In June 2007, 200 endangered, native Utah autumn buttercup plants completed the final leg of a long and complex re-introduction process at The Nature Conservancy’s rare plant preserve near Panguitch. The plants’ journey included seed harvesting in Utah, in vitro production in Cincinnati, and a soil acclimatization process in Flagstaff, Arizona. On June 4, 2007, the nurtured buttercup seedlings were planted back at the preserve near Panguitch, where botanists hope they will take root and flourish. This incredible journey marks a cutting-edge scientific effort to save this Utah species from extinction.
The autumn buttercup is a stunning native beauty. The perennial, bright yellow wildflower can grow up to 2 feet tall, and is found one place on Earth: the Sevier Valley in south-central Utah. In 1989 the rare flower made the endangered species list as agricultural and other land-use practices altered much of the flower’s historic habitat.
In 1991, The Nature Conservancy, with help from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, acquired and fenced much of the species' remaining habitat near Panguitch. But the preserve protects only a small, existing population, and subsequent habitat surveys, population monitoring, and genetic studies had botanists worrying that this plant could still be lost to future generations. A new strategy for species survival was needed.
Botanists devised a bold and creative plan: re-introduce autumn buttercups grown in the laboratory to the suitable habitat within the Conservancy’s preserve. Four years ago, project partners collected seed from the Utah preserve to use as a starting material, and then propagated individual plants from 35 genetic lines to produce over 200 rooted shoots in vitro at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. The plants were then transferred to the Arboretum at Flagstaff, Arizona, for growing, under close care, and monitoring, where the autumn buttercup plants were acclimated to soil in pots. Finally, the Conservancy and botanists from Utah Valley University identified suitable locations, and on June 4, they replanted the seedlings at the Conservancy’s preserve – effectively bringing a new population of this endangered species to life in the wild.
The Conservancy and its partners will closely monitor the success of this re-introduction. Volunteers and botanists will be conducting regular surveys to see how the young plants progress. If successful, botanists agree this re-introduction could be a deciding factor in the survival of this and other native flowers. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which already provided an $18,000 grant in support of the project, aims to provide additional funding to re-introduce even more buttercup seedlings to the Conservancy’s preserve. All partners plan to share the tactics and lessons learned with local governments and agencies interested in doing similar restoration projects around the state and throughout the West.