Census on the prairie: counting an endangered orchid

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Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Crookston

Volunteers in Minnesota are counting one of the most spectacular denizens of the tall grass prairie — the western prairie fringed orchid, which has been on the endangered species list since 1989.

Although the orchid is found at 43 locations around Minnesota, its population has steadily declined.

But the fringed orchid is getting a boost by prairie preservation projects like the Glacial Ridge Wildlife Refuge east of Crookston. It’s one of the largest prairie restorations in the country and provides a great spot for the orchid and other prairie plants to prosper.

The orchid is a spectacular sight, but it’s primary pollinator is pretty cool to watch work.The hawk moth looks like a moth, but flies like a hummingbird as it dips it’s long proboscis into the flowers. Here’s a video of the hawk moth in action.

Common threats to the orchids include conversion of land for agricultural purposes, herbicide drift, or spread of invasive species.

The orchid is also found on the Sheyenne National Grasslands in southeastern North Dakota. However, the population there took a big hit last summer when a company spraying herbicide on roadside ditches nearly 200 of the endangered orchids.The company owner pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced July 18 in federal court.

Minnesota researchers will gather on the University of Minnesota Crookston campus July 20 to talk about this year’s orchid census and research to protect the endangered plant.

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