Saving the Autumn Buttercup

Solving the mystery of declining wildflower populations in Utah

Buttercups in Decline

The autumn buttercup is a stunning native beauty. This perennial, bright yellow wildflower can grow up to 2 feet tall, and is found only one place on Earth: the meadows of the Sevier Valley in south-central Utah. The buttercup’s struggle to survive—even at the Conservancy’s Autumn Buttercup Preserve—has puzzled botanists for years. Now, new research may have revealed an unexpected benefactor for this delicate flower.

“We thought we were doing everything right,” explains Linda Whitham, the Conservancy’s Central Canyonlands Program Manager. “When we bought the preserve in 1991, we fenced off the species’ habitat and protected it from grazing and other impacts.” But the preserve’s buttercups, one of the few remaining populations, continued to decline. Even with cutting-edge botanical science, including seedlings nurtured in greenhouses and acclimatized to the soil before replanting, the survival of this population was still in question. For the buttercup, the future looked grim.

Then the Conservancy and its many partners—including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners for Fish & Wildlife, Weber State University and the Natural Resource Conservation Service—began to notice a curious trend.


Autumn buttercups. © The Nature Conservancy (Joel Tuhy)

Solving the Mystery

“For years, we were convinced that trampling from livestock damaged the plants,” said Whitham. “But without cattle grazing, a thick understory of vegetation was growing up around the buttercups, providing more habitat for voles and other small mammals.” For the voles, especially, buttercup seedlings proved a tasty treat.

In 2011, the team’s suspicions were confirmed by a visit to a nearby private property, where a landowner reported a large population of the wildflower. There, the endangered plants were thriving—right under the hooves of the neighbor’s cattle.

Scientists Confirm an Unlikely Ally

Scientists went back to the drawing board, and began a limited, controlled grazing study on half of the preserve. The results over the past few years have been startling. Plants on the grazed side are surviving much better than those on the non-grazed side of the preserve. Vole populations are down, and plant diversity and production have also greatly increased on the grazed portion.

“We’re now working with our partners to develop a long-term grazing plan for the preserve,” says Whitham. “It just goes to show that we still have a lot to learn about how, when and where nature will thrive—and the complicated role humans can play to the benefit, or detriment, of each species.”


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