Inside Buffalo Clover

Until the late l9th century, American bison thundered across plains and trails from Kansas to West Virginia, carrying with them the seeds of running buffalo clover—embedded in hooves, entangled in hair and lodged within droppings. Within this symbiotic relationship, wherever buffalo went in eight states, clover followed. The last buffalo east of the Mississippi was killed in Webster County, West Virginia in 1825 (see Ask E, this issue), and the clover began to disappear.

The plant’s decline may involve its need for disturbed soil, diffused light and scoring, which came from bison hooves. Running buffalo clover was prolific in the 1800s, but the last specimen in Webster County was collected in 1940. When the federal Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, the clover was no longer classified as endangered, but extinct.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Botanist Rodney Bartgis was, therefore, stunned when he visited West Virginia’s New River Gorge in 1983. "I looked down to see growing at my feet a plant classified as extinct since 1940," he says.

Rediscovery of running buffalo clover excited botanists throughout its original range, and the search was on. Old sites were scoured, and devoted botanists turned up plants in half the states. By the last region-wide review in 1993, one clover population had been found in Indiana, 34 in Kentucky, 13 in Ohio and 22 in West Virginia.

William Tolin, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, says his agency is studying whether crossing with other clovers could assure its continued existence. "Successful management must tread a thin line between too little and too much disturbance," says Allison Cusick of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Simply finding a plant does not assure its future, says Paul Harmon, a state botanist in West Virginia’s Natural Heritage Program. "Two plants discovered in Fayette County, West Virginia increased to four by 1984," he says. "Then The Nature Conservancy negotiated an agreement with the landowners to protect the site, but all four plants disappeared in 1985. Remarkably, they reappeared in 1990." Harmon worries that rather than finding a regenerated lost species, we have found the last remnants of a plant about to disappear.

Tolin believes a vitally important aspect of running buffalo clover’s survival is sympathy and cooperation from landowners fortunate enough to have this near-extinct plant growing on their property.