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Resurgence of Robbins’ cinquefoil touted after plant drops off endangered list

Courtesy Doug Weihrauch
The Robbins’ cinquefoil was removed from the list of endangered species in 2002.

Courtesy Doug Weihrauch The Robbins’ cinquefoil was removed from the list of endangered species in 2002.

The Robbins’ cinquefoil, a species of plant native to Mount Washington, doesn’t get much attention.

It isn’t featured on postcards along with the snow-capped peak and the scenic treeline. It doesn’t rest alongside the historic auto road or the picturesque Cog Railway.

Yet the plant, which makes its home on a sliver of land at 6,000 feet, has one distinction that sets it apart from most others: It’s one of the few plants to be taken off the list of endangered species due to successful recovery efforts.

The plant – a member of the rose family that has yellow petals about the size of a quarter – was listed earlier this month in a report issued by the Endangered Species Coalition highlighting 10 species that have recovered since the Endangered Species Act was created 40 years ago. It’s the only non-animal species included on the coalition’s top 10 list.

The Robbins’ cinquefoil, which was first declared endangered in the 1980s, was taken off the list in 2002 after recovery efforts launched by the Appalachian Mountain Club, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Center for Plant Conservation and the New England Wild Flower Society proved to be a success. It was one of the first plant species removed from the list.

“It was a collaborative effort to get this done,” said Bill Brumback, the conservation director at the New England Wild Flower Society. “No one organization could do this.”

The plant was determined to be endangered after a population count in the early 1980s showed only 1,547 individual flowers remained – all of them in their original habitat on a small parcel atop Mount Washington. The population decline was primarily due to two things, officials said: a number of people in the early 1900s picked the plant so they could add it to flower collections, and – more significantly – hikers took a trail that ran through the plant’s habitat, squashing the flowers as they trod to the summit.

“The population was down quite a bit because of the hiking,” Brumback said. “So the trail was moved.”

The Appalachian Mountain Club worked with wildlife officials in the mid-1980s to re-route the trail, away from the flower’s habitat. They also posted signs advising hikers of the species’ endangerment and formed education programs aimed at better informing them of the wildlife in the area, said Ken Kimball, the director of research at the Appalachian Mountain Club.

And then officials studied the plant’s genetic makeup in an attempt to increase the population on Mount Washington and to introduce it elsewhere.

By the time the Robbins’ cinquefoil was removed from the list of endangered species, the population had reached 14,000 on Mount Washington, according to Brumback. And it had been reintroduced to a location where it once grew – a patch of land along the Franconia Ridge.

Even though the population of the flower has surged, Brumback said it could still be threatened by something else – climate change.

While he hasn’t seen changing temperatures and conditions affect the plant yet, he said he and his colleagues were storing seeds from it and other plants just to be prepared.

“We’re not sure what’s going to happen,” he said. “So the smart thing to do – what we’ve been doing all over New England – is to collect seed from plants.”

(William Perkins can be reached at wperkins@cmonitor.com.)

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