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Recovery Strategy for the Western Prairie Fringed-orchid (Platanthera praeclara) in Canada


Recovery Feasibility

The recovery of the western prairie fringed-orchid in Canada is feasible because 1) individuals capable of reproduction are available; 2) sufficient suitable habitat is available or could be made available through habitat management; 3) significant threats to the species can be mitigated; and 4) the techniques for effective recovery appear achievable.


Recovery Goal

The western prairie fringed-orchid has always been rare in Canada, with Canada’s only known population occurring in a small area in southeastern Manitoba. There is little potential for this species to be downlisted from Endangered based on its limited distribution. Nevertheless, it appears feasible to maintain this species in the area of Manitoba where it is currently found.

The recovery goal for the western prairie fringed-orchid is to maintain the persistence and viability of Canada’s only metapopulation.

Population and Distribution Objectives

Setting quantitative objectives for the recovery of this species based on conserving an absolute number or percentage of individuals is extremely difficult, because the total number of plants in existence is difficult to assess. Plants go through several stages before flowering, from a very small protocorm in the year(s) immediately following germination to a vegetative plant with 1–3 leaves. Plants may grow vegetatively for several years before flowering and then revert to a vegetative state the following year. Monitoring in the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve found that between 40% and 95% of plants were vegetative (Punter in press). Vegetative plants are shorter than flowering plants and much more difficult to enumerate. The easiest method of monitoring population numbers from year to year is to count flowering plants. However, the number of flowering plants can fluctuate by an order of magnitude from one year to the next (Figure 4). This makes it difficult to set quantitative population goals in terms of number of plants. Furthermore, with counts of flowering plants dating back to only 1992, it is impossible to know whether flowering plant counts made to date reflect the full range of natural variability in the Canadian population. Monitoring plots in which flowering and vegetative plants are counted may be the only way to detect an increase or decrease in the population.

Hence, the population and distribution objective for recovery of the western prairie fringed-orchid is:

·        to ensure the long-term survival of the western prairie fringed-orchid by maintaining the population at its current size (within its natural range of variability as observed between 1992 and 2005) and by maintaining the population’s current distribution and area of occupancy.


Recovery Objectives

Objective 1:    Monitor the population trends of the western prairie fringed-orchid on an ongoing basis, establishing additional monitoring protocols as required.

The population must be monitored to determine population trends. Counts of flowering plants can continue to serve as an indicator of population size. Additionally, a standardized protocol for monitoring other parameters, such as seed production and recruitment, may be required. The monitoring protocol should be designed to detect population changes due to factors such as hydrological change, vegetation succession, invasion of exotic species, and habitat management.

Objective 2:    On an ongoing basis, identify and implement beneficial management practices to reduce threats and to help sustain or potentially increase the population of the western prairie fringed-orchid.

As new information becomes available regarding beneficial management practices for the western prairie fringed-orchid, it will be incorporated into management planning for the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve and forwarded on to other landowners and stakeholders in conjunction with Objective 4.

Objective 3:    By 2007, develop a comprehensive applied research strategy to address knowledge gaps.

Basic biological attributes of the western prairie fringed-orchid require further research to guide protection and restoration efforts. Research should focus on population demographics, factors affecting seed production, including pollination biology, vegetation management techniques, and the effects of threats such as hydrological change and nutrient loading on the species and its habitat. A comprehensive list of required research can guide researchers and funding agencies to fill knowledge gaps.

Objective 4:    By December 2009, increase landowner and key stakeholder awareness of the western prairie fringed-orchid and its needs to the point where stewardship and beneficial management practices are being implemented.

Education and communication efforts are needed to ensure that western prairie fringed-orchid populations are recognized during land use planning. Stewardship with private landowners and with provincial and municipal governments is also needed.


Broad Strategies to be Taken to Address Threats

In general, threats will be addressed through habitat protection, habitat management, research, and efforts to increase public awareness (Table 2). A summary of strategies by threat, as outlined in section 1.5, follows.

Habitat Loss and Degradation

These threats will be addressed directly through protection of habitat through stewardship and conservation agreements. In addition, education and communication materials on the western prairie fringed-orchid and its habitat requirements will be developed and circulated among municipalities, landowners, and the general public.

