by Emily Douglas, '09, '10
I've always liked plants, but it wasn’t until I studied plant biology at Arizona State University that I fell in love with plants.
Maybe it was also working in the greenhouse and herbarium, getting to know the interesting and wonderful botanists around me and discovering the unusual vegetation of the Sonoran Desert that stole my heart. Either way, I couldn’t leave the plant world after college, and finding SCA seemed a great way to experience work in the field.
I knew that I wanted to do something in the Grand Canyon. I had visited a few years earlier and felt that some sort of greater presence took over me. I applied for quite a few SCA positions and then the perfect one came up working on the Grand Canyon endangered species recovery project.
Sentry Milk-vetch in the wild.
It’s been a tremendous learning experience. Everyday I wake up thankful to be in such a beautiful place and determined to learn more about this very rare and endangered plant, the sentry milk-vetch (Astragalus cremnophylax var. cremnophylax), whose Latin name translates to "watchman of the gorge." Recently, the ex situ population we established last summer in the park’s native plant nursery began to bloom! This was quite an accomplishment. An immense part of rare plant conservation is seed production.
Given that only about 1,000 plants exist in the world, I was worried that growing an ex situ population would be very difficult, but… a lot of love seems to go a long way. The greenhouse population is currently almost one hundred plants. And seeing them bloom has been exceptional!
I also collect sentry milk-vetch seeds from plants in the wild to expand the greenhouse population to ensure genetic diversity. And I collect seeds of species that grow in association with sentry milk-vetch so that when the we begin reintroducing it in the wild, we can establish an ideal habitat for it.
I have spent many hours roaming the edge of the North and South Rim looking for more populations of the sentry milk-vetch. We pay particular attention to limestone outcrops and areas where we find associate species. No new populations have been found yet recently, but I have hope that more exist somewhere in this great canyon; there are many miles left to be searched.
Now that our ex situ population is blooming, I’ve been pollinating the tiny flowers with small paint brushes in hopes that fruits will emerge and seeds will develop. I’m currently working on a pollination study to identify who the native pollinators are.
The biggest challenge, I think, is performing good, quality science that can be useful to future generations and answer questions. It is relatively easy to collect data, but to be able to use the data is where progress is really made. It’s challenging to understand the ecology of a rare endemic species and attempt to discover why it is endangered
My supervisor, Jan Busco, has been incredible. She is so knowledgeable about the sentry milk-vetch, the Grand Canyon, and everything in between. She has guided the work I do with patience and dedication. Her presence as a mentor is irreplaceable.
Emily Douglas and Jan Busco discover a new location where ASCR had not been found previously
Other folks within Science and Resource Management are also outstanding, and it is encouraging because many of them started out as SCA’s: Kassy Theobald, Restoration Biologist; Christi Sorrell, Vegetation Crew Lead; Allyson Mathis, Science and Education Outreach Coordinator, and Lori Makarick, Vegetation Program Manager. The vegetation program alone here at Grand Canyon is staffed with about 50% SCA alumni and SCA interns/corps members.
Ex situ plant in bloom
Restoring the endangered sentry milk-vetch matters a great deal because of its intrinsic value in the natural world. Keeping biodiversity as rich as possible supports a healthy, balanced and evolving world. If you remove one part of the equation, another part is affected. If we stop caring about disappearing species, we will wake up one day and see that our backyard is filled with only tamarisk and other nonnative plants.
The sentry milk-vetch has been a part of the Grand Canyon long before we were and it should remain a part of it. Hopefully, my work will help ensure the survival of this beautiful plant.
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