Grant Enables Research on Rare Biodiversity in Saguaro National Park

By Dave DeFusco

Botanist Dan Beckman, beside a Cochise adder’s mouth orchid, is co-leading the study. photo courtesy of Tony Palmer, NPS

A team of National Park Service researchers will study the biological diversity of Saguaro National Park’s “sky island” assisted by a $10,000 grant from the Western National Parks Association.

The grant was supported by a $5,000 gift from Wild Tribute, which donates to organizations that support national parks and public lands, and the agencies that oversee their legacy. Ben Kieffner, co-founder of Wild Tribute, said the Saguaro NP research aligns with the company’s goal of donating 4 percent of its proceeds to protect historic and wild places.

“It’s enormously important that researchers have the resources and capacity to protect this nation’s biodiversity, which is threatened by climate change,” said Kieffner. “We feel it’s our responsibility at Wild Tribute to be part of the solution since we all share the same Earth.”

The Saguaro NP research will provide baseline data on the park’s nearly 1,200 species of native plants in the Rincon Mountain District, located in Pima County, Arizona. The park contains 67,000 acres of wilderness spanning desert to forest. 

In this area, species from the Rocky Mountains and the subtropics intermingle, and many of the high-elevation, moisture-loving species are utilizing rare microhabitats in an otherwise dry environment where climate change, drought-induced wildfires, and decreasing snowpack could eventually eradicate them if measures aren’t taken to preserve them.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). photo courtesy of Mary Owen, NPS

The moisture-loving plants considered most vulnerable to climate change include Thurber’s bog orchid (Platanthera limosa), known to be in only one spring-fed, high-elevation drainage; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), known to exist in only one localized area of shallow groundwater; and giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), known to inhabit only a single mid-elevation spring. Other species, like white panicle aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum var. hesperium), have not been sighted in targeted searches and may have already died out.

“It’s worth underscoring how special the biodiversity of the Rincon Mountains is, as well as how threatened it is by climate change and the associated wildfire risk,” said Dan Beckman, a botanist who is co-leading the yearlong study with park biologist Don Swann. “As a Madrean ‘sky island’ range, the Rincons contain many species that are extremely rare in the US, and also represent a fascinating confluence of disparate floristic influences.”

The team will employ survey methods developed over the past five years in remote areas of the park that will identify unique plant communities and biodiversity hotspots. The hope is that their findings will help the park’s fire management team in targeting specific areas for prescribed burning, which will protect highly valued and rare biodiversity. 

The researchers will log georeferenced occurrence data for locally rare or never-recorded plant species through collections and photo records. Each collection or photo record will include coordinates, habitat description, the presence of other species, and a description of the plant population.

“It’s increasingly clear that climate change represents an existential challenge to the resources that national parks were created to protect,” said Swann. “It’s also becoming clear that we need new tools and an expanded role for the community if we have any hope in protecting these resources for future generations.”