Exclusion by Other Plants

These threats will be addressed through the implementation or continued implementation of beneficial management practices, which could include prescribed burning, focused herbicide application, and managed grazing and/or mowing regimes. Additional research may be required to determine the most beneficial frequency, intensity, and timing of these practices.

Low Reproductive Success

Research into issues related to reproduction (pollination, seed set, and germination rates) and population genetics is needed to determine the role that these threats may play in limiting population growth. The results can then be used to direct recovery action as needed.

Illegal Removal of Plants

Communication with orchid societies, landowners, and the general public will provide information on the threat that illegal collection poses to the western prairie fringed-orchid, as well as penalties associated with illegal collection and possession.


Recommended Research and Management Activities

A general description of the research and management activities that are recommended to meet the recovery objectives and address the identified threats is outlined in Table 2. The future action plan will provide more detailed information on these activities and their respective implementation schedules.


Table 2. Recommended research and management activities to effect recovery of the western prairie fringed-orchid in Canada.
PriorityRecovery objectivesBroad strategyThreat(s) addressedRecommended activitiesOutcomes
High2Habitat protection

·         Habitat loss and degradation

·         Illegal removal of plants

·         Maintain protection at currently protected sites.

·         Prioritize additional sites for protection based on level of threat and population size.

·         Determine strategies for protection.

·         Implement protection strategies in order of urgency.

·         Additional habitat considered protected from future loss.

·         Reduced risk to the species.

Urgent2Habitat management

·         Habitat loss and degradation

·         Exclusion by other plants

·         Maintain successful habitat management strategies at identified sites.

·         Prioritize sites for urgency of active management.

·         Determine suitable management strategy for each site, and implement management strategies in order of urgency.

·         Habitat managed to conserve and/or enhance populations of the western prairie fringed-orchid.

·         Reduced risk to the species.

Urgent2 and 3Research

·         Habitat loss and degradation

·         Exclusion by other plants

·         Low reproductive success

·         Prioritize knowledge gaps, and promote/conduct research to address gaps in order of urgency.

·         Determine population viability.

·         Determine beneficial management practices.

·         Identify the extent to which particular factors impact population sustainability or growth.

·         List of priority research projects that can be used to attract researchers and funding.

·         Improved understanding of the species’ biology and its beneficial management practices to guide stewardship.

·         Improved definition of what constitutes critical habitat and its destruction.

High1Population monitoring

·         Habitat loss and degradation

·         Exclusion by other plants

·         Low reproductive success

·         Illegal removal of plants

·         Develop and implement standardized monitoring protocols.

·         Monitor known populations.

·         Survey additional areas for new populations.

·         Concurrently monitor factors that may be affecting population size.

·         Data on species’ status.

·         Ability to assess changes in species’ abundance that can be attributed to changes in external factors (threats).

Necessary2 and 4Increased awareness

·         Habitat loss and degradation

·         Exclusion by other plants

·         Illegal removal of plants

·         Identify and prioritize target audiences (e.g., landowners, municipalities, maintenance crews, orchid societies, etc.).

·         Develop a communication plan that effectively conveys information to the target audience (e.g., web pages, interpretation programs, fact sheets, etc.).

·         Improved communication leading to heightened awareness, goodwill, and cooperation.

·         Enhanced ecotourism benefits for local communities.

·         Reduced risk to the species.

Critical Habitat

Critical habitat is defined in the Species at Risk Act as “the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species and that is identified as the species’ critical habitat in the recovery strategy or in an action plan for the species” (National Recovery Working Group 2005). In other words, critical habitat is the quantity of habitat needed to reach the recovery goal. Identification of critical habitat is the result of an analytical process that takes into account the available suitable habitat and potential or restorable habitat, the long-term recovery goal, and the population objective.

Identification of Critical Habitat (proposed)

This strategy proposes a partial identification of critical habitat. Additional information on the species’ biology, demographics, population viability, and threats is needed to make further biological decisions in order to complete the critical habitat identification for the western prairie fringed-orchid. The identification of critical habitat for the western prairie fringed-orchid will be completed by December 2009, as part of an action plan (see section 2.6.3, Schedule of Studies and Actions to Identify Critical Habitat).

