Rare Plant Conservation
NHESP endeavors to protect plant species at risk, or potentially at risk, of extirpation from Massachusetts, especially any at risk of regional or global extirpation as well. Specifically, NHESP works to conserve rare species by collecting biological data, reviewing environmental impacts, protecting habitat, and initiating restoration and recovery projects.
Rare Plant Lists
For vascular plants, this process begins with deciding which plant taxa (species, subspecies, and varieties) are rare, vulnerable, or suspected to be such in the Commonwealth. These plants are then included on the Status List of Massachusetts Rare Plants (Cullina et al., 2007). This list has been compiled over many years, beginning with the first effort to identify the rare plant species of Massachusetts in 1978 (Coddington and Field, New England Botanical Club). It has since been revised many times to reflect improvements in our knowledge about the status and distribution of the plants in question. Determining whether or not a taxon is under threat or in danger of extirpation from Massachusetts involves careful consideration of many factors, and each taxon is considered on a case-by-case basis.
The Status List contains three sections:
- Plants of the MESA List: This refers to the plant portion of the Massachusetts List of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species ("MESA List"), which is the official list of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species occurring at Section 10.60 of Chapter 321 of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations. The MESA List is prepared under the authority of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). Under this Act (MGL c. 131A and its implementing regulations (321 CMR 10.00)), rare plant species designated as Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern are protected from "take" (picking, collecting, killing) or sale.
- The Plant Watch List: The plant Watch List (WL) is an unofficial, non-regulatory list of plants of known or suspected conservation concern that NHESP is interested in tracking. Species are included on the list for a number of reasons: 1) the species is thought to be rare, declining or vulnerable, but there is insufficient information on the condition, number and size of populations to make a determination (termed "Uncommon" in the "Reasons" for listing field); 2) the species was removed from the official regulatory list, but the Program believes it still is in need of some conservation attention (termed "MESA-Delisted" in the "Reasons" for listing field); 3) the species is uncommon and there are uncertainties about the taxonomic status (termed "Taxonomic Issue" in the "Reasons" for listing field); 4) the species is uncommon and its status as a native or an introduced species is undecided (termed "Introduced?" in the "Reasons" for listing field); 5) the species is recently discovered or re-discovered in the Commonwealth and is placed on the Watch List to ensure it is tracked while botanists determine whether it is appropriate for proposal to the MESA list. Like the MESA list, recent additions to the Watch List are in bold type, and synonyms are given where names have changed since Sorrie and Somers (1999).
- The Historic List: The historic list contains plant taxa which have been documented by herbarium voucher specimens to have occurred in Massachusetts in the past, yet have not been documented here in the past 25 years. Like the above-referenced lists, recent additions are in bold type, and synonyms are given where names have changed since Sorrie and Somers (1999).
Currently there are 256 plant taxa on the MESA List, 190 on the Watch List and 57 on the Historic List, together representing approximately 28 percent of our native plant taxa in Massachusetts (Cullina, Connolly, Sorrie and Somers, 2011). Changes to the MESA List are made about once every two years, and require a formal approval process due to the regulatory nature of that list. Changes to the Watch List and Historic List do not have regulatory repercussions and, thus, are updated continually as new information is acquired.
Plant species listed on the Massachusetts List of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species (Section 10.60 of Chapter 321 of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations) are protected from killing, collection, transplanting, possession, or sale under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). Plants listed on the Watch List or Historic List are not protected under MESA and thus are not subject to regulatory review.
Potential impacts to plants of the MESA list are evaluated by NHESP Endangered Species Review Biologists and staff Botanists. For more information on this process, see the Regulatory Review section of this website.
Inventory & Monitoring
NHESP botanists are responsible for tracking the locations, viability, and supporting habitats of species on the Rare Plant Status List. Inventory and monitoring are critical to our understanding of the rarity and degree of threat of each rare plant, and informs our priorities for species conservation work. In addition to inventory and monitoring efforts of NHESP staff botanists, additional updates are provided by cooperating conservation groups, such as the New England Plant Conservation Program, and also by knowledgeable citizens of the Commonwealth. If you have encountered a rare plant species, please complete a Rare Plant Observation Form and submit it, along with photographs and a topographic map, to the address on the form.
NHESP both conducts and supports scientific research involving rare plant species of Massachusetts. Current NHESP projects include a demographic study of the Federally-listed Isotria medeoloides (Small Whorled Pogonia), and a review of the habitat specificity and distribution of Amelanchier sanguinea (Round-leaved Shadbush, Special Concern) in Massachusetts. Additional research currently financially supported by our Program include an investigation of best management practices for the Endangered Pedicularis lanceolata (Swamp Lousewort), and taxonomic research of the rare Massachusetts species of Crataegus (hawthorns).
Any scientific research involving the collection of portions or propagules of rare plant species in Massachusetts requires a scientific collection permit, issued by NHESP.
Protection of the land and natural communities supporting imperiled plant species is an important component of NHESP's plant conservation agenda. With the input and guidance of NHESP Land Protection Specialists, many parcels of land known to harbor rare plants have been acquired by our parent agency, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. For example, the Hyannis Ponds Wildlife Management Area in Barnstable is renowned for its assemblage of globally-significant Coastal Plain pondshore plants. The Maple Hill Wildlife Management Area in West Stockbridge is known to contain no less than seventeen plant species either protected on the MESA list or tracked on the Watch List. More recent acquisitions to benefit rare plant species include a project in Colrain, protecting Sanicula canadensis (Canadian Sanicle, Threatened) and Equisetum scirpoides (Dwarf Scouring Rush, Special Concern) and a wet meadow in Southampton, protecting Pedicularis lanceolata (Swamp Lousewort, Endangered). For more information on Land Protection activities, visit the Land Protection and Planning section.
Management, Restoration & Recovery
Imperiled plant populations may require vegetation management to ensure that habitat conditions remain favorable to the persistence of the species in question. In some rare instances, imperiled species need intensive restoration activities, such as population translocations or re-introductions, in order to prevent the extirpation of the species from Massachusetts. NHESP is committed to the stewardship of its rare plant populations, and as such we provide management recommendations to interested landowners, help our conservation partners establish priorities for management and restoration actions, and engage in such actions ourselves. Examples of NHESP restoration activities to benefit rare plants include the establishment of restored populations of the Federally-listed Agalinis acuta (Sandplain Gerardia) in grasslands of the coastal plain (see Conservation Main Page for success stories), and efforts to restore grassland habitats for rare plants and animals at the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area. For more information on habitat restoration, visit the Habitat Restoration portion of this website.
If you are interested in managing habitat on your property to benefit rare species, visit the Landowner Incentives Program portion of this website. If you are interested in landscaping with native plants, see our Native Shrubs for Wildlife publication.