By 8 a.m., the July day felt like a scorcher. Waves of heat rippled along the western Colorado adobe hills, shriveling plants and baking the soil to a fractured crust that crunched with every step.
Two white tents peeking from between golden
hills could have been a mirage, if it weren’t for the sizzle
of a skillet and the sweet aroma of fresh maple syrup. Beneath the
flapping structures, a crowd mingled, devouring plate after plate
of buckwheat pancakes in tribute to the clay-loving wild buckwheat,
the endangered plant they helped save. This wildflower is one of
the world’s rarest, found only in two Colorado counties.
“No rare buckwheats were harmed in making these
pancakes,” joked Rob Billerbeck, project manager for the
Colorado State Parks Natural Areas Program. The crowd erupted in
laughter muffled by mouthfuls of flapjacks.
dozen landowners, members of nonprofit groups and Colorado State
Parks personnel had gathered to celebrate the conservation of 43
acres of Wacker Ranch, prime habitat for the endangered buckwheat.
Urban sprawl and off-road vehicles have destroyed much of the
wildflower’s environment, risking extinction of a plant many
locals didn’t even know existed. The efforts of this
buckwheat coalition mark one of the first times a rare plant has
fully benefited from its protection under the Endangered Species
Act. Although plants have been listed on several occasions,
generally that’s all that happens, according to Billerbeck.
Shrubs and grasses just don’t inspire the same fund-raising
and conservation efforts as do more charismatic creatures like
wolves and bald eagles.
“Rare plants are what we
call a fine filter species; they tend to fall through the
cracks,” said Dave Gann, who is with The Nature Conservancy
Clay-loving buckwheat is a humble plant,
growing close to the ground in small button-shaped bouquets. On the
day of the celebration, tiny pink and white flowers, no bigger than
matchstick heads, crowned the plant’s fleshy green stems, and
clusters of the wildflower spattered the brittle surface of these
Biologists know little about clay-loving
buckwheat. When surveyors first found the plant on the Wacker Ranch
property just east of Montrose, it had grown larger than previously
thought possible, putting prior specimens to shame. “Those
plants were big and happy-looking,” said Dickson Pratt, a
member of the Colorado Native Plant Society. “It’s a
very tough plant.”
While Wacker Ranch is not the
largest habitat for clay-loving buckwheat, it hosts the densest and
most numerous population found to date. The buckwheat now survives
in 16 small populations, all of which occur in Delta and Montrose
counties, said Brian Kurzel, the natural areas coordinator for
Colorado State Parks. Historically, the wildflower existed as far
south as Arizona.
When Harold and Kathy Wacker bought
their ranch over 20 years ago, they had no idea of the uniqueness
of their backyard. Within a few years, a woman named Betsy Neely
knocked on their door. She was surveying native plants with the
Colorado office of The Nature Conservancy, and told the Wackers of
the rare wildflower living on their property.
faced a conundrum. The land was their retirement fund, but they
also wanted to protect the endangered plant. They contacted state
park officials and, with the help of The Nature Conservancy,
embarked on a campaign to preserve the land. What followed were
years of trying to figure out how to save both the buckwheat and
their retirement. Part of that solution was to spread the word
about this disappearing wildflower.
In 2005, the Wackers
decided to put 43 acres up for sale in what was a prime real estate
market. Montrose is one of the fastest-growing small cities in the
country, according to Kurzel, with development eating away at the
fragile adobe hills environment. Conservation groups and the state
government scrabbled to gather money, and within the year, they had
raised the roughly $210,000 needed to buy the property. “The
deal came together in six months,” said Billerbeck,
“which for the government is pretty quick.”
Now the Wacker Ranch has been designated a Colorado state natural
area, the 79th in the state. The Nature Conservancy and Colorado
State Parks are managing the land, which is off-limits to the
public. And the Wackers continue to live on the remaining 267 acres
of their ranch, just east of the natural area, where they can enjoy
the view of the landscape they helped save.
In surveys of
the ranch, biologists have already found two other rare native
plants, the princess bloom and adobe beardtongue, a plant that
displays deep blue flamboyantly bell-shaped flowers, which
literally appear to be sticking out fuzzy golden tongues.
“What’s neat about the adobes is they’re subtle,
but once you really look, there’s all sorts of things out
there,” says Barbara Hawke of the Black Canyon Land Trust
– including a species of lichen that can live for a thousand
years and northern leopard frogs, an amphibian that has disappeared
from much of the West.
Long after the partiers have left,
a garter snake slithers through the buckwheat, heading towards its
nighttime resting spot, and the plaintive cry of a fox echoes over
the hillside. Thanks to the efforts of its protectors, the
clay-loving wild buckwheat now has a sanctuary.