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Sneezeweed conservation bears fruit.

One of the greatest challenges in the twenty-first century is to protect biodiversity in the face of widespread habitat loss. In the central United States, the Ozark Highlands are exceptionally rich in rare natural communities and at-risk species. One vulnerable species, a plant called the Virginia sneezeweed (Helenium virginicum), was known only from Virginia until a population was discovered in Missouri in 1960. Located on private land near Pomona, it was the only one thought to exist in Missouri for more than 40 years.

Virginia sneezeweed, which is federally listed as threatened, grows on the moist borders of seasonally wet sinkhole ponds and meadows in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and in the Ozark Highlands of Missouri. It is found in natural wetlands associated with dolomite and limestone geology that is subject to fluctuating water levels varying both seasonally and annually. The species requires full sun to flourish. Although the morphology (structure) and habitat were similar for the Missouri and Virginia H. virginicum populations, botanists originally regarded the single Missouri population with uncertainty. In 2000, however, DNA evidence demonstrated that there is no significant genetic difference between the Missouri and Virginia populations.

Habitat destruction led to the decline of the species in Virginia, and by the 1990s fewer than 25 populations existed. In 1998, the Virginia sneezeweed was listed as threatened. Since that time, both Virginia and Missouri have been working on recovery of the species in their states, and a federal recovery plan is in preparation.

For Missouri, protection of the one known population in the state was a priority. The Missouri Department of Conservation initiated a partnership with the landowner, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Center for Plant Conservation. In October 2001, biologists from these groups collected seed from the Missouri population with the goal of reintroducing the plant to two appropriate sites nearby on public land. During the process of raising and planting the sneezeweeds in their new homes, they gathered valuable information on the role of maternal genetic composition, water regime, and competing vegetation on survivorship, growth, and flowering of the Virginia sneezeweed. The two introduced populations were monitored yearly and, by August 2004, overall survivorship at both sites exceeded 90 percent. Reproduction was evidenced by new seedlings growing along the margins of the sinkholes at both sites.

The information obtained from the reintroduction project gave Missouri Conservation Department biologists a new image of the species' preferred habitat. From that, biologists designed a survey in 2003 using the original site as a focal point and county roads as survey grids working outward from that point. Within the first three weeks of the survey, five new Virginia sneezeweed sites were discovered in Missouri. Sneezeweed surveyors traveled thousands of miles of county roads and contacted hundreds of landowners. The work paid off. By November 2004, more than 44 populations of Virginia sneezeweed were known to exist in five counties in the Missouri Ozarks!

The role of private landowners in this success stoW cannot be overstated. Without the support of the owner of the Pomona site, biologists could never have gained the valuable material for DNA analysis to compare with Virginia plants nor could have collected seed for the reintroduction project. In addition, hundreds of private landowners allowed biologists access to their land to look for a federally threatened species. Many even took biologists to sites on their property that might never have been found without their assistance. This led to the discovery of several new populations.

Conservationists in Missouri are feeling good about the status of Virginia sneezeweed in the state. Neighboring states have taken notice and begun planning surveys of their own for the species. With two successfully introduced populations on public land and the goodwill of many landowner cooperators, the future for Virginia sneezeweed is looking bright.

Rhonda L. Rimer is the Natural History Regional Biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation's Ozark Region and the State Recover. Leader for Virginia Sneezeweed (Rhonda.Rimer@mdc.mo.gov).
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Author:Rimer, Rhonda L.
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:Oct 1, 2005
Words:667
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