rosette has a good chance of surviving to adulthood. A focus of recovery will be to learn what factors are needed to increase the number of young plants that survive to reproduce. Photo by Tyler Johnson.

By Charlie McDonald

As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s strategic planning process, the agency has selected the Sacramento prickly poppy (Argemone pleiacantha ssp. pinnatisecta) as a spotlight species. With over 1,350 species listed as endangered or threatened, the agency is hard pressed to devote significant resources to all of them. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has selected about 140 species to spotlight for conservation over the next five years. Some of the criteria for selecting spotlight species include: a high potential to reduce threats to the species; a high potential for forming effective conservation partnerships; and, a high level of current public interest in the species.

The Sacramento prickly poppy that grows on the western slope of the Sacramento Mountains near Alamogordo, New Mexico, meets all of these criteria. It was designated as endangered in 1989 when about 1,250 plants were known to exist. Most of the plants grow on the Lincoln National Forest. The number of prickly poppies has decreased dramatically in recent years from drought, a new fungal disease, and various other impacts. These declines have created pressure to modify or curtail some forestland uses that have the potential to affect adversely the poppy.

These circumstances led to formation of the Sacramento Prickly Poppy Recovery Working Group whose members include the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), New Mexico Division of Forestry, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, New Mexico Natural Heritage Program, Rio Grande Botanic Garden, New Mexico State University (NMSU), and Otero County. The Working Group’s goal is to recover the Sacramento prickly poppy. It has identified prickly poppy recovery tasks and each Group member is contributing to the recovery effort.

As part of the new recovery effort, the Lincoln National Forest has established a Sacramento prickly poppy recovery garden at the Forest Supervisor’s Office in Alamogordo. Plants grown in the garden will be used for seed production and various types of experimentation that would be difficult with plants growing in the wild. Seed germination trials have begun and the first garden prickly poppies are growing. The Lincoln National Forest has expanded its field survey efforts with the result that prickly poppies have been found in several canyons where they were thought to be extirpated. The Lincoln National Forest has developed new monitoring protocols and set up new permanent monitoring plots to better track prickly poppy population trends.

As Sacramento prickly poppy recovery continues, the Lincoln National Forest and others will do further work on prickly poppy cultivation techniques. Sites for new populations will be selected and prickly poppies will be reintroduced into historically occupied sites with the objective of increasing the number of plants that sustain themselves in natural habitats.