There are 349 rare, threatened, or endangered native plant species in Pennsylvania. The habitats they call home are as diverse as the plants themselves. As the climate changes, new challenges will arise for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency in charge of managing these habitats and protecting Pennsylvania’s rare plants. On this episode, DCNR botanist Andrew Rohrbaugh discusses what the future may hold for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable flora.
This summer, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources designated 35 new wild plant sanctuaries in state forests. Hidden in undisclosed locations all over the commonwealth, these sites provide a living laboratory for DCNR researchers and foresters as they work to better understand and protect Pennsylvania’s wealth of biodiversity.
The Wild Plant Sanctuary Program was established through the Wild Resource Conservation Act of 1982. DCNR can designate an area as a sanctuary for a number of reasons: it might house rare species, support native pollinators, or have other features such as exceptional groupings of plants. Private landowners can also apply for Wild Plant Sanctuary designation if an area on their property meets the criteria.
Native plants are essential to the health of our environment. In addition to supporting native wildlife and pollinators, they often play important ecosystem roles like preventing erosion and flooding. They can also help researchers determine the health of an ecosystem. Pennsylvania’s native plants already experience a variety of threats, including invasive plants and insects, diseases, white tailed deer, and fragmentation and loss of native plant habitat from development. With worsening climate change, these threats will only become more pronounced.
“There are so many different factors that are threats to our plant species here in the state. And climate change is just one more… we’re going to have more disturbance and more stress on our forest ecosystems,” said Andrew Rohrbaugh, a botanist with the Bureau of Forestry. According to Rohrbaugh, climate change has a potentially amplifying effect on existing threats to native wild plants.
“There are so many different factors that are threats to our plant species here in the state. And climate change is just one more… we’re going to have more disturbance and more stress on our forest ecosystems.”
“If you have disturbance because of a drought, or a wildfire, or a flood event, you’re opening up more habitat,” he said. “And it might not be that the climate change related impact has damaged the ecosystem fundamentally, or changed the plant species composition. But it’s opened up a disturbance where now we have all these invasives that can move in and take over that disturbed area much faster than some of our native plant species.”
Many rare or threatened plants require very specific habitat conditions, so even the smallest changes in rainfall can be detrimental. Damage to more common species within ecosystems can have a ripple effect, impacting rare and threatened plant species that are sensitive to disturbance. With so many unknowns, one of DCNR’s best strategies right now is to wait and see, documenting habitat changes as they occur, and taking precautions against known threats, like invasives and deer when opportunities arise.
DCNR and partners are constantly taking inventory of natural areas around the state, as well as researching development on public and private lands. Some management steps have become routine because of the prevalence of those threats statewide.
“The active management side of things is pretty new, and it’s bringing a lot of new questions, but I’m very proud of the work we’ve done.”
“The active management side of things is pretty new, and it’s bringing a lot of new questions, but I’m very proud of the work we’ve done in different areas to try and protect against the threats we’re aware of, like invasives and deer browse, opening up light availability for some of our species. It doesn’t take much, just going out and knocking down a tree or two, or trimming back a couple of saplings for an afternoon. You really see some of these species respond quite quickly,” said Rohrbaugh.
There are steps that Pennsylvania residents can take to help support native plant populations. DCNR has resources for landscaping with native plants and how to benefit pollinators. Decreasing the area of lawn that you mow, supporting native pollinator populations, and planting fruiting and flowering trees and shrubs can go a long way in supporting native ecosystems and decreasing the risk from invasive plants, according to Rohrbaugh.