Proposed critical habitat for the western prairie fringed-orchid in Canada consists of portions of the following 24 quarter-sections [1] within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve on which the western prairie fringed-orchid is known to occur: NW-36-002-06 E, NE-36-002-06 E, SW-36-002-06 E, NE-35-002-06 E, SE-35-002-06 E, NW-31-002-07 E, NE-27-002-06 E, SE-27-002-06 E, NE-26-002-06 E, NW-26-002-06 E, SE-26-002-06 E, SW-25-002-06 E, SE-24-002-06 E, SW-24-002-06 E, NE-23-002-06 E, NW-22-002-06 E, NE-22-002-06 E, SE-18-002-07 E, SW-18-002-07 E, NW-14-002-06 E, NE-13-002-06 E, NW-13-002-06 E, NW-07-002-07 E, and SE-02-003-06 E. Approximately 73% of the total area of occupancy in Canada is found on these lands designated as proposed critical habitat (based on the mapped “patches” of the western prairie fringed-orchid). Based on 2005 observations, 83% of flowering plants observed are found on proposed critical habitat. Additional information is required on population size and persistence of the western prairie fringed-orchid at other locations before these locations may be considered for identification as critical habitat in a revised recovery strategy or subsequent action plan.

Activities likely to result in destruction of critical habitat

Destruction of critical habitat for the western prairie fringed-orchid is any alteration to the topography, geology, soil conditions, vegetation, chemical composition of air or water, surface water or groundwater hydrology, or microclimate of such a magnitude, intensity, or duration that it significantly reduces the capacity of the critical habitat to contribute to the survival or recovery of this species at risk.

Some examples of activities that may result in destruction of critical habitat include, but are not limited to, cultivation, destructive grazing regimes, anthropogenic development, including roads or buildings, application of harmful herbicides, deleterious alteration of hydrological regimes, actions that result in the long-term reduction of sun exposure, such as shading from trees or buildings, promotion of encroachment by woody species, and promotion of invasive exotic species (see section 1.5, Threats). In contrast, properly managed fire, grazing, and/or mowing regimes and exotic species control may be necessary and beneficial for the persistence of the species.

Schedule of Studies and Actions to Identify Critical Habitat

All lands known to be inhabited by the western prairie fringed-orchid and not already designated as critical habitat will receive consideration for designation as critical habitat. This includes private land as well as Crown-owned ditches and road allowances.

The following studies and actions will assist in identifying new areas as candidates for critical habitat designation or provide additional information on the species and its habitat to assist in decision-making regarding critical habitat:

  • On an ongoing basis, search for additional sites for the western prairie fringed-orchid on land containing habitat that has attributes similar to those of known sites.
  • By December 2009, determine whether activities taking place on land surrounding occupied western prairie fringed-orchid habitat are having measurable positive or negative effects on the western prairie fringed-orchid. If so, assess whether these lands could constitute additional critical habitat.
  • By December 2009, determine whether anthropogenically created habitat (i.e., ditches and undeveloped road allowances) that supports the western prairie fringed-orchid is critical to the survival of the species and thus meets the definition of critical habitat.
  • Additional studies or actions may be identified as useful during the action plan development.


Existing Approaches to Habitat Protection

The habitat supporting Canadian populations of the western prairie fringed-orchid is considered to be Manitoba’s best remaining tallgrass prairie habitat. As such, it has been the target of considerable attention from conservation agencies that have joined forces to create and manage the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. Appendix A provides a summary of the Preserve’s organization and function.

Lands in the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve are managed to maintain tallgrass prairie habitat through a variety of approaches that may include prescribed burning, grazing, haying, and control of exotic species. These measures serve to maintain tallgrass prairie habitat and control woody species encroachment, but they are not necessarily targeted at any one species, such as the western prairie fringed-orchid or other co-occurring species at risk (see section 2.10.2).


Effects on Non-target Species

Land management practices that include disturbances such as fire, mowing, and/or grazing are natural components of prairie ecosystems and tend to promote a diversity of plants and animals (Samson and Knopf 1994). In general, these actions tend to reduce the abundance of competitively dominant species while promoting the persistence of species tolerant of those disturbances. However, decisions on the timing and frequency of such practices need to take into consideration impacts on populations of a variety of species at risk. See section 2.10.2 for suggestions on how to address the needs of multiple species at risk in the area.

