The Endangered Running Buffalo Clover


Endangered species come in all different shapes and sizes. Though the average person on the street can readily cite charismatic animals species such as the giant panda or the white rhino, few folks ever realize that many of the world's plants are at risk of extinction. In fact, the latest reports show that one in five plant species are in danger of disappearing forever. They aren't all charismatic species like orchids either, some of the most endangered plants are often the most ignored. They simply don't find their way into conversations about conservation. 

One prime example of such an imperiled plant is the running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum). This lovely little clover once ranged from Arkansas, through Illinois and Indiana, all the way to Ohio and West Virginia. It was a species of open disturbed areas in prairies and forests. It enjoyed rich soils and probably followed in the wake of the large herds of bison and regular fires that once shaped the countryside. Another interesting aspect of this clover's ecology is that it apparently does not fix nitrogen. It lacks the rhizobial associates that make legumes famous. 

The loss of the bison from most of its range coupled with rampant habitat destruction spelled disaster for the running buffalo clover. It was thought to be extinct for nearly a century until 1983 when a single population was discovered in West Virginia. Since then scattered populations have been found, however, these are few and far between. As such, it is now considered a federally endangered species. 

The continued survival of the running buffalo clover is completely tied to proper land management. Without a natural disturbance regime, this lovely little plant is quickly overtaken by more aggressive vegetation. Gone are the days of the roaming buffalo and natural fire regimes. 

Luckily this species was able to garnish enough attention to earn it some protection. However, for far too many plant species this is simply not the case. Until we change the kinds of conversations we are having about plants and habitat in general, we stand to lose more plant species than I care to imagine. This in turn will have rippling effects through the entire ecosystem. So, today I want you to think about the running buffalo clover as a stark reminder of just how important conservation can be. 

Photo Credit: Andrew Lane Gibson (

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