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Patrick Springer, Published September 08 2008

‘Eco-vandal’ kills protected plant

Vehicle tracks along a roadside ditch in southeast North Dakota’s Ransom County pointed to a trail of destruction in which an “eco-vandal” sprayed threatened prairie plants with herbicide, officials said.

State and federal officials say it appears the spraying was deliberately targeted toward western prairie fringed orchids, a plant that is classified as threatened because of its diminishing grasslands habitat.

Officials believe the apparent motive is the mistaken belief that the protected status of the plants, located on private property, would restrict the owner’s use of the land.

About 25 orchids were sprayed in Sandoun Township just west of McLeod along a trail traversed by an all-terrain vehicle for 134 feet. Photographs of the sabotaged plants show drooping orchid blossoms beginning to wilt.

“You can tell they’re on the way out,” said Jeff Towner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck. The agency is responsible for enforcing federal laws protecting endangered plant and animal species.

Although the orchids can’t be removed or damaged on public lands, they are not immune from disturbance on private land, said Kathy Duttenhefner, a biologist and coordinator of the natural resource division of North Dakota Parks and Recreation, which monitors the plants for the federal government.

“The government can’t come in and say, ‘You can’t mow this, you can’t graze it,’ ” she said. “They were just afraid of the unknown, maybe of what would happen if you have a protected orchid.”

The spraying was discovered a month ago by a parks and recreation biologist during routine monitoring. The sprayed plants were adjacent to one of the survey plots used to chart the plant’s status. Surveyors check on the plants in the summer, when they are in bloom and easier to spot and evaluate.

The destruction is unlikely to result in any enforcement action, Towner said. On private land, federal jurisdiction would occur only if someone sold protected plants in commerce or if state laws were violated.

Neither appears to be the case in Ransom County, he said. Still, officials want the general public to understand that the plants are protected and shouldn’t be disturbed.

“We should do everything we can to protect this beautiful plant,” Duttenhefner said. “This is too bad,” she said of the spraying. “It’s kind of sad.”

One of the largest populations of western fringed prairie orchids is on the Sheyenne National Grasslands in Ransom County, where there are about 3,000, according to NatureServe Explorer, an online species database.

In North Dakota, one of only four large known populations, the orchid’s status is rated as “imperiled.” In North America, the orchid is found in 172 locations, mostly in the central Plains states.

Overall, the prairie orchid’s population in North Dakota since monitoring began more than 25 years ago appears to be relatively stable, although plant numbers fluctuate with conditions, Towner said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522