BLM Biologist Discovers Endangered Plant
Few people can claim to have made a significant scientific discovery. Rawlins Field Office biologist Frank Blomquist is one of the few.
In 1996 Blomquist, then a range management specialist, was conducting riparian surveys south of the Ferris Mountains in northwestern Carbon County. When lunchtime rolled around, Frank picked a large sand dune as a dining spot. As he sat there, he noticed a plant he'd never seen before (and Frank has seen a lot of plants).
Frank sought help with the identification of the mystery plant from Amy Roderick, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, who was conducting a general floristic survey of the area. The two revisited the dune site in June 1998 and collected a sample of the plant in bud and early flower. Unfortunately, the plants were too immature to positively identify, but Roderick and other UW botanists suspected it could be a plant known as blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii).
In July 1999, Frank led Roderick and UW botanists Ernie Nelson, Walt Fertig, and Courtney Ladenburger back to the site. This time, the plants were in full bloom and could be positively identified as blowout penstemon. Just to be certain, the group sent samples to botanists at the New York Botanical Garden and the University of Nebraska. They confirmed the identity of the plant. The plant itself is an attractive milky-lavender and blooms in May and June. Its lavender or vanilla-like fragrance is a distinguishing characteristic. It is only one of two fragrant members of the 300 different penstemon species.
Why is the discovery of this plant in Wyoming significant? Until Frank's discovery, it was believed that the blowout penstemon existed only in a handful of sites in the Sandhills of Nebraska. In fact, the species is so rare that it was thought to have become extinct in the 1940s, but it was rediscovered in 1968. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the plant as endangered in 1987. Blowout penstemon is Wyoming's first plant listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
One of the clues to the blowout penstemon's rarity is found in its name. It grows only in blowouts--wind-carved depressions in sparsely vegetated and active sand dunes. Early Nebraska naturalists reported that blowout penstemon was relatively common, depending on prairie fires and free-ranging bison herds to keep vegetation cover low on shifting dunes. The suppression of fire, leveling of dunes, reduction in grazing and cultivation of dune-stabilizing cover crops drastically reduced the amount of habitat available for the species in the Nebraska Sandhills. Other factors, including drought and insect outbreaks, are believed to have contributed to the species' decline.