SEVIER COUNTY After she finishes inspecting the seedlings, biologist Linda Whitham heads north, picking her way through thistle and rush and squirrel-tail grass. She's on a hunt. She's searching for the endangered autumn buttercup.
Here, in the valley of the Sevier River, on land now belonging to the Nature Conservancy, a small colony of autumn buttercups was first reported in 1894. A scientist named Marcus Jones discovered them and sent samples to Claremont College in California.
After that, it was 50 years before another botanist went looking. Lyman Benson found several clumps in what he thought was the same place Jones had spotted them in this marshy valley near the town of Panguitch.
This variety of autumn buttercup hadn't been reported elsewhere, and its numbers were small. So Benson wrote about them but did not collect them. He feared he'd be helping to wipe out a plant found no place else on Earth.
In 1975, botanists got serious about trying to find the autumn buttercup again. They searched the Sevier Valley. They found nothing but they kept searching. Then, in 1982, a biologist named Kathryn Mutz spotted some buttercups.
The Nature Conservancy got involved and in one of the first purchases ever made by the Utah chapter, and with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the conservancy eventually bought 44 acres from the private citizens who owned it. The conservancy established a rare-plant preserve around the buttercups.
In 1996, Utah's unique autumn buttercup (the Ranunculus aestivalis) made the endangered-species list. A recovery plan was drawn up. Two years ago, seeds from 200 plants were harvested and taken to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden where scientists made tissue cultures (basically cloning the plants) and raised several hundred little test-tube seedlings.
"Tissue culturing is really expensive and its not done that often," Whitham notes, feeling thankful for an $18,000 federal grant. Next the test-tube seedlings went to Arizona, to the Arboretum of Flagstaff, where they were raised and acclimatized.
The goal of the official Fish and Wildlife Service-approved recovery plan is to see 1,000 plants flourishing and blooming in this valley. The scientists started with 138 seedlings, which were planted in early June.
Today, Whitham, who is a program manager working out of the Nature Conservancy's Moab office, has just completed an inspection of those reintroduced seedlings. To say she is pleased would be an understatement. "Oh my gosh, look at that!" she exclaimed over one of the largest and healthiest looking of the seedlings.
The final tally will turn out to be nearly 93 percent of the plants surviving with the majority in good condition.
But this morning, after Whitham thrills to the sight of the seedlings, she goes off looking for the original stock and is unable to find even one of the parent plants. "Three years ago there were a dozen buttercups right here," she says. She finds only some small rods stuck into the ground, rods that carried flags to show where the wild buttercups used to be.
Whitham is making her search in August, the time when the autumn buttercup was born to bloom. If they aren't blooming in this valley, then they probably aren't blooming anywhere in the world.
Whitham is now even more grateful that so many of the reintroduced plants, the baby plants, are alive. "The real test will come over the winter," she notes, "but this is a good start."A year from now the seedlings will be big enough to bloom. Whitham stands in the valley, smelling the sage, looking out over the meadows, and she thinks about that. An autumn buttercup can grow to be 2 feet high. She wonders how big these seedlings will get
Meanwhile, at Utah Valley State College in Orem, two other botanists are just as hopeful. The planting and watering and nurturing of the seedlings is undergraduate Dan Cloward's senior project. Cloward works construction full time, and he says he's come in for a lot of teasing from his co-workers every time he leaves to drive to Garfield County to water some flowers.
He can't find the words to explain to his friends why he finds the buttercups so satisfying. He can only say he'd like nothing more than to go on for a master's and then a doctorate degree and spend the rest of his life trying to save endangered plants.
As for Cloward's professor, Renee Van Buren, she was a doctoral student in 1990 at Arizona State University when she first got involved with autumn buttercups. She says she'd helped the Nature Conservancy with a few small projects before they called her to help with the replanting.
But Whitham says Van Buren is being modest. She says Van Buren is, in fact, the autumn-buttercup expert. Van Buren's 1994 genetic studies elevated the Utah plant to a species all its own.
Throughout the recovery effort, Van Buren has been concerned about something called "genetic bottlenecks." The fact that these plants were propagated from only 35 genetic lines is a bit of a problem.
In the end it could mean the species won't survive. Even if they make it through the winter. Cloward explains that you really need about 100 genetic lines to feel safe about their future. If the plants are too similar, he says, a virus that hits one could end up destroying them all.
But recently there has been an exciting find in the world of buttercups.
Van Buren had gone to check on the Nature Conservancy preserve and did a quick survey as she was driving away and spotted another cluster of autumn buttercups blooming on some private property. The Nature Conservancy will negotiate with those property owners, and Van Buren hopes to be allowed to collect seeds from the newly discovered stand of buttercups.The newly discovered stand of buttercups will be genetically different enough that, when bred with the test-tube buttercups, they will strengthen the stock. Van Buren says the survival of Ranunculus aestivalis has now become even more likely.
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