Back in 1983, on his second day on the job as a botanist with the West Virginia Nature Conservancy, Rodney Bartgis made an improbable discovery at a site along the New River in Fayette County: a running buffalo clover, a plant believed extinct for more than 40 years.
Four years after Bartgis’ discovery, running buffalo clover became the first West Virginia plant to be listed for Endangered Species Act protection. On Tuesday, after 32 years of recovery and the discovery of more than 150 new populations in six states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will formally propose removing the running buffalo clover from the endangered species list.
“It’s nice to know that it will be coming off the list,’” said Bartgis, who went on to serve as director of the West Virginia chapter of The Nature Conservancy for 12 years.
That outcome would have been impossible to predict when Bartgis rediscovered the believed-extinct plant 36 years ago.
Bartgis was accompanying Ed Maguire, then TNC’s state director, who was showing the Massachusetts-based regional director of the conservancy a site along the Kanawha River in Fayette County with an abundance of diverse plant life. While Maguire led his supervisor on the tour, Bartigs followed, but kept an eye out for a rare plant possibly living in the area.
The plant the young botanist was looking for wasn’t the one he rediscovered — the last documented occurrence of which was recorded in 1940 in Webster County. The running buffalo clover could once be found in scattered populations in partially shaded, periodically disturbed soil in eight states, from West Virginia to Arkansas.
“You know, today I can’t remember what I was hoping to see that day,” Bartgis said on Monday. “We were walking along an old Jeep trail at Cotton Hill when I looked down and saw something I thought might be running buffalo clover,” and stopped to investigate.
Bartgis said he had recently examined a specimen of the plant at WVU, which likely helped him take note of large clover he encountered.
Maguire said he the regional TNC director had been discussing the relative merits of NBA teams and walked past the running buffalo clover specimen Bartgis spotted a few moments later.
“When it came time to turn around and head back to the truck, I couldn’t see Rod,” said Maguire, now the Department of Environmental Protection’s environmental advocate. “We found him looking at what appeared to be a few while clover plants on steroids, and telling us he thought it was running buffalo clover.”
The regional director expressed doubt that the clover specimen Bartgis stumbled upon was a representative of a species believed to have been dead for four decades. He bet Bartgis a steak dinner the plant was not running buffalo clover. He lost.
Bartgis placed a small sample of the plant in a plastic bag and took it back to Maguire’s St. Albans home, where he and the regional director examined its magnified image by looking at it backward through a pair of Maguire’s binoculars.
“They looked at the plant for identifying features and went through the taxonomic checklist, and eventually the guy from Boston decides that the plant may really be running buffalo clover,” Maguire said. Further inspection of the plant by botanists at the University of Missouri confirmed the analysis.
Within a year, Bartgis found a patch of ground in Webster County where four additional running buffalo clover were identified, not far from the site where West Virginia’s last eastern wood bison, known as buffalo to early settlers, was shot in 1825.
The plant derives its name from the trails and disturbed forest understory created by the bison that provided its habitat. Modern activities that disturb, but not compact the soil or thin forest understory now fulfill the bison’s role.
“Once people found out that running buffalo clover was not extinct, they focused on finding it,” and new populations were found across West Virginia, into neighboring states and beyond.
The plant is now known to exist in the wild in 154 populations Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri, more than half of them on public lands or private property with conservation agreements.
Following today’s announcement of the plant’s de-listing, a six-month public comment period will follow, followed by a final decision.