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Published: Monday, 7/14/2003

Managing nature

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER

We step into Mary's Savanna.

Bob Jacksy shouts: “Whoa! Look at the blueberries! These are awesome! They just explode in your mouth.''

Bob Jacksy speaks in exclamation points. He cheers plants. He stops dead in his tracks and shouts at the sight of wolf spiders, which he sometimes encourages to run up his arm. He geysers facts about the surrounding landscape, tidbits, myths, evolutionary theory, the details of recognizing a red-headed woodpecker in flight: “Three flaps and a glide, three flaps and a glide.” It's the only Eastern woodpecker that doesn't undulate as it flies, he adds. Its numbers fell 5 percent per year for the last 15 years due to habitat loss.

As Mr. Jacksy marches forward, popping blueberries, I follow suit. “The park rule is you have defecate here to disperse the seeds,'' he says over his shoulder. He's kidding. I'm pretty sure.

We're on a hunt, a hunt Toledo Area Metroparks naturalists make regularly. They keep track of 120 of the 130 rare and endangered plants in the Oak Openings Preserve Metropark. (Not tracked regularly are the near-impossible-to-distinguish rushes and sedges.)

Their goal is to find rare plants, count each representative, and record its longitude and latitude to at least five decimal places with the help of global positioning system satellites. In a landscape with more rare and endangered species than most anywhere in the state, there's more to be gained here than a profit-and-loss statement of the natural world. Here's where the naturalists see which land-management strategies succeed, and which need more work.

It's tricky being in charge of nature. The Oak Openings - like any park in the United States - carries relics of failed management ideas. The big mistake here started in the 1930s and kept up into the 1960s when people planted huge stands of pines where sun-loving prairie plants once reigned.

We know more now. Still, Mr. Jacksy is afraid we're about to witness a failure.

We're looking for a weirdo of a

plant. It's called the rattlesnake master for reasons hidden by speculation and legend. Mr. Jacksy read that in the 19th century, some naturalist felt a sting on his posterior when he collided with the plant. A jumpy sort, the naturalist thought the sting was a rattlesnake. Another story says Indians used the plant roots as an anti-venom.

The Latin name - Erynigium yuccifolium - is a tad more telling. The plant looks lost, an escapee from the Southwest, perhaps. Its leaves - piercing, jagged swords - look like yucca leaves. But they're not even cousins. The rattlesnake master is in the carrot family.

For reasons that aren't clear, rattlesnake master is on the decline in the Oak Openings. In 1994, there were a record 177 rattlesnake masters in Mary's Savanna. The next time anyone looked - in 1996 - there were 26. In 1995, nine plants remained. Then eight. Then six. Then four. In 2001, there was a hopeful jump to nine. But by last year, things were grim. Mr. Jacksy counted five plants.

“That's frightening to me,'' he says. “We're measuring the pulse of the natural landscape.'' A thready pulse may mean trouble for more than this species.

While habitat loss and invasive species are a constant pressure on the remaining prairies, within the park the threats are often simpler. Deer munched the top of the only fern-leaved false foxglove found in the entire Oak Openings last year, preventing the endangered plant from making seeds. There were never more than a handful of these yellow-flowering plants in the park. Fortunately, the snacking deer did no permanent harm. This year, Tim Schwab, a metropark intern working alongside Mr. Jacksy, counts 45 fern-leaved false foxgloves. They line up along the root of a black oak. The plants are part parasite. They subsidize their photosynthesis by drawing energy from the black oak roots.

“This was burned two years ago,'' Mr. Jacksy says. In the prairie, burns eliminate shade and get sunshine to plant roots earlier in the year. Without it, scrub makes quick work of the prairie. This is an ecosystem full of such counter-intuitive facts. Not only is fire good, so are nutrient-poor soils.

“In this part of the world, the poverty of the soil leads to a greater diversity of plants,'' Mr. Jacksy says. When the soil is rich, the opportunistic weeds take over. Poor soil demands plants develop specific adaptations for the hardships.

And the Oak Openings is species rich. Any 25-by-20-yard plot would uncover about 50 different plant species, Mr. Jacksy estimates. The preserve is the most diverse ecosystem in the state, with more than 1,000 plant species.

Every step reveals a new one. The air is delicious with the fragrance of the sweet fern we crush underfoot. A small green leaf smells exactly like chewing gum. It's a wintergreen plant. A spicebush swallowtail butterfly dips in front of us.

“The caterpillars have false eyespots,'' Mr. Jacksy says. These “eyes” scare off predators. Maybe that's also behind the caterpillars' other strange adaptation: “They let out little caterpillar farts. They're real pungent.''

Metroparks workers burn Mary's Savanna regularly. The stretch where rattlesnake master thrived in the past, in fact, received special attention to reduce shade. So far, the attention has not paid off.

We spread out and begin searching.

“Wooo! Here we go! Hot dog!'' Mr. Jacksy cries. No, it's not a rattlesnake master, but a flower seen only once in this savanna before, the wood lily.

A nearby stretch of land called Campbell Prairie is dotted with these intense orange-red blooms. Campbell Prairie is the stronghold of the misnamed lily. The wood lily could never survive in a shaded wood. It craves the sunshine.

The plant is in decline across the state, but 93 turn up in Campbell Prairie this year - not quite the 200 seen in 1997, but a healthy population.

“You got to get out here in July. This is gonna be wild crazy beautiful,'' Mr. Jacksy declares.

The plant takes from six to eight years to go from seed to flower.

“That's an incredible lag time. That's part of the problem with managing these things.''

The electric petals sit atop a single nearly leafless stem. It's a design streamlined to that eight-year span from seed to sex.

“You look at the size of the stem, and look at the size of these flowers. It's investing a whole lot in advertising,'' Mr. Jacksy says. A sexy look will seduce the pollinators. You don't throw away an eight-year investment with a drab little flower. Boldness assures the species' future.

And now it's advertising on Mary's Savanna. An encouraging site.

Moments later, Tim Schwab finds a clump of rattlesnake masters. Then a few more. Before long, he's shouting, “11, 12, 13.'' Bob Jacksy finds some more. I find a few. “17, 18 . “How many did you say you had there?'' Mr. Schwab asks. The count goes up: 25, 26. We end with 29.

Bob Jacksy beams. It's a good day. Two disappearing plants accounted for.

We head for the car, but not before a quick search for an endangered wasp and a tribute to a beetle.

“Look at that! Look at that! That is a true leopard of the insect world. It's a tiger beetle,'' Mr. Jacksy says. The iridescent beetle is a wily hunter, not to mention a jewel on our path. We admire it briefly.

“To have predators in your presence is truly an honor,'' Mr. Jacksy says.

We step off the path. No point in crushing our honor. A wolf spider hides in a deer track. “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!”

The exclamation points march on.



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