ST. LOUIS — Species conservation doesn't just apply to faraway rain forests or endangered whales.
A network of botanical institutions is launching an unprecendented study of endangered native U.S. plants to determine their potential for recovery -- and in hopes of preventing their disappearance. Those plants range from the Western lily to the Tennessee coneflower, says the Center for Plant Conservation.
The center, a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization comprising more than 30 botanical organizations around the country, was founded in 1984 to stop the extinction of native plants. Center officials said an analysis of this scale has never been performed before at a national level.
The center estimates that about 2,000 U.S. plant species, or about 10 percent of the nation's native flora, are at risk of extinction.
The roughly $500,000 study aims to look at endangered or threatened plants and also those being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Much information has already been gathered on endangered plants, but the new study, due for completion at the end of 2006, will bring it together and update information to provide an overall snapshot of the current plant populations.
Study participants will not go into into the field to gather data, rather they'll bring together information, much of it in databases, already gathered by federal workers, contractors and amateur botanists on endangered species.
The study of more than 800 species will give federal agencies information about how much of an endangered plant species they have on their lands.
"We're going to try to let them know what they've got, about the robustness of their populations and how what they've got stacks up against what's available for recovery," said Kathryn Kennedy, the center's executive director. The study will also provide a summary of which species are most dependent on private lands for recovery.
The information could lead to new partnerships between organizations trying to bring back a self-sustaining plant population, or help them set budgets and priorities related to endangered plants.
Center officials also hope the study will reveal success stories, plants no longer in danger because of recovery programs.
Diversity in nature is important because a plant's extinction could lead to declines for animal, insect, other plant populations and the environment, said Bruce Rittenhouse, the center's conservation programs manager.
"They are the canary in the coal mine," he said. "They are the signals of health."
In addition to food, plants provide fiber, fuels and pharmaceuticals for human use.
Eighty percent of rare plants are closely related to economically important plants, Kennedy said, and plant breeders have found traits in rare wild plants that have proven useful to the others. Native plants in the U.S. have properties used to treat sickness, fight agricultural pests and improve crops.
Kennedy said the study also will be essential to other work done by the center. For instance, the botanical network maintains the National Collection of Endangered Plants, which the center believes is the largest living collection of rare plants in the world.
The collection includes hundreds of the nation's most imperiled native plants. An imperiled plant is one vulnerable to extinction because of habitat loss, invasion by exotic species, over-collection of the plant or pollution.
In the collection, live plant material is collected from nature and then maintained as seed, cuttings with roots or mature plants.
Scientists use the banked seeds and plants both to stabilize existing populations of imperiled plants and to reintroduce new populations in proper habitats.
The new study is being done in partnership with the Washington-based nonprofit conservation organization NatureServe. The center's network of botanical institutions will take part in the study, which is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, Chevron Texaco and the St. Louis-based Edward K. Love Conservation Foundation.