Actions to reduce or remove invasive woody plants -- for example, controlling the encroachment of shrubs such as bog birch, shrubby cinquefoil, and willow species through burning or mowing -- will have a direct impact on populations of those shrub species and an indirect impact on any species that depend upon those woody plants for their survival. To the extent possible, land management decisions should be made with the well-being of all species in mind. Actions to reduce or remove invasive exotic species will also have a direct impact on those species; however, this is usually desirable and beneficial to an ecosystem.


Evaluation of Success

The implementation of approaches identified within this recovery strategy to maintain the distribution and abundance of the western prairie fringed-orchid will be considered successful if the following evaluation criteria are met:

  • Monitoring of western prairie fringed-orchid sites demonstrates that populations are stable or increasing.
  • Sites containing populations of the western prairie fringed-orchid have been documented and appropriate agencies and landowners notified, resulting in either direct (through purchase or development of a conservation agreement) or indirect (stewardship) increases in the proportion of western prairie fringed-orchid habitat conserved.
  • Identification of threats to the persistence of western prairie fringed-orchid populations and habitat (on a site-by-site basis) has resulted in the development and implementation of measures that eliminate, reduce, or mitigate threats, to provide for the continued existence of western prairie fringed-orchid populations and habitat.
  • A comprehensive communications strategy has been developed that incorporates evaluation criteria to assess the enhanced level of awareness of the western prairie fringed-orchid.
  • Identified high-priority research approaches have been initiated, and the acquired knowledge has been incorporated into an adaptive management program.


Recovery Action Plan Development

Proposed structure of recovery action group

Currently, neither a recovery team nor a recovery action group has been formally created. However, the significant amount of conservation activity already undertaken at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve to conserve this and other native prairie species is notable. Recovery action is well under way, even if not formally recognized as such to date.

It is therefore proposed that a close working relationship be formalized with the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, including its non-government landowners, field staff, and the management and local advisory committees. This is likely to include representation on the recovery team and recovery action group for some or all interested individuals and organizations.

Other interested individuals and organizations that could be invited to participate and contribute to recovery action include local government officials, landowners, representatives of local producer groups, orchid conservation groups, and plant biologists.

A good working relationship exists between staff of Manitoba Conservation and staff of sister agencies in the United States, such as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, where a great deal of expertise on this species has been accumulated. Input from American conservation partners will be pursued.

Multiple-species Approach to Recovery Action

A number of other federally and provincially listed species at risk are also found in the same general area of Manitoba, including small white lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum), western silvery aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum), Dakota skipper (Hesperia dacotae), and Powesheik skipperling (Oarisma powesheik), among others (Appendix B). Most of these species are not as geographically limited in Manitoba as the western prairie fringed-orchid. However, for populations of these species at risk found in and around the Rural Muncipalities of Stuartburn and Franklin, a multiple-species approach to recovery action is warranted, to ensure that management considerations of all species at risk are accounted for and, if necessary, weighed against each other.

Action Plan Timeline

An action plan for the western prairie fringed-orchid and/or a multiple-species action plan for all listed species at risk in the area will be completed by December 2009. Action plan(s) will be completed by Manitoba with guidance from this recovery strategy. Steps to achieve recovery objectives will be ongoing in the interim.

[1] Quarter section descriptions are based on the Dominion Land Survey System, whereby most of western Canada is legally divided into townships based on longitudinal meridians and latitudinal base lines; each township is given a township number and range number.  Townships are approximately 9.7 km x 9.7 km (6 miles x 6 miles) and are further divided into thirty-six sections, each about 1.6 km x 1.6 km (1 mile x 1 mile).  In turn, each section is divided into four quarter sections: southeast, southwest, northwest and northeast and are 0.8 km x 0.8 km (half-mile x half-mile).  For example, the full legal description of quarter section NW-36-002-06-E is the Northwest Quarter of Section 36, Township 002, Range 06, east of the First Meridian (see McKercher and Wolf 1986, or Wikipedia 2006 for more information).