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(October 5, 2000, Gazette)

Rare Plants

Dr. Luise HermanutzDr. Luise Hermanutz with the rare braya.

By Trina Simms
SPARK correspondent

In a lot of places, we don’t even know what we have!” Dr. Luise Hermanutz, an assistant professor in Biology, and co-chair (with Henry Mann of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook) of the provincial Braya Recovery Team, is very excited about her latest project.

The rare Braya plantThe Long’s Braya (Braya longii), and the Fernald’s Braya (Braya fernaldii), are arctic-alpine like plants that have been found in the limestone barrens on the Great Northern Peninsula; a habitat that is extremely unusual, and as such is home to several rare species of plants. Of course, Newfoundlanders often find it hard to believe that our province could host something so unique. But if you’ve ever driven up the Northern Peninsula and seen this landscape - “it looks just like big gravel pits” between a roaring, cold Atlantic ocean and a much-used paved road - then you would probably doubt no more.

“This is the only place that these plants can be found in the world,” said Dr. Hermanutz, a plant ecologist, who with the help of a recovery team, is working to ensure that these plants will persist in their natural habitat.

The plants that Dr. Hermanutz has been working with grow only in these barrens, and because these barrens are so rare and so much has been lost to quarrying, the plants are few and far between. In fact, during its three years on the Northern Peninsula the team has only found three populations of Long’s Braya, which makes the plant an endangered species. The Fernald’s Braya is not quite as scarce, however, it has been listed as “threatened” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, the body that classifies wildlife. It classified the Long’s Braya and the Fernald’s Braya in 1997.

The Braya Recovery Team was designated by the provincial Forest Resources and Agrifoods minister to study the plants, and the habitat, and to make recommendations to ensure that the species do not become extinct. Members of the team include the chairs, Dr. Hermanutz, and Henry Mann; Dr. Trevor Bell, a geographer; Dr. Wilfred Nicholls, director of the Botanical Gardens; and others that include wildlife specialists, stewardship specialists, and staff from Parks and Natural Areas. The team began its work on the Long’s Braya and the Fernald’s Braya in 1998. Since then, they meet every summer during the first week of July on the Northern Peninsula to do further research.

The team’s mandate is to produce a recovery plan. This task includes making recommendations based on the team’s work to ensure that the Braya does persist, and hopefully to “downlist” the plant so that it is no longer considered endangered. The draft recovery plan has recently been submitted and Dr. Hermanutz is very pleased with that.

“We have really been working hard to protect these plants,” said Dr. Hermanutz.

The work is not all about the plant; however, it’s also about the people.

“We’re not just fulfilling our own mandate, we’re trying to get the best of both worlds,” said Dr. Hermanutz. “There are benefits for the people in the area, and we have been getting locals in the area involved and interested.”

Dr. Hermanutz feels that the preservation of the plant could be a part of a tourism drive to the area.

“You would not believe the people we see. When we’re in the field we see people from all over the world; we see Germans, people from Japan. People come out of their way to see these plants. They get to see plants that they would otherwise have to go to the Arctic to see.”

The recovery team, with the help of the Green Team this summer, are spreading the word about the plant and its rarity to locals in the area. This way, people can work together to secure a long term land use planning strategy to ensure that people get what they need, but still ensure that the plant can persist. They have also created an ex situ conservation strategy for both species of braya at the Memorial University Botanical Garden. The garden has growing braya that serve as a failsafe in the event that something should wipe out the populations that are now growing in the wild.

Since the beginning of the project Dr. Hermanutz has had several students involved in the research at both the honours and master’s levels. Presently, Kim Parsons, a graduate student in the biology department, is studying the breeding system of braya.

“If we want to restore the braya to its natural distribution – we know it was further north in the 1920s – we have to know how variable the populations are.” The students’ work on the breeding system can determine this.

Dr. Hermanutz and the recovery team are excited about their work to date and are happy with the outcomes. Their recovery plan, combined with provincial endangered species legislation that is currently before cabinet, will help ensure that even the littlest things that make Newfoundland unique are protected.

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