Love for the clay-loving buckwheat

  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.

About two 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 in Colorado.

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 adobe hills.

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.

The Wackers 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.
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