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Rare Plants and Animals on Our Bluffs

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

The Endangered Species Act turns 50 on December 28, 2023. In 1973, the U.S. Senate approved the ESA unanimously and the House passed it by a vote of 390 to 12. An article "Can We Protect Every Species" appears in the November issue of Scientific American about the act and how we have to do much more to prevent a biodiversity crisis.

According to the article, the list of endangered or threatened species is currently at about 1600, including 896 plants, 101 birds, 96 mammals, and 93 insects. Once on the list, only 6% have come off. Some are "delisted" because they have recovered like the celebrated bald eagle. Others come off the list because they have gone extinct. One example of a species that is likely to come off the list soon due to extinction is the iconic ivory-billed woodpecker. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing it as extinct in 2021, but then reversed course in October of this year to give researchers one last chance to try to find it. More concerning is the estimate that about one third of all plant and animal species are "vulnerable" to extinction in the coming years. Some of those species live on our bluff prairies.

What is driving this extinction? The late and esteemed naturalist E. O. Wilson coined the acronym HIPPO about 20 years ago to indicate the main causes. In descending order of importance, the acronym stands for Habitat loss, Invasive Species, Pollution, Population (Human, coupled with increasing consumption), and Overharvesting. Some now add Climate Change to the mix as a major long term threat- maybe the acronym should be changed to CHIPPO. One species that lives on our bluffs that is on this list is the rusty patched bumblebee. This insect was listed as federally endangered in 2017 and Wisconsin is one of the its remaining strongholds.

Some other vulnerable species that live on the local bluff prairies include:

Wood Lily

White or Death Camas

Prairie Ragwort

One-Flowered Broomrape

Great Plains Ladies'-tresses

Timber Rattlesnakes

Friends of the Blufflands also hopes to determine if the rare prairie vole lives on one of our bluffs by doing a live trapping and release study in 2024 under the direction of the Wisconsin DNR.

According the the Scientific American article, the "H" of HIPPO or habitat loss remains the overwhelming threat for now with climate change emerging as a significant long term threat. And behind the looming possibility of up to one third of species becoming vulnerable to extinction lurks the vexing question, "Can we save them all?" The answer, according to the article, is no. But we have to do our best and that starts with saving habitat such as the prairies on the bluffs here in La Crosse. This, along with many other efforts elsewhere, could lead to more significant ecosystem protection forming a network that builds resilience and gives that one third of plants and animals a chance of making it through the coming years. Perhaps legislation like the Recovering America's Wildlife Act that passed the House in 2022 but failed to pass the Senate in January 2023 will be reconsidered soon. And the dream of "30 by 30", that is 30% of land globally protected by 2030, will become a reality. But devoting time and effort in our own backyard is where it starts.

The remnant prairies like Lookout and Zoerb in Hixon Forest that Friends of the Blufflands has dedicated so much work to restore are relics with deep roots into the past that are nearly impossible to replace once gone. They are so much more as a whole than the individuals that make them up. Please support Friends of the Blufflands as we expand our efforts to help protect vulnerable species that live on our bluff prairies but, more importantly, to preserve this ancient prairie habitat of which so little is left.

Oh, and what about that rusty patched bumble bee? As above, it was listed as endangered in 2017, but protecting its "critical habitat" was left in limbo until recently. This crucial step was deliberated in the courts in August, 2023 and it was determined that listing the bumble bee came hand-in-hand with protecting its habitat. This bumble bee is important, but designating and protecting its critical habitat would have even more of an impact of protecting whole ecosystems like our remnant prairies which are home to this bumble bee but also many other unique and beneficial plants and animals. Here are two of many photos of the rusty patched taken on the bluff prairies:

A rusty patched bumble bee foraging on bee balm

This time on mountain mint

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Great article. And what a darling little bumble bee!


Mark Moesch
Mark Moesch
Nov 19, 2023

I've been wondering for awhi.e if the patches of birch on the bluffs indicate another prairie that could be worked on. Am I right in my thinking birch as a first generation species indicates a got prairrie?


"But devoting time and effort in our own backyard is where it starts."

This is true of so many areas in my life.

As a novice, I greatly appreciate the education you provide.


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