New protections may come for native Pennsylvania plants


Associated Press

PITTSBURGH

It’s such a pretty little plant. But the purple fringeless orchid is its own worst enemy. A complex species native to Pennsylvania with limited reproductive opportunities, its unique beauty attracts admiring crowds who venture off the walking trails to sniff it, photograph it and too often, pick it.

The last time state botanists evaluated the wildflower in the 1980s they were concerned that its vulnerability to collection could jeopardize its survival in Pennsylvania. Without enough evidence to prove it, however, they gave it a placeholder ranking, “tentatively undetermined.”

Now the orchid is on a list of native plants whose conservation classifications may change pending a series of votes by the Pennsylvania legislature. Last month the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources recommended an update of regulations that apply to the conservation of native wild land and aquatic plants.

“Pennsylvania is home to about 3,000 plant species – about two-thirds of those are considered native to the commonwealth, and 347 of them are currently considered rare, threatened or endangered,” said DCNR secretary Cindy Adams Dunn, in a statement.”

The department proposes updates that include the addition of nine plants, moving another nine to a higher bracket, downgrading two, dropping 31 from special protections and updating the scientific names given to 79 native plant species. If the updates are made to the Chapter 45 laws governing the management of wild plants, the purple fringeless orchid would bump up two protection grades.

The regulations were last updated in 1993. Before proposing the changes DCNR staff reviewed more than 20 years of field notes and taxonomic data.

“That’s the challenge,” said Rebecca Bowen of the department’s Bureau of Forestry. “There are so many plants in Pennsylvania it’s hard to be an expert on all of them.”

But the updates are necessary, she said. While some species have gained protections through state and nonprofit acquisition of land tracts, other plants such as the purple fringeless orchid have been put in jeopardy by the opening of new trail systems that expose the flowers to their adoring if detrimental human nemesis.

Wild plants are ranked in eight conservation categories, each attached to a level of protection enforced by law, with violators subject to escalating fines.

The good news is that the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvania’s 2,000 native plant species are doing fine and ranked in a category with no need for special protections. No plants are currently included in the “special concern population” category, but ginseng, goldenseal and yellow ladyslipper are classified “vulnerable” because they can be legally picked for their economic value. More information was required for “tentatively undetermined” species, and “rare” plants are contained by geographic limitations that could pose a threat to their regional survival. If proper management isn’t applied to “threatened” plants, including the purple fringeless orchid, they could become endangered, and “endangered” plants are at risk of extirpation – becoming extinct in the state.

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