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Blazing Star rescue unites DOT, DNR and TPE

The Prairie Enthusiasts Chairperson Evanne Hunt (center) works with Harvey Halvorsen of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (right) and another volunteer inspect the root system of a Dotted Blazing Star plant during Saturday's rescue operation.

"Liatris Puncata" was the reason a dedicated group of volunteers from the St. Croix Valley Chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts teamed up with officials from the Wisconsin Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources on a seasonably cool overcast Saturday morning.

Also known as Dotted Blazing Star, a population of some 30 of the state endangered plants was discovered in the ditch alongside State Highway 35 in the path of the new St. Croix River Bridge during a plant inventory survey conducted late last summer.

A team of botanists from Wisconsin and Minnesota, led by Wisconsin DOT Environmental Engineer Troy Stapelmann conducted the survey on foot.

"We started at the river and walked the Wisconsin alignment looking for this plant, because we knew it was in the area, while looking for other endangered species as well," he said.

Evanne Hunt, chairperson of the St. Croix Valley chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts, received a call from Gary Birch with the Wisconsin DOT in Madison informing her that, "they had found endangered plants up here and they were looking to move them and would we be able to help?"

She agreed and put out an email to her membership looking for volunteers.

"Most of us have never seen this plant before, so it's a new experience for us," she said.

"We were on the fence whether or not we were going to do this in the fall or wait until the spring," Stapelmann said.

The debate was put to rest two weeks ago when a test dig revealed that the plants came up easily in the rain softened, predominantly sandy soil.

"Now's the right time because the plants have already gone to seed and they are entering their dormancy, kind of going to sleep for the winter," he said.

Armed with shovels, hand trowels and three-pronged hand cultivators, the group received a brief orientation from Stapelmann and Dan Salas of Cardno JFNew, on how to identify the plants and how to gently uproot them using a hand cultivator. During the survey, each individual plant had been identified using precise GPS coordinates.

Ecology students, volunteering from UW-Eau Claire, coordinated the science portion of the rescue, inventorying each individual plant by washing the root bundle, counting the number of stalks, measuring the root base and photographing each plant before spraying the roots with an anti-fungal chemical and wrapping the plants in plastic sheeting for transport.

The group divided into small teams and began the tedious process of digging up the individual plants. Being so late in the season, the stems of the flowers were dried out allowing them to blend in with the surrounding grasses.

Luckily, at the time of the survey, the plants had been individually marked with pink DOT flags helping identify them in the landscape.

Steering clear of poison ivy, the teams started by cutting a wide circle around the stems and then carefully excavating the soil beneath the plants in an attempt to free the root system. The root structure varied considerably from plant to plant ranging from six to eight inches to nearly three feet down into the sandy soil, a clear demonstration of how these plants are able to survive in drought conditions.

According to DNR Supervisor Harvey Halvorsen, the majority of the rescued plants would be delivered to the DNR nursery in Hayward for over-wintering and research while others will be given to New Richmond High School for study by biology classes and to students at the Houlton Elementary School for their prairie project.

With careful cultivation these plants and their seed will be used to help improve the biodiversity in the Western Prairie Habitat Restoration Area.