UNC Students Work on State Project to Protect Endangered Plant

UNC students helped collect data to protect the Colorado hookless cactus, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Photos courtesy of Mitchell McGlaughlin

University of Northern Colorado students last week worked alongside Bureau of Land Management state botanist Carol Dawson to collect data aimed at protecting the endangered Colorado hookless cactus.

Ten undergraduate students in Associate Professor Mitchell McGlaughlin's intensive Field Botany course, BIO 329, compiled the data with the help of three graduate students while completing a weeklong portion of the class that takes students into the field to learn about local flora.

They spent most of their time in the Escalante Canyon National Conservation Area in Delta County. McGlaughlin said they recorded whether previously tagged plants were still present, if there were any new seedlings (which would receive new tags), if the plants were flowering, and if there was evidence of damage from activities such as grazing.

"The data allows land managers to assess if the plant is increasing, decreasing, or remaining constant," McGlaughlin said. "More than anything, the BLM is trying to figure out if the plant is declining. With many rare plants, the assumption is that they are declining, but without scientific data we don't really know."

Estimates of the total number of Colorado hookless cactus, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act, range from 25,000-45,000.

"That's quite low for a plant," McGlaughlin said. Grazing, oil and gas development, and collections for the horticulture trade are contributing factors, he added.

"This plant represents part of the Colorado flora and global biodiversity," McGlaughlin said. "It is a beautiful small cactus. Overall, if we lose it, there is no way to replace this unique organism."